I was sitting with my daughter last week watching Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (Warner Brothers, 2005) and was struck by a particular passage of dialogue. Just after the first of the bratty, selfish children (Augustus Gloop) gets eliminated from the tour of the chocolate factory, the Oompa-Loompas perform an elaborately choreographed song and dance routine which describes the events which led to this child’s early exit from the film. Shortly after the song finishes, the following dialogue occurs:
Charlie: Mr. Wonka, why would Augustus’ name already be in the Oompa-Loompa song unless they—
Willy Wonka: Improvisation is a parlour trick. Anyone can do it. [turns to Violet] You! Little girl – say something. Anything!
Violet: Chewing gum.
Willy Wonka: Chewing gum is really gross. Chewing gum I hate the most. See? Exactly the same.
Mike: No, it isn’t.
Clearly, this is a comical meta-reference which acknowledges the fact that this song only ‘happened’ because this is a film with musical interludes. The characters note their awareness of this (in a knowing nod to the audience) and suggest (a) that it is a contrivance, and (b) that it is suspicious in some way. What is funny is that Wonka tries to cover up the pre-prepared nature of the song by suggesting that it was improvised and that anyone could do it. Obviously, this isn’t going to be a post about ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ but I did find this scene interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it makes us think about our conceptions of improvisation (What is it? What does the term mean? Who does/can do it?). Secondly, I was slightly conflicted when I thought about the definition that Wonka gives because, on one hand, I can understand the parallel drawn with parlour tricks and, on the other, I do believe that anyone can improvise. Why the conflict, then? I think ultimately, despite having sympathies with both parts of the statement, I am conflicted by the suggestion that anyone can improvise because it is a parlour trick and I would like to explore this a bit in this post.
Parlour tricks are illusions performed by magicians in order to deceive, confuse, impress and shock their audiences. They are pre-prepared, choreographed, rehearsed and delivered by a knowledgeable and skilful person to an audience, with the intention of entertaining deception. The audience is often wilfully ignorant of the mechanics of the act in order to achieve the maximum impact of the amazing feats being performed by the trickster. The act is understood as a display (i.e. a performance) and the audience evaluate it based on many factors including its apparent success (did it work out?) and the effect that it had on them (how did it make them feel?). So, is there a parallel with improvisation? Can improvisation be considered as a parlour trick? Well, I suppose this depends on what is understood by the term ‘improvisation’ and the musical context in which it is considered.
Improvisation is often defined to be a means by which music is created from nothing, without preparation and ‘in the moment’. If considered in this way then it would be difficult to compare it to a parlour trick, I believe. Yes, many people lack the experience, encouragement or musical environment in which they can approach creative music making in this way. Such people may view improvisation as some sort of mystical skill that other people are blessed with which allows music to be conjured out of thin air – this, although impressive or even ‘magical’ to some people, is certainly not comparable to a parlour trick in my opinion. That said, although people may define improvisation in this way, the reality is that, in many musical styles, this definition is unrealistic and the practice of ‘improvisation’ is far more restricted and governed by idiomatic rules and aesthetic conventions. In such cases, it becomes important to prepare (for) improvisation and practice certain elements that will allow the musician to create something, apparently in real time, that may be perceived as idiomatically appropriate by fellow musicians and ‘naive’ audiences alike.
This is particularly interesting to me when considered in the context of music education – particularly in those areas in which improvisation is assessed. Think, for example of the vast range of ‘play-along’ books, or ‘play-like’ books that have been published as educational materials for aspiring improvisers. Books designed to develop your ‘improvisation’ by learning a selection of John Coltrane’s ii-V-I patterns or books that talk you through how to play Jimi Hendrix licks, for example, are offering instruction in how to prepare elements that may be used in your improvisatory arsenal. Essentially, they are part of a body of literature (and profitable industry sector) that teaches people how to pre-prepare musical fragments and ideas that may be assimilated and assembled to ‘create an improvisation’, often over a pre-recorded backing track. Similar material is used for graded exams in jazz (e.g. ABRSM and Trinity) and Rock/Pop (e.g. Rockschool, Trinity Rock and Pop). Perhaps, due to their convenience and the fact that they are relatively inexpensive, materials of this nature are also favoured by university and college students and, in some cases, are also used as part of courses and assessed performance exams. I must make it clear that I do not devalue this approach nor mean any disrespect to such material. It has been very instructive in the development of my musicianship and I sometimes use such materials and approaches when working with my own students. My simple point is that, such an approach to improvisation education promotes preparation and idiomatic enculturation and, as such, has a profound effect on the way in which it is assessed and evaluated. So, in some contexts, I do believe that it may be fair to align such practices with the notion of parlour trickery (not a pejorative) in the sense that materials are prepared with the intention of displaying them to an audience (or examiner) to impress and to project an impression of spontaneity. Although it doesn’t follow to agree with the statement ‘improvisation is a parlour trick’, I can sympathise with the sentiment in some cases and feel that this is important to consider, particularly when thinking about improvisation education.
So, with regard to the initial statement, ‘Improvisation is a parlour trick: anyone can do it’, I do believe that anyone has the ability to improvise and that this is one of the most natural, instinctive and human means by which people engage with or make music. Of course, this does not mean that anyone can instinctively play jazz or blues or any other style of music that is characterised by its improvisational nature and I feel we must be very careful about inadvertently using the terms ‘improvisation’ and ‘jazz’, for example, interchangeably, as often happens among musicians and educators. To play these styles of music, or to improvise in a manner that would be consistent with their idiomatic or aesthetic ‘rules’ means that one has to operate in particular ways and create musical material that is ‘suitable‘. This is learned, prepared and practiced and often requires a great deal of theoretical and technical expertise. So, although I do believe that anyone can improvise, I don’t believe that anyone can improvise idiomatically without the requisite preparation and this is a hugely important to consider when designing and delivering teaching/learning/assessment activities related to assessment.
More on this topic soon…