‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick. Anyone Can Do It…’

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:

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…

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

23 thoughts on “‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick. Anyone Can Do It…’”

  1. Aboslutely – I’ve tried to take on the various theories behind improvising successfully in different genres of music. However the most useful part of any successful improvisation has got to be knowledge of those you are improvising together with and their ways of putting the music together. Otherwise it’s chaos!

    1. Thanks G,

      I like your suggestion that the result of not knowing/being familiar with the musical workings of your fellow musicians can result in chaos. I have certainly been on some gigs where the audience may have thought this. 😉 On some occasions, they may have been absolutely correct – what they were hearing may have been incoherent nonsense and symptomatic of chaos. On the other hand, however, the ‘music’ that was played on other occasions may have sounded chaotic and problematic to an audience BUT, in the eyes of the performers (i.e. those actively involved) it may have been very communicative, expressive and ‘successful’. It is exactly this type of issue that I find so exciting about improvisation and it makes me wonder, if the notion of product-centred evaluation of improvisation is valid in any case…

  2. In my first ever saxophone lesson, I played Mack the Knife – normally I wouldn’t remember such a specific fact, but it sticks in my mind because after the first few bars, the sheet music contained nothing but diagonal slashes… firstly I had never come across these and secondly when my teacher told me to play “whatever I felt like”, I had no idea where to start, I had grown up “reading” music, and there was nothing on the score to read.
    I guess it was a bit “in at the deep end”, but that was my introduction to improvisation. Maybe my teacher was just testing the water, to see whether I would sink or swim. I think I sank!
    As the weeks went by, most lessons would contain a few empty bars and I had to “do something” in those bars. With time, I started to work out what I could do, how I could do it, and what worked better or didn’t.
    I took Trinity Jazz sax grades, up to grade 8, each with an improvised section in one of the pieces. As you say, I could prepare over preceding months to get a good feel for what worked in those empty bars, with the backing track, as a continuation or a contrast from the written head. I never felt comfortable improvising, but I always managed to work a piece out that fitted OK, and I always managed to get a good mark from the examiner. But I had played that same “improvised” piece hundreds of times before that exam, even though the examiner (fortunately) only ever heard it once.
    In the intervening 5 years since that first lesson, I have learnt a lot of theory behind improvising – chords, scales, techniques, articulation, but I still wouldn’t consider myself any good in practice.
    I still wouldn’t choose to improvise, but if someone handed me a sheet with some blank bars and a few chord symbols, I would give it my best shot, I certainly wouldn’t panic anymore. It might not be great, but there wouldn’t be silence either.
    Is improvisation a Parlour Game? I think it requires hours of practice to be a good improviser. Not practice for any specific piece of music, but practice of what notes work best in what chords, what chord sequences work well, what techniques make things sound more Jazzy etc. You could practice licks and riffs in every key, starting on every note. It’s a bit like learning to read – you learn all the basics, all the building blocks, then when you need to write your first novel you just put all the blocks together and it sounds good the first time.
    Sure, it might sound even better the second or third time through, but you are likely to please the audience the first time.

    1. Thanks Mandy, this is really interesting!

      I was glad to read that, even in your first lessons, you were encouraged to improvise. I really think that this is so important and I always get my sax students improvising as early as possible. As you say, some people (usually those who have played/sung before) freak out and panic and others (usually young children between 5-12 years old) take to it like a duck to water. This is probably because they (a) lack the self-concious inhibitions that prevent them from creating something spontaneously, and (b) don’t have as much, if any, previous experience of written music and the subconscious idea that performing and creating are separate tasks, in some way.

      I was particularly interested to read about your experience of improvisation in the Trinity jazz exams and one of the points that you made on this subject is quite commonly expressed and one of the reasons why I am interested in this area of music education. You said that you prepared your ‘improvisation’ with the backing tracks and essentially hinted that you ‘composed’ something and played it a lot until you had something that you could comfortably play in the given space. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and I would not criticise it as a strategy, in the slightest. It is very common for people to take this sort of strategic approach to these exams (and other similar ones). However, I am really interested in the idea that this type of exam format promotes this type of approach from the candidate, perhaps because of the assessed nature of the experience and that it forces a product-centred approach to assessment. These, I think, are so closely related that it becomes a chicken-and-egg argument. My opinion, however, is that this can prevent students from really engaging in the process of improvisation and may be part of the reason why many people who take these exams actually don’t like improvising in other contexts and, in fact, wouldn’t feel comfortable playing over a different set of changes. Again, I am not criticising the exam system, just curious as to the effect it has on some elements of what people consider as improvisation.

