I was recently contacted by fellow strings teacher, Liam Calhoun. He wrote a blog post that I found very much in line with my views on improvisation in music education. I like the thinking in this piece! For example, in reality, are improvisation and creativity really in opposition with technical skills and sight reading, or are these concepts/entities two sides of the same coin of being a fine musician? I agree with the latter idea. We have indeed for too long divided “classical” orchestral and chamber music playing according to a given score, from the more free wheeling improvisation in it’s own right, or improvisation on a known melody or theme. We have seen these two venues as two different kinds of music, which in a sense, they are. However modern usage is blurring the distinctions of this kind and we are beginning to see just music. I like this trend. Liam gives further ideas.
I also like his thinking on “playing by ear”. Of course it is a vital part of the whole. When I play “from memory” my ear is definitely guiding me as well as muscle memory especially in the more technical parts. Playing by ear also opens up more space in the improvisation area. One can transpose a melody or theme more easily. One can hang on to the theme and weave an improvisation around it.
One more thought. The students and their families who come to us come with their own ideas of what their favorite musical activities might be. Some are not a whit interested in doing a Mozart Concerto, but would think they had reached the mountain top if they could participate in a garage band with their friends. Well, the I, IV & V7 chords that we teach in the Royal Conservatory of Music theory work are indeed the same chords used in lead sheets for the garage band or the church praise band. I have a family now in which big sister can play the arpeggio form of the chords while little brother plays Twinkle. They can do it in A major, D major and G major. The grins are the rewards! Why not meet people where they are?
I so like this interview, and what Carol Dweck is describing as the growth mindset. It fits in nicely with the philosophy of teaching of Shinichi Suzuki. The use of appropriate praise is part of his teaching. Also, the idea of ongoing growth and development of technical skills, musical understanding and personal growth.
I like to show a student two ways of doing something, likely the way they just did it and a more effective way of doing it and then ask them if the two ways were different or the same and encourage and guide them to figure out the difference for themselves. Then we also look at how the new method is done. Then of course, the next question is, can you do it that way? I provide encouragement and guidance where needed for them to use their wits and abilities to work it out for themselves. This gives them a chance to be proud of themselves and learn the value of working their problem through for themselves.
The baroque and classical composers included in their concertos a spot where the orchestra could stop, and the performer was on his own to improvise on the theme of the movement he had just performed, in order to show off his virtuosity, but also his ability to improvise. This was the Cadenza. Antonio Vivaldi wrote several student concertos, possibly for his students. On this video, my student, Ryan is playing the 1st movement of the Vivaldi A minor concerto, which is a student concerto. I took the liberty to designate a spot for Ryan to add in his own improvised cadenza. Ryan’s cadenza is a little different each time he does it.
This video was taken at one of my students monthly play-ins. We get together informally and play what has been prepared for the occasion, like an informal recital, at Everyday Joe’s, a local coffee house. There is background noise from the coffee house patrons, but do enjoy anyway!
Sometimes among Suzuki trained teachers there comes up a question. Do we use only Suzuki’s ideas or do we incorporate ideas from other famous teachers for the best success of the student? For my part, I can only see any experienced effective teacher eager to exchange ideas with other teachers and then try those same ideas out in their own studio. Honest exchange of ideas brings us as teachers into a more open space of heart and mind, which in turn, allows our students to see and feel this in us and thus be able to process this into their own frame of being. How else can any of us, teacher or student, progress beyond our present state, mentally, musically or in any way? Yes, we must to the greatest degree possible, understand and assimilate and utilize our gifts from a loving seasoned and dedicated teacher! I am convinced that going beyond where we are now would also be one of his goals for us! Isn’t going beyond where we are now, the goal of any of our endeavors?
Actually, I see the idea of developing theory and improvisation abilities in our students in the same context. For a long time our educational system has taught music with the same goal in mind as for most of the other subjects, namely, to prepare the students for the work place. Music classes were there to at least start to prepare the student to play in the professional Symphony Orchestra. So, it was thought, what they needed to learn was to properly read and play orchestra parts. I have no wish to put down orchestra playing or the ability to read musical notation. May we long enjoy both! What I am saying is, can we also get beyond the printed page? That is not something new. Music is and was always improvised back through time, until it began to be written down. Why are our students unacquainted with this musical form? I think we teachers are involved here. We can actually, take the first steps to remedy this situation. I have outlined how I deal with this in Elements of Music Theory/Improvisation.
Below is a Ted Talk by musician and researcher, Charles Limb, on the effects of music improvisation on the brain. The findings of his research are basically that there is heightened brain activity associated with music improvisation versus activities of memorized musical performance. Thus, a music curriculum that includes music improvisation should stimulate more brain activity than does a music curriculum based on memorized music only. Personally, this does not mean I will abandon learning and memorizing the music of the baroque and classical masters, but it does mean that I embrace forms of improvisation, in addition to classical methods.
“How do you get started doing improvisation with the Suzuki Method?”
Well, I answer by explaining the steps I take with each student.
I have my young students learn to play the one octave A major, D major and G major scales, first in pizzicato, and then using rhythmic bow strokes. We sing a little song to learn the scale:
The little train goes up the hill. The little train comes down again.
Singing the notes of the scale to the words above, is quite easy and once they can sing it, they can play it. Once they play it on the violin, I tell them that they have just played the A major scale.
While they are learning the book 1 pieces, I have them use only the notes of one of these scales (they pick which one) to make up a little tune. I like to take advantage of the time and effort they are putting into playing the little folk tunes from the first half of the Suzuki Violin School Book 1. During this time, they are listening to the book 1 CD, also singing words to the tunes and then reproducing the tunes on the violin. I think that is a good time to let them start to make up their own tunes also. When we begin to improvise, we start by mixing up the notes of the scale we have chosen to make one phrase of music. There is only one rule:
“Start on the key note – the first note of the scale you have chosen – and end on the same note. Do whatever you want to in between.”
We keep doing that until it is easy. Then we add meter and when the student is ready, we can use the metronome for the beat.
Then as they learn the arpeggios, we can ease into the use of chords that fit under a tune, i.e. Twinkle. I plan to address these concepts a bit further in my next post.
Below is a another video of brothers Tristan and Zane, playing a fiddle arrangement found in a collection by Carol Ann Wheeler of the folk tune, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, plus improvisation around that tune.