After years of faking it, I recently decided that it was time to give myself over to the study of jazz piano. In particular, I want to develop a greater sense of confidence in the area of improvisation. I can read music quite effectively, and I was taught at a very young age that it was totally permissible to use the chord structure of a piece in order to move beyond the written page.
In fact, one of my favourite musical things to do is sit myself behind a piano at a local restaurant or bar and just play. Just bring me an occasional glass of wine and I will provide a rather pleasing and continuous pallette of ambience for 4 or 5 hours. For me, it’s a very creative space in which to be, and it’s not unusual for me just to keep playing without a break for the entire evening.
But I know that I have a lot to learn, and the ultimate indicator of that learning will be to freely and authentically improvise! And for me, jazz provides the biggest challenge in this regard.
Here’s a definition of improvisation that I pulled from Wikipedia. I think that it reflects my own understanding of what this skill is all about:
Improvisation is the practice of acting, singing, talking and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one’s immediate environment and inner feelings. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act.
Some people may most closely associate improvisation with the practice of “winging it” or “making it up as you go along”. To be sure, those proficient in the art of improvisation certainly can make it seem like this is the case. There often appears to be a relaxed, comfortable sense of ease involved, one that is inviting, engaging and almost seductive for the audience.
Beneath this veneer of comfort and ease, however, lies a deeply integrated knowledge of the language being used. Whether it is music, drama, visual arts, dance or oral language, the improvising artist knows how things work in their particular domain. They are intimately and intuitively aware of the syntax, structure and grammar of their art form and it is this knowledge that guides their creativity. Masters of improvisation really knows their stuff!
I’ve been thinking a great deal about the art of improvisation in terms of today’s teaching profession. In a educational world populated by pre-packaged curriculum, highly structured—even scripted—lessons and databases of “best practice”, it is getting more and more difficult to find evidence that the improvisational spirit is still valued and acknowledged.
Yet, the most powerful stories of teaching that I carry with me are stories of improvisation: times when the lesson plans written the night before were put aside in favour of a learning opportunity that presented itself, quite unexpectedly; times when the emotional climate of the classroom called for a response that wasn’t part of any script; times when the urge to go deeper resulted in us tossing aside the schedule placed on the board at the beginning of the morning.
Improvisation takes a type of confidence that comes from deep professional learning, lots of experience, and the freedom to try (and fail at) new approaches.
Improvisation proceeds from an existing structural framework, but it goes beyond that framework, seeking to tease out as many of the subtleties and nuances that may not be readily apparent.
Although it is possible to replicate note-for-note, or word-for-word copies of improvised work, there is always something missing in the mere reproduction of something that was originally created out of an improvisational mindset.
Despite the fact that music and other art forms can be analyzed mathematically and even scientifically, the emotive power generated is really owing to a sense of flexibility in the hands of the artist.
So, how does all of this apply to the teaching life. Well, I’ll leave you to make some of your own connections but I will give you a sense of the main ideas that are swirling around in my own mind.
I think that our well-intentioned efforts to develop a canon of effective teaching practice has forced us to look at classroom and school life through a scientific lens. We’ve spent a good deal of time of late establishing a syntax and grammar of practice, but less attention to allowing/encouraging teachers to explore this “structure” in new and creative ways.
To be sure, good teaching must be based on professional knowledge and experience—a mastery of the fundamentals is essential. To be sure, good teaching needs to be grounded in a definite structure relating to what is to be learned.
I believe that the real art of teaching, however, lies in the ability of the teacher to move beyond that knowledge and structure and, through an improvisational spirit, lift the official curriculum off the written page, transforming it into something that is inviting, engaging and even seductive for students.
Learning to improvise is tough work but, for me, it is the holy grail of professional practice, whether in music, or in teaching. I continue to work at both!
I would love to hear your stories of improvisational teaching and even how you have been drawn in by the artistic approach of other educators. In the meantime, I’ll let you know when I have some of my own jazz improvisations to share with you!