Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.
Time for another instalment on improvisation – I’m going to try to absorb different accounts of what improvisation is and who does it… and there are questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for.
To begin with, two complaints against improvisation:
First from C.P.E. Bach, commenting sarcastically, in the preface to his Sonatas with Varied Repeats (1760). He goes on:
“It is indispensable, nowadays to alter repeats. One expects it of everybody. A friend of mine goes to endless trouble to play a piece as it is written, flawlessly and in accordance with the rules of good performance; how can one not applaud him? Another, often pressed by necessity, makes up by his audacity in alteration for the lack of expression he shows in the performance of the written notes; the public nevertheless extols him above the former.”
He’s complaining about the prevalence of improvising, particularly the convention that on the second time through a melody, the performer would add variations;in fact some of them would start before they had finished the first time through – think of how a jazz player states the theme of a ballad for instance. Consequently Bach began composing the varied repeats himself, and also provided variations or embellishments (Auszierungen) for existing works. This makes us aware of the degree to which improvisation was the modus operandi of his day, and his complaint is the beginnings of a move away from it.
Now Scott Joplin, in a preface to a collection of his piano ragtime compositions:
“We wish to say here that the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this, and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.”
As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, one of the things that is of great interest to me is improvisation. I am interested in this subject practically and theoretically but I have a particular desire to understand more about the ways in which it is taught, learned and assessed in educational contexts. Over the last week I have been involved in a project in primary schools in which we have been introducing children between the ages of 8 and 11 years old to improvisation. It has been incredible fun and very rewarding so I would like to share some information about the sessions in this week’s post.
The workshops were part of a wonderful project, entitled ‘Music, Sound and Electronics’ which was developed and run by Lauren Sarah Hayes for West Lothian Council and supported by Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative. This project consists of Lauren and guest musicians/composers/improvisers delivering sessions (each 1 hour long) in which the young people learn about music and sound whilst exploring electronics, designing and developing their own instruments and modifying/extending ‘traditional’ instruments , for example. The project runs over 10 weeks and, each week, classes will work on a different topic and explore music and sound in new and interesting ways. 16 classes across West Lothian participated in the project which meant that, over the course of a week, approximately 500 students are involved. I was asked by Lauren to write and deliver a workshop on improvisation (using electronic, home made and ‘traditional’ instruments) that would introduce the young people to improvisation. In some ways, I expected this to be challenging as I believed that it might be difficult to encourage some children to get involved with the exercises – as it turned out, I couldn’t have been more wrong and it seemed like everyone really enjoyed the sessions – including me!
I hate marking. No, I hate the idea of it. I like it once I get going, but it’s awfully time-consuming. In principle I value it, as it’s one of the most important things a teacher can do for a student. Although years later people often remember great teachers or great moments from particular classes, what seems to matter most to students when they are at college is the marks they get. Or maybe that’s just what teachers say. Often I think that what matters most to my students, anyway, is the music they make (and how much they can drink). But when they’re paying for a degree, and working very hard to do well at it (most are, although “very hard” is relative – I had no idea what that really meant ‘til I started doing a PhD whilst working full-time in two jobs and playing drums for three bands), students deserve their marks back on time.
In response to the excellent contributions by Dr Zack Moir  and Dr Richard Worth  I thought I might add my tuppence worth on the subject of jazz improvisation from an autoethnographic perspective.
Like many of my fellow jazz musicians, I was bitten by the jazz bug somewhere in my mid-teens. Having grown up listening to the popular music of the day (I’ll avoid examples so as not to give away my age), I began to take guitar lessons from the extraordinary Edinburgh based polymath, Francis Cowan. Francis, who is sadly no longer with us, was an internationally acclaimed double bass player – the go-to bassist of choice for visiting musicians in the days where itinerant musicians would perform with a local rhythm section. Double bass was only one of many musical instruments that Francis played to ‘concert standard’. He was also a highly regarded lutenist, reflecting his passion for Early Music and was adept on a range of instruments ranging from cello to trumpet. He also reputedly fluently spoke nine languages and was an avid twitcher (bird-watcher).
I went to him initially for classical guitar lessons but while waiting in the hallway outside his sitting room for him to finish his personal practice sessions (sometimes for several hours), my ears were opened to the melodies and harmonies of jazz – jazz guitar being another of his talents. It wasn’t long before I persuaded him that this was the music that I’d prefer to play and my efforts in classical guitar were confined to a footnote in my musical development. Continue reading Improvisation Between Compass Points: the debt to and burden of jazz
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. Continue reading ‘Just Like Clarence’
In response to Zack’s previous post, ‘Improvisation is a Parlour Trick: Anyone can do it…’ I’ve decided that I’m going to come clean, and do an autoethnographic analysis of my OWN soloing strategies; this means coming clean and I admitting to what I was really doing in the course of a so-called improvised solo for a paying session. Also, I just noticed that in Gareth Dylan Smith’s recent post he also used the autoethnographic tag, and I think it’s the best way to look at a musical situation from the viewpoint of the main protagonist-ME. No one else is better qualified to say what is really going on here…. Continue reading A Whole Bag of ‘Parlour Tricks’
I’m planning a study into the performed experience of playing drum kit. The study will be conducted from an autoethnographic perspective, and will explore the intensity, banality, madness and surreal-ity of twice-daily musical performances of a Pantomime musical theatre production. The study will be contextualised from ethnographic and philosophical perspectives, and is perhaps helpfully explained in a haiku that I wrote when trying to Tweet about my nascent research in this area ahead of giving a talk in Cleveland, Ohio, earlier this year:
I am a drummer
Drumming is when I am me
Then is who I am
Adages concerning writing-about-music, and dancing-about-architecture notwithstanding, and the irony of the heightened relevance of these in a piece on an intended study about embodiment – the planned principal output of which will hopefully be a book – not lost of any of us, I shall proceed.
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.
I almost arrived late for the first class of this MOOC! I hadn’t realised it was running until I saw mention of it on “Cafe Saxophone” (a brilliant online forum about anything saxophone). So I signed up for the Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC (from the Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh) during its first week.
I’m not really sure what I was expecting. I had done 2 other music related MOOCs, with very disparate experiences, so I was prepared for almost anything. I have played the saxophone for 5 years, having taken it up ‘later in life’, following redundancy from a job as a Research Scientist in Radio Communication systems! So my background is definitely not in music.
Continue reading Fundamentals of Music Theory MOOC: how was it for me?