Tips on how to approach musical improvisation


I would like to offer a few tips on how to approach musical improvisation.  They will hopefully point you in the direction of simplifying your approach in improvisation and encourage your musical freedom. Good improvisers are not smarter than everybody else. And they are certainly not geniuses. (more…)

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!

An interview with Prof. June Tillman on improvisation

June Boyce-Tillman

While I was in England I was fortunate to meet June Boyce-Tillman, a great teacher and a wonderful personality. June is a Professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester. Her doctorate on the development of children’s musical creativity was widely published nationally and internationally. She is a world-class authority on the music and writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and she has written much and spoken on women’s role in music.

She has encouraged the promotion of music by women and held workshops for women on composing. She is a singer and composer, writing much religious music, including hymns and anthems. Her works have been performed all around the world. She is the founder of the Hildegard Network and is concerned with bringing together the areas of healing, music, arts and theology. She regularly runs workshops linking these areas together. Having participated in one of her workshops I can honestly say that listening to her encouraged me to discover more power and more beauty well hidden into music.

I have learned a lot from her and I will always treasure my long discussions with her on music, aesthetics, freedom and education. Recently I had the chance to see her again in my hometown, Thessaloniki, Greece, as she was invited to the World Conference on Music Education, which was held in Thessaloniki, Greece in July 2012.
The following interview on improvisation was recorded in her house, in London, in 2004.

Interview with June Tillman

Stergios: How could you define musical improvisation?
June: It is a tricky thing to define because it is constructed in different ways in different cultures. Most cultures in terms of improvisation people have frameworks of some kind in which to operate, if we think of the melodies of the gamelan or the 12-bar blues in Jazz for example. But in the late 20th century in Europe because the tradition got so note-bound in the classical tradition we have the rise of completely free improvisation that offered people no parameters in which they could work. In particular, in the area of music therapy that became systematized. So the structures were not in the music but in other surrounds. It is a measure of the performer having a chance to contribute something if not everything to the final performance as opposed to the model in which the composer dictates everything and the performer simply gets as close as possible to the composer’ wishes. Freedom, structure, culture are three words that come to my mind when I thing of musical improvisation.…Although I don’t like saying this, education has to provide some knowledge of the prevailing culture. To a certain extent it does have a socializing role, and it should also provide the ability to question it. So that one is aware how his/her particular make-up is likely to fit or not to fit with the culture in which they happened to be born.

Stergios: What should be the role of music education?
June: Going back to the question of autonomy, anything that you learn must make it your own in some way. Instruments are the most difficult part of music education, because if you teach a particular instrument, then inevitably teach a particular culture and the repertoire that this instrument has. An instrument is culture-bound whereas the music education in a classroom can include a much greater variety. In a sense, there is an obligation to pass on certain traditions but there is also an obligation to think outside the box so that they are able to question the tradition as well as to carry it out.

Stergios: What is the greater benefit from your involvement in musical practice?
June: I can’t say just one…but I think that from being educated in a music education system which said that the tradition is the most important thing…over the course of my life I’ve moved away from that, to the idea that music is for fulfillment of potential…and I would include the wider universe. The important thing is the intention of doing things. To do it with love, with the intention of making the place that you are, a better place to be for you and for other people. Music is an important tool in that process. This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn a tradition but it means that the central thing about it is that you are leaving a place better than it was before by what you have done. It may well be more about the intention of what you are doing than the actual thing that you do. Whereas the tradition-centred view says that the important thing is not the intention but the technique and the perfection of it.

Stergios: How do you imagine that musical improvisation relates to autonomy?
June: It relates to autonomy in the sense that the performer ceases to be a servant or a slave of the composer. In fact it is a wonderful model because they have the frame which the composer has set up for them, and yet within that frame they can make a variety of choices, which is actually a mirror of the wider society. Musical improvisation gives us a model of autonomy, which is how to make choices and how far you are going to subvert the original system by those choices and how far you are going to work within a system.

Stergios: Imagine two musicians performing. One of them is improvising and the other is performing a pre-composed piece. What visual differences you may see? For example, in body language, kinaesthetics?
June: If the person playing the pre-composed piece plays from memory then the difference is minimized. The sort of standard answer is that the improvisers are more committed to what they are doing. That probably shows in body language although, in a sense, when you really see a good performer like I saw last night, a girl playing a pre-composed piece. I guess if I saw somebody next to her improvising I wouldn’t see any more commitment. Often improvised music is more interesting to the people taking part that it is for the audience. I know some people who would never improvise to save their lives. They would hate it to take the risk, whereas some others, courageous, who love novelty, enjoy it.

Stergios: What particular styles are you mostly involved with?
June: I started as a classical musician and I wouldn’t improvise at all, although that is not completely true…it was really taught out of me.

Stergios: Do you think that it is a way of keeping the music alive?
June: You mean the improvised tradition?

