Sunday, August 29, 2010

Free vs. Traditional Jazz Teaching

 A common concern of many of my colleagues who are engaged in teaching improvisation is the resistance of the more traditional jazz education community to non-jazz improvisation pedagogy.  I find this kind of in-fighting between improvisers to be distressingly short-sighted and self destructive.

Jazz pedagogy has performed an admirable role.  It has made it possible for millions of  people to study and delight in one of the predominant forms of improvised music.  It has painstakingly carved a place for the study of improvisation in conservatories and music departments of schools and colleges throughout the world. 

But it really is time to acknowledge that the study and teaching of improvised music, (and of improvisation itself), has moved far beyond the confines of any particular genre.  There is a growing understanding of the fundamental role that improvisation plays in music, the arts, creativity, learning, therapy - in all parts of life.  There are classes that teach improvisational comedy, theater, dance, art, and therapy.  There are people studying the influence and possibilities of improvisation in education, in the workplace, and in society in general.  Learning about improvisation is no longer limited to learning about improvising jazz. 

In this larger context, the benefits of teaching and practicing free improvisation are undeniable. 

• It benefits everyone.
Teaching free improvisation directly explores the process of improvisation.  Since this process is integral to pretty much everything we do, free improvisation is useful for everyone.  

• It can be done with anyone. 
It can be taught to people with any amount of experience, musical knowledge or instrumental skill.  It can be done with any instrumentation or size of the group.  It can be done with anyone, from any musical genre. 

• It is capable of many kinds of cross fertilization.
The process of improvisation is the same, no matter what product we are creating with it.  This means there is vast potential for cooperation and cross training throughout all areas that have improvisational curriculum.

Free improvisational pedagogy is not a replacement for traditional jazz pedagogy, it is a supplement to it, and having it available benefits even the most traditional jazz teachers and students. 

• It helps players be better improvisers. 
A better improviser is better at improvising, no matter what their chosen genre.  I would even say a better improviser is a better musician (and a better person) - but that's a post for another day!

• It creates greater interest in improvisation.
When people get a taste of what it's like, many of them develop a strong interest in creativity and improvisation.  This exploration often leads to greater interest and understanding of jazz.

•  It attracts more people to the music department.  
Jam band, folk, rock, and other players who aren’t involved in the typical music department all enjoy and benefit from this training.  Having more people involved creates more publicity and possibilities.

These are just a few of the potential benefits.  The possibilites are just beginning to be explored.  The fact is, any forward looking music department should welcome and embrace a strong non-stylistic improvisation pedagogy as a highly desirable facet of any music program. 


  1. I'll take on your call for responses, Tom.

    I think there's another argument for including free improvisation in a music curriculum.

    Working in early childhood education, I spend every day with a group of individuals who haven't yet mastered all of the social conventions that we are taught as we grow up. Preschoolers and toddlers (and even younger!) are in the process of exploring their world for the first time, and are working hard to make sense of it. They respond quickly and openly to music, and don't have any of our preconceived notions of what is "right" or "wrong" in their music making. In tune, out of tune, rhythm, dissonance -- are all foreign words to these young guys. And so when you ask a child to make music, what comes out is frequently delightfully fresh and startlingly creative. When we engage in free improvisation with young children, we're dealing with a group of music-makers who don't have to work to overcome the boundaries of their education, they weren't even aware that those boundaries existed!!
    So what if free improvisation was a regular part of the school curriculum, all the way from Pre-K through high school? Well, we'd spend less time telling kids that their is a right or a wrong way to go about their creative processes...and maybe we'd end up with a new generation of young adults going through college unafraid to take risks, their minds already open to their infinite possibilities that await them. We'd be a population of fearless improvisers, full of joy for the endless variety of life.
    Tom, you are one of the most singular people I've ever known, but I think we both dream of the day when one can hear "Free improv? Oh, that's no big deal, everyone does that!"


  2. Great to hear from you Al, and great to hear from an early childhood educator. Thanks for responding!

    I'm happy to take the "free" out of it, and simply say "what if improvisation was a regular part of the school curriculum...". and I absolutely agree about the outcome. And you are right that I dream, and constantly work towards, the day when society thinks "free improv - that's no big deal, everyone does that!"

    I think this is becoming more and more necessary, as world wide access to the internet changes the primary focus of education from the gradual acquisition of knowledge and information to the ability to quickly respond to, and effectively use a huge amount of rapidly changing information. This new paradigm practically demands (as you so vibrantly put it) a population of "fearless improvisers, full of joy for the endless variety of life."

    We are on the crest of this breaking wave, my friend, and improvisers and creative artists of all mediums and genres are the catalysts.