An interview with Prof. Frank Millward on improvisation
I met Frank Millward in 2003 in London. Frank is a Multimedia Artist, Composer and jazz performer. He is a Professor in the School of Fine Art at Kingston University, London. Over the years he has taught Music Composition, Jazz Theory, Improvisation, Jazz History and Jazz Arranging, Composing for Film and Television. Frank’s ideas immediately caught my attention so I managed to organise a short session with him in order to ask him a few questions on how he understands improvising and learning. He talks about the mentality of improvisation and he comments on the chord-scale relationships and the fact that they are so embedded in jazz teaching.
Stergios: How would you define musical improvisation?
Frank: As self-expression through sound.
Stergios: What is the greater benefit from your involvement in musical practice?
Frank: There are many. The greatest one should be in some way humanitarian, social and (although a cliché) love of life or an appreciation of the concept of joy but also a concept of all things that I would equate with being in that kind of realm. Joy and sadness.
Stergios: What particular styles are you mostly involved with?
Frank: The main thing I like is rhythm. African, Latin jazz rhythms. I have been into R&B for some time, and I also like New Orleans piano style.
Stergios: What about your criteria for appraising music? Are they only musical?
Frank: I always appraise how it makes me feel. Only. Nothing else. How it makes me feel and how I connect with it. Spiritually.
Stergios: Do you sometimes think about the music’s background for example?
Frank: I do, but I try not to. Cause otherwise I just get into that. I never disappear intellectually into a piece. Not on the first hearing. I only allow myself to have this kind of thoughts when I repeatedly listen to something. I think the other thing that I am aware of is what it looks like as well. I think I’m very aware of what it looks like. What I mean by that is quite often if I am watching a film what the sound looks like, if I am watching a performance, if I’m in the theatre. Images are a big issue with me. It has certainly been a big issue with what I write. I am always concerned with what it looks like.
Stergios: Have you ever appraised someone’s personality only by watching him playing music?
Frank: Yes, all the time.
Stergios: Can you give me an example?
Frank: I never liked Bill Evans, as a person. I used to go and watch him play every second Monday in 1978. He never looked up, he had his head about 6 inches away from the piano and he was obviously stoned off his face. I thought…’who is this guy?’ And I had never talked to him. But I used to close my eyes and listen. I hate watching Keith Jarrett too. Cause I find him to be sometimes completely pretentious. But I love what he plays.
Stergios: How did you develop your skills in musical improvisation?
Frank: When I was little I used to sit at the piano and just playing the piano imagining a scenario. And I’d be making up usually a show. I would make up a scene, a fantasy about something…I used to do that for hours. I did formal piano lessons but then I dropped them and I played the trumpet. I played the guitar and bass. I stopped formal music education. I was in bands. Then when I was 22 I left what I was doing in order to do music. When I did that all the people I have been working with said ‘don’t go and learn at the conservatoire. You’ll loose your feel’. They said that I would become intellectually involved with whatever you are doing and you have no explanation for now and I will become analytical and loose the feel I have for it. I didn’t want to learn rubbish. I wanted to play music when I would become old. I was imagined that by the time I would be fifty I would become a good piano player. I could have done more practice but if I had done more practice I’d stop myself from doing all other things in music.
Stergios: Do you think that one should listen to many different musical styles in order to develop his skills in improvising?
Frank: There are two ways of doing it: Listen to many or just one. And once you’ve listened to one, learn one really well, then brunch out into others. I am not sure about this because I think of the things about pedagogical approaches to musical improvisation has messed up a lot of people about how to improvise because what ends up happening is that people sound all the same, because the have the same pedagogical approach. They transcribe a solo…so in a way other ways of teaching it are much more important. Visualisation for example and the whole idea of free expression. Making sounds that are meaningful to the person who is making the sound.
Stergios: How can the practice of other arts have an effect on our musical creativity?
Frank: Well, this is my whole current fascination. I have been in education for ten years but what I was doing before for 15 years, I was a live artist. I was composing, performing and presenting in a variety of ways. So I really think that the role of the modern composer is to be involved in the audio-visual-digital-media experience.
Stergios: Why do you think self-taught musicians can achieve high levels of musical proficiency without any formal instruction?
Frank: Because they develop their ears. They listen. They learn the intimacy of the listening experience. They really understand what that is. You can teach that though. A lot of people learn it.
Stergios: How would you teach improvisation?
Frank: I think to teach improvisation is to actually people trying to discover the child in themselves and the fascination with sound. The whole way of teaching jazz improvisation is not applicable any more. It is too dangerous to teach with a new pedagogy that involves for example image, transformations or the manipulation of other ideas that have to do with feelings, or briefings that don’t have to do with chord-scale relationships. Chord-scale relationships are so embedded in the pedagogical academy of teaching jazz that is hard to get away from. We should be experimenting more but we are not because politically that is not possible. All education should be concerned with intellectual well-being, and being able to evaluate critically anything, and the next thing is to evaluate critically in a way, for and against any particular issue which is being discussed. Education should put in place within students a facility of enabling students to develop arguments, analytical theory and the ability to analyze in an informed way.
Stergios: I remember you once said that society confines our child-like self. Is this what you mean?
Frank: It stops us from being like that. It does not allow us to be child-like. If we create environments where you are allowed to be then true self-expression of the improvised kind will be allowed to happen. For example we allow it with stand-up comedians, improvising actors and dancers. We allow it in other kind of improvised artistic expression. In certain kinds of music we do allow it. But it is still embedded in a language that is ‘expected’. When a child discovers what it’s like to hit that note and then again, and then discovers another one… To be able to do that as an adult to rediscover how to express the difference between these two things is really the key to teaching improvisation. It is about listening, memory, philosophy, ‘leting go’ being a child, but being in control of being a child. Naïve is fantastic, beautiful, because it is completely free of anything other than perhaps the dangers of being hurt.
Stergios: Thanks Frank!