This post is based on a presentation that I gave at ‘Improvisation: Educational Perspectives’, a conference that we held at the University of Edinburgh in April, 2014.
It is very common for people to say to me on a gig or recording session: ‘play a sax solo…you know – like the the one on ‘Born to Run’ – or, ‘let’s do Baker Street’ (or even Careless Whisper, unfortunately). Similarly, I’ve had many occasions where my pupils have said things like – ‘show me how to do it like Maceo Parker‘ or ‘how can I make it sound more like [X, Y or Z player]?’. I am really interested by the idea that people, particularly in the realm of pop music, will not only learn to improvise by emulating those who they enjoy listening to and respect, but will in many cases also be asked in educational and professional contexts to do so and may be assessed or evaluated on the success of the emulation. So, in this post, I would like to explore the notion of improvisation in pop and rock music – clearly this is a huge topic but this is deliberate and I will try to write as generally as possible for the purposes of stimulating discussion. I should also note that, although a great deal of pop/rock music is improvised, (guitar strumming, keyboard fills, etc.) featured solos are inevitably of great interest.
Definitions of Improvisation:
One of the reasons that I chose to write on this topic for this week’s post was that some closely related issues had been raised in recent posts and discussions, such as my post from a couple of weeks ago (have a read here) and Richard’s follow-up response (see it here). It seems as if these discussions have focussed on the way in which people define improvisation and what musical implications the term has. For some people, the notion of improvisation relates to a ‘blank-slate’ approach to music creation, for others it is often far more structured and ‘strategic'(see Richard’s post). Of course, it is unfair to suggest that people naturally divide into one of these categories. Many people consider improvisation in both ways at different times and in different contexts – that is to say that the way that they consider improvisation may change depending on what musical activity they are involved in, who they are playing with, whether or not there is an audience, where the activity is taking place…
Given that I am particularly interested in the way in which improvisation is taught and assessed in Higher Education (HE), in particular, it would be sensible to have a quick look at some background information. It should be noted that in recent decades there has been an increased prevalence of the assessment of improvisation, partly due to the the development of graded instrumental syllabi in pop music and jazz, for example. Interestingly, these grades are often used as bench marks or as entry requirements for students wishing to study music in Further Education (FE) and HE. Clearly, given the FE and HE context, assessment is an expectation and, from experience, summative assessment seems to be the norm and this is probably a result of the exam-centric attitude towards assessment common to FE and HE institutions. This leads to a situation in which recital style exams are used almost exclusively for the purposes of assessing improvisation.
Autodidaticism and aural transmission.
Pop music, in the most general sense of the term, is traditionally transmitted aurally with people learning some basic instrumental technique and then copying what they have heard on records, or copying friends who have learned from records. This type of learning requires listening, emulating, exploring, internalising, adapting etc and is usually done individually or in small groups. Also, using other songs and familiar elements (chords, riffs etc) as a basis, new songs are written and developed. Similarly, when considering the nature of improvisation, (particularly when thinking about featured solos), it is the process of emulation and adaptation that forges links between technique and physical learning and stylistic ‘rules’. By copying the solos of the records you love and wish to emulate you internalise a great deal of information that can be used to generate schematic ideas about what it means to perform (or improvise) a solo in a similar way. It is important to note that this type of aural transmission and learning is far less theory and concept driven than other types of music such as jazz, for example. As such, structural features such as functional harmony, chord/scale relationships, harmonic substitutions etc become less important as markers of ‘success’ or ‘authenticity’. Although the process of emulation might be similar amongst jazz musicians (i.e. learning the solos of your heroes) for instance, there is a supposed prerequisite level of musical literacy, theoretical knowledge and analytic skill involved which means that the process of learning and practicing is different.