  3. I had never thought of a parallel between improvisation and stage magic. But I like both issues for different reasons and so I really appreciated your connection, Zack. I have not much to add to your reflections right now (I learned to read something and then let my mind digest it slowly: ideas comes with time). I just wanted to give my own testimony on the subject of improvisation. I am far from being an accomplished improviser, especially in a jazz context. That has a lot to do, I believe, with both a certain technical difficulty of moving smoothlessly around different keys and scales and a not-too-deep knowldege of the jazz idiom. However, I like the challenge and I believe that trying to solo over a set of jazz changes can be very instructive, even to improvise, later, over music of a different genre or style, like pop or rock. Also, breaking down a jazz standard into chord/scales and trying to play accordingly simple patterns or sequences over the changes often really has almost magical effects on my fingers and ear. So, yes, improvisation is a kind of stage magic: you need to prepare for it, but you want that your audience perceives the maximum spontaneity, as if everything was created on the spot. In any case, there’s nothing paranormal!

    1. Thanks Pietro,

      In terms of the parallels between improvisation and other art forms, I seem to be thinking about this increasingly. Also, comparing different types of improvisation (music, drama, poetry…) – I have too many ideas and nowhere near enough time.

      I am glad that you found something interesting in this comparison and that it resonated with your experience, to an extent. You are absolutely right to say that there’s nothing paranormal but I do meet a lot of people (often classical music students, actually) who see improvisation as something of the occult. Again, I think that this is often related to the fact that people perceive certain styles of music as being ‘free’ or ‘unrestricted’ but don’t necessarily consider that there is an enormous amount of preparation that goes into learning these idioms both stylistically and technically and that, in some cases this can even lead to the pre-preparation of material which, by it’s definition (I believe) contradicts the notion of improvisation.

      1. Hi Zack. I am looking forward to reading soon your reflections on improvisation as a transversal art form!

        Lately, I am reflecting myself on music freedom and I also posted some suggestions on my new blog. I think it’s a meme worth spreading :)

  4. My first thought was that the content of this scene bore some resemblance to Brecht’s dramatic techniques of ‘alienation’ and perhaps one could validly analyse it in this way in terms of it drawing attention to the planned narrative structure of the film. This concept of alienation is linked with structural linguistics and the concept of ‘defamiliarisation’.

    I then wondered how relevant this concept might be to discussions of ‘improvisation’ in music, which is often seen as having a ‘language’ of its own.

    And I think you could perhaps pursue it, and that there may be a sense in which some of Zach’s points do in effect tend to ‘defamiliarise’ some elements of current practice, but I don’t have time to go into this now.

    More or less the only ‘improvisation’ I can do is to use the minor pentatonic, which I taught myself by listening along to certain Eric Clapton tracks, and did not know for years actually had a name and an existence in ‘real music’. For a number of fairly obvious reasons this tactic only works with certain songs and isn’t suitable for a great many contexts. So what Zach is saying makes absolute sense to me.

    I have learned particular patterns on the guitar fret board using this scale and I sometimes more or less know in advance what sound/mood they will produce if I play them. So to some extent I can modify what I play to suit a mood or style.

    But I am constructing a performance made out of ‘bits’ that I have learned, and my guess is that this is how improvisation in most contexts (in the sense in which Zack writes about idiomatic rules and conventions will work. For me this is linked with how the mind works by making links and associations and so on.

    Conversely there is some stuff I play which I cannot for the life of me play exactly the same way more than once but as I have played around with it a lot it usually comes out sounding reasonable (to my ears at my level of ability which isn’t particularly high).

    I cannot give a reference but I recall hearing some academics on Radio Four who had studied a classic jazz musician in detail and who concluded that their improvisations did make use of ‘sub routines’ ie bits which they tended as part of their style to throw into the mix.

