There are two distinct ways in which improvisation is being approached pedagogically, let me call them for now the analytical and the intuitive, or the external and internal. Both ways can naturally overlap and complete each other, but dependent on the student, one approach may work better than the other. Also, the method has of course to fit the teacher. I have for instance a tendency to use the intuitive way, but many teachers, because of their classical formation, prefer rather the analytical approach.


The analytical method has the advantage of imbibing the student with a solid system of "grammatical" elements on which he/she can build and, when necessary, fall back; it is the ABC method, from theory to praxis. This method can lead to good reflexes and a safe hand on the keyboard. The disadvantage is that the improviser may not be able to free him/herself from the "ghost of notation" - i.e. the improviser while playing, keeps busy in his head with applying an external  system, almost like reading an invisible score, and the musical result, even though complex at times, may lack in naturalness, he/she cannot let himself/herself go on the wings of imagination. 


The other method is based on memory and recognition, both in sound and in gestures. One learns to reconstruct by ear the elements which make up a style and create something new in the same spirit. I believe that this method brings us more to the core of improvisation, its essence and raison d'être, it follows a procedure "from the inside out".


In my view, improvisation is self expression in a musical language which one has appropriated, with which one can identify. A good improvisation seen in this light, is not necessary a complex achievement, but it is idiomatic, it has the breath of the player, it is authentic, personal and subjective; the improviser demonstrates that the instrument is an extension of the musician's self, without the need for a pre-conceived piece of music (in other words not something perfectly learned by heart). On the other hand, improvisers following exclusively this approach may have a weakness in that they are not necessarily conscious of their wanderings during improvisation and therefore lack the security of a system when there is a flaw in inspiration.


Somewhat generalising one could state that teachers of the first system would be preoccupied with the evasion of mistakes, whereas the other teachers would be focused on how the musical energy can optimally serve the musical intent.


The above raises questions which relate directly to what one sees as the pedagogical aim. Over the



years I have frequently heard that the motivation for introducing improvisation is not for the joy of mastering that skill (which can open the door to composition) but rather to recitify a common deficiency among the typical classical musician, that of not being able to play without notes.


Thereby one often seeks for inspiration in other musical fields, jazz, folk, ethnic etc. where the immediacy with which the musician communicates through his/her instrument (or voice) is among its striking characteristics; such music is alive, and it comes out as an integrated totality, the music is "theirs". Like everything else, I think it important that the introduction of improvisation in a teaching environment should go beyond the call of duty, it should be carried out by teachers who are accomplished and enthusiastic about improvising themselves.


I have personally experienced a similar distinction between the two approaches in the different methodology for foreign language courses. As a child I learned French and English in two very different ways. French followed the ABC method, and English was the full immersion. To give an example, my first English course was a short story which we read out aloud without knowing what it meant. The teacher added an almost theatrical performance, and we learned the story by heart. From day one we received everything together - pronunciation, intonation, meaning and spelling. This gave us much more rapidly a sense of accomplishment than the French classes, and we were soon eager to see American or English movies in the original language (fueled of course by our interest in English pop songs). 


In the intuitive approach I believe that one should enter the field of improvisation with that which one already knows and has heard; that is why I like to speak of the memory of the ears and of the fingers. In trying things out, simply through the senses, there will be automatically a mechanism of auto-correction. The best examples come from children; they are less inhibited and they have that sense of auto-evaluation and the drive towards auto-correction still fresh in their system, the same which made them learn to walk and talk.


The advantage of the intuitive method for teaching and learning improvisation, is that it restores to music its character as a living language, whereby the rules (of composition) are less a starting point for creation or even construction, than a conclusion thereof; one is reminded that rules are indeed a resulting categorisation of grammatical characteristics which define music within one style. 


©Hendrik BOUMAN 2011

   

    HENDRIK BOUMAN

        TEACHING IMPROVISATION IN BAROQUE STYLE: An answer to a query

 

Composer / Compositeur

Performer / Interprète

Direction

Professor / Professeur

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