The Commercial Context:
In the world of pop/rock, music is saleable product. I not decrying this or jumping on an anti-capitalist soap-box – this is just a fact. It is important to keep in mind that, because the music (specifically the way that it is created, marketed and disseminated) is considered as a product which is designed to be sold, it is heavily mediated by the many people and processes involved in its creation and marketing. This could be on the grounds of musical or technical expertise but it is also fair to say that the ‘industrial’ component of this chain also has the potential for considerable mediation.
Coming back to the nature of improvisation in pop and rock music, lets focus on the production of the popular music product and some of the mediation that takes place around its creation. Have a look at the following clip which is taken from ‘Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run’ (Thom Zimny, 2005):
I think that this is a particularly useful illustration as it is an example of a very famous rock solo which gives the impression of ‘freedom’, ‘expression’ and ‘spontaneity’ etc but is actually, in terms of process at least, a highly mediated artifact that is improvisational in its origins. To me, this calls into question the function and role of ‘improvised’ solos (and, in turn, the improviser) in pop and rock music. Are solos passages in which musicians can be foregrounded and take the spotlight otherwise dominated by the singer? Are they opportunities for sonic/timbral variance in songs? Or are they opportunities to suggest and simulate expression and spontaneity in an attempt to manipulate the experiences of the listener?
So, what are the pedagoic implications of this when we are thinking about pop and rock music in an educational context? I’ve already noted that a great deal of pop/rock music is transmitted aurally. Although this is perhaps less true when a student reaches the level of HE/FE where there is sometimes great importance placed on music-reading, it is fair to say that a great deal of the popular musician’s development will come from listening to, emulating and adapting that which they listen to. This clearly demonstrates a high level of aural skill and general musicianship and this process is something that is highly beneficial to their technical development, stylistic understanding and their employment prospects (i.e. session abilities etc.).
One particularly interesting issue around the way that improvisation is practiced is the fact that there is a great deal of play-along materials (not to mention the original recordings of songs) available to musicians as educational material, much of which will be sold packaged with books that provide lessons in improvisation. Indeed, much of this material is sold on the promise that they will teach you to play like your favourite player. Now, this is intriguing but what is particularly interesting is that when we consider this as a method for learning and honing improvisational skill we should be aware that people are playing along with a CD. i.e. a pre-recorded, fixed, infinitely repeatable entity that will always play the same way and will obviously not respond to any input from the improvising musician playing along. Clearly such materials are very useful to students and allow them to ‘play with other people’ even when they are on their own. Also, the CD is infinitely patient and indefatigable and wont get annoyed with the musician practicing, trying new ideas and making mistakes etc. However, I believe that this approach to practice and performance (keep in mind that these types of play-alongs are also often used in exams both in external exam boards and within university performance exams/recitals etc.) encourages the creation of a polished, perfected, hyper-real ‘product’ or simulation of improvisation and this, I believe, suggests a specific method of assessment, namely, recital style exams. As such, we can say that what is being assessed is a single performance and, therefore all that can be critiqued is the success of this event. Clearly, this is a product focussed approach to assessment that is particularly interesting in this context given the obvious industry parallels.
So, it seems to me that what is really being assessed is stylistic suitability/appropriateness – i.e. do the perceivable qualities of the music match the pre-defined ideals that an observer has for the given style of music? In some ways this is in line with the standard exam format (learn something and then demonstrate that you have learned it), but it is also interesting to note that this quite at odds with the ‘blank slate’ notion of improvisation. If we consider recital exams in this way, we need to remind ourselves that we are, in essence, objectifying one specific performance and assessing its perceivable, musical/structural/stylistic qualities. Although, as already mentioned this is at odds with the way that many people might wish to consider improvisation, we have to ask ourselves (in the field of pop/rock music particularly), if this product-centered approach to assessment is, in fact more relevant, more interesting and more suitable. If the music exists in a product driven environment, is packaged, marketed and sold as a product, is created in a way that is subject to mediation and allows refinement/editing etc in an attempt to create a salable product, then should assessment allow for a performance that may be assessed as a product?
I am deliberately playing devil’s advocate here in the hope that this stimulates some discussion… please feel free to comment below.