    I think that there are some instances in which the ‘parlour games’ label just might fit. For example the guitarist Slash (who comes from the same town as me and who likes what we think of in weak moments as ‘proper’ oatcakes though of course the Scottish variety is equally valid) is probably thought by many to be an improvisational player. However I saw an interview in which he said he admired Hendrix and Clapton but that he himself did not improvise but worked out his solos in advance. I was taken a bit aback at this, feeling almost cheated for a moment but I decided that in this case he was very good at ‘composing’ solos and at playing them too.

    I am now taking a course on jazz improvisation out of curiosity as much as anything so it will be interesting to see how this pans out. I don’t expect to do well but I’m sure I shall learn a lot from the attempt and be left with some ideas about the pedagogy I experienced.

    1. Hi John! Nice to know how Slash works. As far as I know, that’s not that rare in rock, especially if the solo is intended to be recorded for a studio album. But I suspect that Slash improvises more in a live situation. After all, if I remember correctly from the music I heard, he pretty much plays around the pentatonic/blues scale. As far as pitches are concerned, classic rock is rather simple. The rock idiom is mostly a matter of sound and articulations, and the electric guitar is just a perfect instrument for that (bendings, legatos, tapping, artificial harmonics, all sort of noises…).

      I am intrigued by that “defamiliarization” that you mentioned at the beginning of your post. Can you say a bit more on that?

      1. Hello Zach and Pietro

        You both ask about defamiliarization.

        It’s one of those concepts hat I have had in my own head for so long that it comes as a surprise when other people haven’t come across it. I know more about it than I can set down here but far less than many sources you can find using Google.

        So here’s a simple account of it:

        Associated with the radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, the term ‘defamiliarization’ refers to a range of strategies used by the dramatist to distance his audience from the performance, with the aim of making them see every day life/artifacts/arts anew – from a critical perspective. Brecht doesn’t want you to get carried away or absorbed in his work, he wants to get you looking at things through new eyes. I don’t know German, but my understanding is that Brecht used the term ‘alienation’ to describe what he wanted to achieve, a term not to be confused with ‘alienation’ in the usual sociological sense of the alienated worker.

        For example, when I was a teenager I saw a performance of a Brecht play in which the actors suddenly produced banners with words like ‘What are you looking at?’ written across them.

        So far from achieving its aim of radicalising everybody, the strategy has almost become a cliche, and I suppose that its appearance in a Willy Wonker film may be its nadir!

        Here is a comment by Shlovsky from Wiki which refers to the written word:

        In studying poetic speech in its phonetic and lexical structure as well as in its characteristic distribution of words and in the characteristic thought structures compounded from the words, we find everywhere the artistic trademark – that is, we find material obviously created to remove the automatism of perception; the author’s purpose is to create the vision which results from that deautomatized perception. A work is created “artistically” so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception.

        So are there ideas here which could be applied to music in general and to improvisation (real or apparent)? I think so.

        If we felt that improvisation had in some sense become debased and mocked for commercial reasons, we could, I suppose, have somebody hold up a sign saying ‘He practised this solo note for note last week’ while the soloist does his bit.

        I’m sorry my example is a bit crass, but Mrs Ball craves my attention.

        1. Thank you John for providing those illuminating examples. Your observations reminded me of something that, coincidentally, I just remarked on my own blog, talking about music and freedom: the conservatism of many (perhaps most) musicians. Bertold Brecht was certainly a progressive and a radical. Instead, I bet that the regular rock or jazz musician is not much interested in defamiliarization or alienation. On the contrary, his goal is typically to involve as much as he can the audience into his music, especially emotionally and physically. Musicians using in their music some kind of purposefully alienating techinque are a rarity, I think. One non-secondary reason is probably that often commercial demands need some old myths and taboos to be intact and even stronger than ever (the artist’s innate genius, the magic behind a performance). I think we are really exploring a number of fascinating aspects in this discussion.