Stergios: Yes.
June: If we look back at the English folk tradition and the work of Cecil Sharp in the early twentieth century when a lot of people were moving from the country to the towns, they were afraid that the role of folk songs would be lost. So they recorded them and wrote them down. On one hand them that preserved them, on the other hand it stopped the process of the improvised tradition. Because you now had a fixed version of the song. The elements of improvisation enable music to be fitted into the appropriate context much better than the notated tradition.

Stergios:  Are your criteria for appraising music only musical? If not what other criteria do you apply?
June: I think there are value systems built into all musical styles. The church for example has a particular theology of a male God who creates something from nothing and that is the model that is dictated in the classical traditions in Europe. So you have God who is out there somewhere and human beings who are down here somewhere who are carrying out this blueprint that somebody’s given them. That of course is the model that we have for composition; We have the composer who isn’t there in any embodied form, who may not even be present when people carry out…That value system and the notion of the maleness of God, because I think the maleness of God has run deeply through all western culture, has prevented women for example being involved in composition since God is male and God creates.I think it has excluded black people from the classical traditions because of course we all knew that God was white and so on. So all these images have meant that a particular sort of people can be set up as a composer. I don’t believe in hierarchies so I would say that I look back sadly at the western tradition, which I have critiqued so heavily. I can’t watch ballet any more because I see the value system of what has happened to woman, the image of woman nearly falling off their toes, dressed wearing particular costume, dancing to particular sort of music. Although once I loved it, now I see the value systems that I find abominable.

Stergios: Have you ever appraised someone’s personality only by watching him playing music?
June: Nigel Kennedy I get a really nice sense of when his is playing…the girl last night as well. Yes, there are plenty of people I have never met that I have a real sense of because of the music that they play.

Stergios: How did you develop your skills in musical improvisation?
June: By doing it. It was a huge step for me, I didn’t do any improvisation, I didn’t feel confident certainly not in public because I was so afraid. One of the ways I broke the model in piano improvisation was to devise a one-woman’s show, which was about someone who was often put down as mad. That gave me a chance to represent that madness someway on the piano. I just had a show where I had to improvise publically and that forced me to do it. Taking up the drum gave a chance to learn a much more improvised tradition. I think I also learned because I got the children to do something that I couldn’t do. So, by choosing to be part of that early movement in the sixties, and introducing composing in the classroom, suddenly I had a situation where I could improvise along with them. In many ways, the children taught me how to improvise.

Stergios: How can the practice of other arts have an effect on someone’s creativity and musicality?
June: The fact that I improvise publically I did it in association with drama. I noticed that with students, if you associate musical improvisation with some dramatic act, they are freed up, whereas if they think: ‘I’ve got to improvise music’ they are frozen. But when they think about linking the music with some expressive idea, which they can express in dance and the instrument becomes part of it, it’s a very important way of freeing up.

Stergios: Why do you think self-taught musicians can achieve high levels of musical proficiency without any formal instruction?
June: Because music is an in-built…just as speech, eating, an in-built reflex of a human being and we all have it inside of us. In some ways education stops us expressing it. So people who are self-taught have not had the restraints of education and can follow their bliss. Cambell says that you must follow your bliss and you are more free to follow your bliss if you are self-educated than if you are educated within a structured system.

Stergios: Do you think that a non-musician can offer useful ideas to students who learn how to improvise?
June: Absolutely! Often, it is the non-musician that is able to enter the improvisatory states more easily than the musician, because the musician….if you are defined as a musician in western society it means that you have been through a process of indoctrination of some kind or other. And actually that process can stop you from being able to improvise at all. A non-musician very often gets to a very useful musical solution not by a conventional route, but an imaginative, unconventional leap. My experience says that it’s easier in this area to work with non-musicians, or better, people who have not defined themselves as musicians. That’s the difference. In every person there is a musician waiting to get out and one task of music educators is to allow that to come out.

Stergios: How would you teach improvisation?
June: The most important thing is to engage with the materials of sound, to get as much sound as possible. I usually then start to go on to the feel of the music. I use poems and stories and so on to get that going. And then move on to how to put it together in various structures, what structures you can use. They would learn some of the different cultures and the way in which they started putting restraints on freedom in various ways. I do lots of workshops and people come for music healing and spirituality, thinking that they are learning healing but of course they are learning musical improvisation.If you could make the environment informal, not formal then that’s another way of freeing people up. I always feel that I have succeeded when somebody says that they did it at the end of the day, without noticing it. Probably in that there is a lot of humour. You have to set the playground where it is ok to make mistakes. We live in an educational environment where mistakes are not highly prized. If you are going to be free to improvise the mistakes that you make can be the best idea you ever had.

Stergios: Brecht said that we must prepare our next mistake…
June: Absolutely. That’s the difference in notated tradition. If you played an F sharp and Mozart wrote an F natural then it is clearly wrong. In improvising it could be the best idea you ever had. Lots of jokes, so people are laughing and they don’t realize what they are doing. For me it is the philosophy of play that is related to improvisation.

Stergios: Thank you so much!

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