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James D'Angelo
Category: Improvisation


Musical improvisation is not played out in a stylistic vacuum.  While its very nature is spontaneous and psychic, allowing the right brain free rein, the messages received are filtered through the left brain which has absorbed the stylistic tendencies of the age or what it has been programmed to express. The best example we have is that of the  Indian musician who is extremely well-schooled in the musical materials of the  ragas.  All the various patterns are deeply imprinted in the left brain and eventually the musicians are allowed to let their imagination play with these patterns and even create new ones as long as they fulfil the requirements of that raga. All this is done through a teacher.

In the West the best known tradition for using improvisation is found in jazz in all its styles.  For many years it was an aural tradition as each generation heard what went before and imitated it before eventually changing gears and stretching its evolution.  It is only in the last 50 years that jazz was codified into a language and began to be taught in various kinds of schools. As a very young man I went to one such school which lasted for only three years, The Lenox School of Jazz founded by John Lewis, the leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet.  Well-worn jazz musicians disapproved of these schools.  How could it be possible to learn improvisation in an academic setting as it was all about a natural absorption of the style plus a very good ear.

The essential issue is the relationship between the two sides of the brain.  To the naturally gifted musician the training of the factual, discursive left brain is quite minimal.  These musicians had to learn to play their instruments properly and those skills are established in the left brain.  Their ability to hear the sounds they improvised so that they were in harmony and complementary to the whole of the ensemble is another matter. For it is one thing to improvise on your own with nothing to measure it against and another to play tones that, however far in or far out, were reasonably compatible with the other players.  So, for example, it is quite an aural feat to improvise with sophisticated chord progressions when the chords have not been actually studied as someone would do in a music theory class. This ability to hear these harmonic changes still lies in the left brain but seems to have been implanted there as a karmic gift from a previous life experience in music.  Are these sorts of natural improvising musicians the only geniuses then? The musicians of classical Indian music would not agree for they are subjected to a rigorous regimen of exercises developing the ragas through the left brain.  Similarly Western musicians could be offered studies that implant the stylistic materials upon which they are to improvise.  In jazz such things even develop into what are called “licks.”  That is, patterns of notes that can appear at any time in their solos and this even includes quotations of other tunes   It is as though the left brain is a library from which they draw out the patterns while still creating new ones.  As one improvising musician once said, “It’s as important what you don’t play as what you do.” In another words, a large library of ideas has been built up in the left brain but players needn’t use it up all in one go.  It is not unlike speech.  We have thousands of words in our library and each day we go on selecting words and improvising sentences.  There is no set script.

So, armed with either natural aural gifts with no schooling as such or well-schooled in the materials of the given styles, the question is: How does one improvise and can it be taught?   Enter the right brain which has the imagination, sensitivity and freedom to create structures.  It cannot be trained in a straightforward manner. It is essentially the nature of the psychology of the players.   For example, if their psychology is  highly intellectual and rational, they might feel inhibited to be allowed the freedom to choose their own notes.  This is why classical musicians after years of reading and studying scores find it difficult to let go and improvise.  It is not as though they do not allow the right brain reins.  Without that aspect their performances would be cold and calculating.  The right brain allows for the shaping of the music. Nonetheless their training can be strong enough to inhibit the process of improvisation.

Whatever the style there is the pitfall that the intellectualising of the materials will allow the left brain too much control and so produce shallow improvisations.  It is essential that the left brain become the servant of the right and not be the master.  So, as in Indian music, the deeper the ragas penetrate the mind so that they become literally second nature to the musicians, the more the intellectual becomes the servant of the emotions of the right brain.

But, for those who are not naturals at letting go to musical ideas as improvisers, how do we get musicians who would like to express themselves through improvisation to do so.  First of all, having taught keyboard improvisation at Goldsmiths College for nine years, I have seen that  all the students already had a certain freedom of expression however limited   They just did not have the courage to sit at the piano and see what might develop.  Quite basic to allowing for improvisation is limiting what is possible to play.  And the operative word is “allowing” because no one can teach anyone how to unfold notes melodically, rhythmically or harmonically. So, for example, the first exercise in improvisation is on one note in any register.  To find some kind of emotion in that having only register, rhythm and dynamics.  And this is the key point - finding emotion, the domain of the right brain.  To encourage the players to have the music emerge from the centre of their chest rather than their brains.  My own teacher of classical piano believed in this emotional training to gain the freedom and poetry of beautiful musical expression.  He encouraged me to indulge in the other art forms and absorb their creativity. This, he said, would have a subtle influence and carry over into my playing.
The teacher of improvisation is far more a psychotherapist than a music teacher.  No matter how much teachers reveal the materials and establish the parameters for any improvisation, it is the area of emotional training that is the key to  musicians allowing themselves to create their little worlds of sound.  Part of the emotional training is the suspension of value judgements of what emerges in improvisations. It is the left brain taking over by thinking that what is produced is worthless.  This judgement shuts down the flow of creativity.  Duration is also significant.  The longer you persist in the improvisation the more layers are gone through and eventually gears change and the emotional right brain takes the upper hand.

The ground can be well prepared for improvisation by placing certain skills into the left brain which serves as the library but not as some dictatorial librarian.  The creativity of the right brain can be also trained but in subtle ways.  In the end improvisation, the actual outpouring of the notes in whatever structure they take, cannot be taught.  We have to find in ourselves how to keep the channel open.  All of us have it to one degree or another. It should be a sign of complete musicians that they are able to do it. But how exactly improvisation  happens, ultimately, is unknowable.  It is a state of being, one which would be ideal for all of our lives.   
James D’Angelo

Posted: 12 Jan 2011 By: Tobias Kaye Tobias Kaye

I love the analogy of learning speech and speaking.
I also liked your analogy of teaching improvisation with psychotherapy and would love to see you take this further. Surely there is room for a link with a spiritual path on which we learn a practice and may then use this practice to school our passions so that these in turn become tools for the expression of beauty, contributions to the world, creativity. Instead of being either held in check for fear, or allowed to express destructively.
Do we not see something of this in impro where wild abandoned play does not enhance group performance whereas the balance you describe does exactly that?
The individual in society.
Human being as social organism
Individualism as training for creative social improvisation.

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