      2. Pietro
        Clapton: minor pentatonic always. I learned it playing along to Key to the Highway and the EC Was Here LP. I remember being bitterly disappointed when I realised that basically they were just playing the same tune in a limited range of keys (ie up or down one or two frets as I am a shape slave).
        I have to admit the only Slash solos I know are the one on Sweet Child of Mine and a Hendrix tribute one where he plays with Winwood (who seems to be a one handed organist) which is stunning.
        I have never analysed the Sweet Child of Mine one but from memory I don’t think it is one scale or even just two which is one of its attractions. I think it is ‘beautiful’ but probably somewhat corny. If I know you you can work out the scales pretty darn quick so here’s a challenge.
        I’m going to keep some sort of ‘diary’ of the jazz improve course where I’m beginning to feel a bit frustrated. It’s hard to tell how much of this is my lack of starting knowledge, how much caused by their use of different terminology ( if one more person calls a minor seventh INTERVAL a dominant a shall scream) and how much by what I am beginning to feel is a less than optimum educational approach to the presentation of material (and as an educator I cannot help evaluating any course I go on from this perspective. The Edinburgh MOOCs always always are excellently presented in my experience.
        Enough from me, got a list of modal scales to learn off by heart. :(

        1. John, I don’t really listen to Slash since it’s job with Guns N’ Roses in the early 90s, but I think you are correct on the simplicity of his playing from the point of view of pitches (also on Clapton of course). As I mentioned, classic rock is largely a matter of sound and of how much one is able to be expressive by using a rather limited music material. However, sometimes I find it curious the general (and even my usual) consideration of pentatonics as being a poor scale choice. I cannot but think of Debussy and of how much his use of pentatonics in classical music was advanced and “out of the box” at the time. Things change according to new paradigms, I suppose.

          I am also following that course in jazz improvisation and, inter nos, I don’t like much the general Berklee approach, but Burton is a master and I will be satisfied if I can find the time to practise what we are suggested. The forum is stimulating and, in a sense, we students are slowly building our own space there, don’t you think? That’s an invaluable aspect of MOOCs, perhaps the best thing that they can offer.

          Fundamentals of Music Theory has been fantastic! I have learned so much. And the teaching staff really did a good job, as you say, both with the lectures and the forum participation. (Instead, I have not seen Gary Burton in the forum yet, have you?)

          Good work and have fun.

    2. Thanks for the reply John!

      I have seen similar interesting interviews with other musicians that people would consider to be ‘improvisers’ and that make music that is typically considered improvisational. They type of approach that someone like Slash uses doesn’t seem to be unusual in many rock/pop styles and this may be something to do with the fact that they are specifically creating a product that has to ‘work’ (aesthetically and commercially). Indeed, I would have a similar approach when doing a session for a rock/pop recording and would also play in full knowledge of the fact that elements of each take will be cut/pasted in order to create a composite solo that would begin life improvisationally (even if pre-prepared to the extent that I may use some ‘licks’) and then be honed by myself on subsequent takes and eventually a producer when assembling the final mix. Is this improvisation? Is it a parlour trick? Is it composition? I’m really interested in this topic and would love to discuss more. I gave a paper on exactly this subject at a conference recently – perhaps I should convert it to a post for this site in the coming weeks?

      I really like the term ‘sub-routines’ and fully intend to use that in my discussions on this subject in future, thanks!

      I don’t know anything about ‘defamiliarisation’ – I, like Pietro, would be keen to hear more about this too.


  5. Hi Guys
    I would go out on a limb and say that most classic rock guitar solos are very worked out – pre[composed- there are so many famous examples where when they play the same song live they pretty much play the same solo- or at least start with the recognisable opening bars- e.g. Brian May on bohemian Rhapsody etc. iconic guitar solos that are ‘expected’ by the audience. – Bands that are expected to Jam out more are notable- Led Zeppelin, Zappa, Grateful Dead and the ‘Jam bands’ from the 90’s among others. (then of course there are the funk bands….)
    I have to run now, but I’m thinking of doing a self reflective ‘auto ‘ethnographic consideration of what I REALLY and honestly would do when playing a solo in the studio….

    1. Thank you Richard. Your observation also shifts the focus from a mere problem of technical dexterity or style to the important aspect of commercial demands, which is absolutely a reality and which remarks the complexity of a professional situation. I was not thinking about it. Looking forward to your considerations on playing in studio!

      1. ABSOLUTELY – and this brings in a whole host of other mediating factors. This is exactly what I talked about in a recent (April) conference presentation. I think I should do a version of it for this site since there seems to be interest in this area!

