Composition, Improvisation and Creativity
Posted on 16th June 2014 at 13:30
The Music Workshop Company (MWC) runs a range of workshops based on a wide variety of World Music, including African Drumming, Samba, Junk Percussion and Singing.
We also run Music Composition workshops during which participants create and perform new music under the guidance of one of our workshop leaders. These workshops can be based on a theme or topic, or they can focus on a particular style of music such as pop, jazz or classical. Compositions are built up from ideas, notes or chords, often using improvisation, and built into a final performance where students play the pieces without sheet music.
Improvisation is an effective tool in a classroom composition workshop, and is not exclusive to children who play instruments. In fact, using percussion instruments or voice and getting children away from the technical constraints of their violin or clarinet can free them to experiment more confidently.
A workshop exploring improvisation can also be designed as a one-off event for budding musicians, perfect for an Arts Week in school, or for a group such as a youth orchestra or music summer school. It can even be used in the workplace as a team-building exercise and to develop creative thinking.
Playing from memory and improvising are both concepts that can be intimidating, but they are integral to a creative workshop experience. This month, Matthew Forbes, professional cellist and MWC workshop leader, introduces the topic of improvisation, and explains why he believes it is so important to musical development.
“Few words in the vocabulary of the musician provoke such an extreme reaction as ‘Improvise!’
I have known it to strike fear into the heart of the most experienced professional, and yet to trigger excitement in the eyes of children. Why is this?
Many people seem to think that improvisation is a skill that you either can ‘do’ or not, depending on personality and natural ability. These people, in my experience, are the ones who confess themselves to be unable. And yet the only difference between them and those who ‘can’ is the environment and teaching that they have received and absorbed on the subject.
In the UK, and particularly in England, the opportunities to learn how to improvise have been very slow in coming. For as long as I can remember, to learn an instrument at school or privately, you must learn how to read music on top of all the physical techniques of the instrument itself. The two elements are inextricably paired. Moreover, the written word is sacrosanct. You must play THAT note, THEN, and for THAT long.
This is a lot to take in at once.
Is it any wonder then that so many give up or never reach their potential? Despite so many developments in the progress of literacy education in this country, why is it still assumed that in order to progress as a musician you have to be able to read as well as you play? As a professional classical musician who still finds reading music the hardest thing of all, it upsets me deeply to think that so many people stall in their musical experience because of this weight of responsibility to be a good reader. Not everyone is, and when learning a musical instrument or studying singing, the two senses that are most crucial must be the aural and kinaesthetic. Particularly for us boys, this latter sense is much stronger and more easily learned than the skill of turning a written symbol into a sounding gesture. The physical act of playing or singing can be far more powerful and satisfying than we give it credit for. The same part of the brain that catches a ball, holds a knife and fork and writes with a pen has limitless power to weave the same magic with a bow, a mouthpiece or a keyboard.
‘Some students respond well to the chance to improvise or develop skills away from written music.’ Maria Thomas, MWC
Think of some of the great non-reading musicians of the last hundred years: Art Tatum, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder to name a few. Their engagement with the music, the audience and their ideas had nothing to do with anything written down, yet their skill and attention to fine detail were as rigorously crafted as any great concert pianist or opera singer. Just because music is improvised does not mean it has to be jazz, despite the strong associations. Mozart, Beethoven, Messaien and many others were proud improvisers, developing their voice and their style through immediate participation.
Thankfully improvised music is more and more finding its importance in performance and music education now. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s schemes of work for primary and secondary schools all mention improvising as a vital skill for any musician, particularly in regard to any cross-cultural participation. To assume that “I just can’t do it” is like saying that because he has never done it, a professional chef can’t bake a loaf of bread. The myth that improvising is some magical power needs to be dispelled. Improvisation is as much a teachable and learnable discipline, along with sight-reading, playing chamber music or song writing.
The secret to it is to start from a place of comfortable familiarity and develop one step at a time from there. A child who can only play one note can still improvise! There is still rhythm, there are dynamics, structures and ideas. Similarly, the student who doodles incessantly and without focus needs a framework to turn their repeated random sounds into something coherent.
Any composing, whether written or not, needs parameters – a framework. Some musicians find these parameters comforting, some find them restrictive. In my fifteen years of teaching improvisation, the first category tend to be female, the second male. This is not a judgement on whether one is better than the other, nor is it any more than a general observation. But being aware, as a student of improvising, which one is more ‘you’ can be reassuring.
Music, in its bewildering beauty, is rich with potential angles from which to begin – rhythm, melody, visual stimulus or a deliberate effort to break free of convention.
For young players this is particularly to be encouraged. All the times I was told, ‘Stop messing around and practise what you’re meant to,’ made me even more curious to find my own sound. I only realise now how significant this act of rebellion was.
But improvising is not really rebelling – it is the musical equivalent of thinking out loud. Throw away that music stand for an hour. Play something. Sing something. See what happens…”
Whatever the level of musical or instrumental skill in your classroom or workplace, MWC can create a workshop to facilitate and develop improvisation. Contact us today to discuss a bespoke Composition or Improvisation workshop for your school, business or community group.
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