    2. Thanks for your comment, Richard. I couldn’t agree more – I am particularly interested in this link between composed/pre-composed/improvised and wonder where the boundaries (if any) are – and more importantly, who decides!

    3. Oh, Richard, my idols have feet of clay and I feel sad!

      If you tell me that the Allman=Clapton jam of Key to the Highway from the Layla LP was not ‘live’ and improvisational,
      I shall be so upset that I may even think up a different tune for the end of my funeral, which at present I hope they will start with the Bach Prelude and Fugue in C major, my other favourite piece of music, and end with this version of Key to the Highway.


    The discussion has focused on the teaching and assessment of musical improvisation.

    I once spent several years studying educational assessment so I may be able to throw in some concepts that will help out here. I am sure that there will be academic papers on this in the context of music education, and that the same basic terms will crop up. A seminal paper on educational assessment is one by Robert Glaser introducing the problematic concept of criterion referencing. The idea sounds good but is philosophically and practically problematic on several heads.

    In a nutshell, educational assessment should be valid, reliable, manageable and useful. I’ll briefly break down some of these terms, but before I do I’ll note that validity and reliability are to some extent in tension. Increase one and the other falters. This problem may be at the heart of what is coming out of this discussion of how to assess improvisation and the approaches taken by students to current assessment procedures. I can’t go into detail, but if anyone reading this blog wanted to go into the following concepts in more detail there is ample material on line.

    I’ll deal with validity first. There are several different sorts and concepts of validity, each of which has its own importance.
    Construct validity refers to the question of whether what I’ll call the ‘test’ here, using the term to include all sorts of procedure (multiple choice, written examination, practical etc), does assess that which it is intended to assess. A good example of one that did not was a government sponsored test of basic writing which did not require test takers to write at all, but which used a limited range of multiple choice questions.

    Content validity refers to the question of whether the test accurately covers the full range of features of the desired knowledge, skill or understanding.

    Predictive validity refers to the question of whether the test results are a guide to the future performance of the test taker in the given field.

    Attempts to create fully valid tests often result in lengthy and unwieldy assessment procedures which can be time consuming, difficult to understand and create and expensive. These factors can adversely affect manageability.

    From the discussion of Mandy’s music examination so far it would appear that there is some room for doubt about current assessments of improvisation under each of these heads.

    Reliability is the second demand placed upon tests. Once again, there are different facets of the requirement. One is test-retest reliability: does the same test produce the same results when administered more than than once over time? Another facet is parallel forms reliability. Do different versions of the test achieve the same results? A third question is about inter-rater reliability: do different people using the same test to assess the same student come up with the same response.

    I’ll give a couple of examples of the way in which reliability and validity can come into conflict. In some countries and subjects machine marked multiple choice tests are widely used. These are often subjected to statistical testing, the results of which support their claims to be reliable. They are also relatively cheap though producing them is a multi million pound business. Such tests are a fairly obvious example of the fact that a test which claims excellent value on reliability may not feel very reliable in terms of the purported subject matter. Some of the experimental vocational qualifications produced last century in the UK fell into the category of striving for validity but becoming unreliable: in a search for detailed specifications of precisely what a particular job involved, pages and pages of sub tasks were set out and candidates had to produce evidence that they could do each one. The courses were often described as all assessment and no teaching, since the amount of time spent generating evidence expanded accordingly. A system of payment of colleges by results generated a certain amount of cheating and some actual fraud cases. Many qualifications had to be slimmed down and some were abolished. The more recent work of Prof Alison Woolf shows that these problems have not gone away in England.

    One thing that most educationalists are agreed on is that tests bring with them what is sometimes called ‘backwash’ – a term which the test industry doesn’t like very much. It refers to the fact that the form of the final test will often affect how the subject is taught and how students go about learning it. These effects may not always be perceived as desirable, with the drilling of children to perform well on high stakes tests in primary school being a particular source of emotional argument.

    I am obviously not competent to write about how to define and teach improvisation, though I can comment on my own experiences in listening to, thinking about and trying – with limited success – to develop and exercise skill in this area. But I can offer to the discussion some of the standard tools for thinking about the area, and I hope that this hastily written and un- proofread blog has provided a reasonable introduction to some of the main concepts.

    Assessment is certainly not a parlour trick!

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