On Education for the Improvising Musician
Part One – Improvisation as a Function of Living
In August, 2008, I participated in a very interesting interview in Barga, Italy conducted by a musician, Marco Cattani. He was doing research into the very broad area of jazz education – how it is taught, and various other ramifications concerning the subject. This first part of the transcribed interview centers on the notion of improvisation as part of life itself and the importance of conveying this concept to students, even beyond jazz.
Marco Cattani [MC]: In your opinion, from what does the need to improvise come from? And what is its use, or rather, how can it be of service to improvise?
Dave Liebman [DL]: Well, it’s a natural human impulse to want to … express yourself and to do it in a spontaneous way. Babies do it all the time. I think our natural way of living is to be that way. Unfortunately, as we get older, it becomes stifled by society. But to improvise is to live and to breathe. We improvise every minute. You walk across the street: should you go or should you not go because of the lights? We’re always improvising, so it’s natural. And improvising with music, or it could be with words or it could be with painting, I think is a very natural thing. And it should be absolutely encouraged. Of course, … a young person does it naturally. They should be encouraged to continue it as they become adults.
MC: Going back to your idea of should I cross the street because of the lights … would you say that’s improvising or is that just an automatic response to your environment?
DL: It could be automatic but it could be a decision made in the moment – because the car is far enough away now and I can go because I can get across, if that’s a consideration. In other words, we’re constantly making things up. … [In] our normal course of life, if you’re sitting around a table and you’re just discussing something, you’re improvising. I mean, people do it every minute of their lives. And it’s something that’s part of our lives – so much so that we don’t really appreciate it. But, of course, what we’re talking about is a specific way of training yourself to be a good improviser. Now, you have to have language; you have to have the tools; you have to have … some sense of well-being, and some sense of self and all that. And those are different considerations. But the act of improvising, that’s as natural as taking a breath.
MC: … What can a high school student who is studying music in school, through improvisation, what can he or she learn? And independently from the actual musical aspects, would you agree that improvisation is an excellent training for developing relationships with others, and also for reflex?
DL: That’s it. You just said it. That’s the value of improvisation for a young person. It has to do with life – their ability to cope with situations, to react and to respond. And, of course, … you teach a young person that it’s not just improvising off the top of your head. It’s based on your practiced abilities and the discipline that you put into it. When … you put together the fact that I know what I should do, I learn what I can do, I practice what I should do, then I’m more ready to respond in a suitable way to a situation. This is fantastic training for anybody let alone musicians.
MC: There are some students [who] have reading difficulties – I presume we’re talking about reading music – and others [who] have difficulties with improvisation. Generally speaking, those that are better at reading don’t want to improvise or are less drawn to improvisation and vice versa. What would you say are strategies that are useful to find a meeting point between these two extremes?
DL: Well … I can’t tell you specific exercises or methodologies. But the main thing is to instill confidence in the person who is improvising or trying to improvise. That whatever they do is not wrong, it just needs to be trained. The problem with our culture is that we say if you make something up and it’s not based on something that came before, you’re considered to be a novice. You’re considered to be not an expert, and that’s not worthwhile. And the truth is … that’s the worst message you can send to a young person. Now, if I’m with a 25-year-old person and they don’t know how to respond to a situation because they weren’t trained or they never got the discipline, then we’re in a different situation. That’s a different story. But … this should be all done at … 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 years old. Once you get somebody that [does not fear] to be themselves then you can fill in the information. Then, you spend the next 10 years learning what it is we do: scales and how to spell something and all that. But the idea that I have something to say and it’s okay, and there is no right or wrong at the beginning, this is something that should be done [no] later than 12 or 13, because by then … the personality is set.
MC: How can one use the practice of improvisation to study technique, for example, to develop rhythmic mastery or otherwise? How could we insert the improvisational practice to eliminate or at least minimize the misery of rote learning and this kind of thing?
DL: Well, we’re saying the same thing again. I mean it’s just [important] to give a person confidence that what they do is not right or wrong; it’s an expression of who they are. And to understand that in order for that [confidence] to have any kind of depth and worth, it eventually has to be based on fact and knowledge and information, practice and routine, things that are not so much fun to work on, actually. That’s the real point to get across. Everything will follow from that, once a person is free – free from feeling that they’re being censored, free from feeling that they’re doing something wrong. The classical musician who can play the most amazing cadenzas [if they are] written out – (usually by some people who improvised it)…..they play these incredible technical things and then you say to them, “Uh… would you improvise on a C scale?” And they’re psychologically frozen. This is beyond the music. This has to do with their training, maybe their personality, maybe some problems of behavior, we don’t know. But it has to really do with the training.
MC: It’s an outside limitation or other.
DL: … Unfortunately, it’s usually not them, but it’s something that they grew up with and they don’t know the difference. If we lived …in an ancient culture where a young person is around the elders and is sitting by the side of the uncle, the brother, the father, the cousin, and everybody is playing the drums at five years old, obviously they’re going to have a different feeling. It’s pretty apparent what we’ve done. The Western world, in the name of progress, in the name of technological advance, has in many cases stifled individuality and [instilled] the fear factor. This is a terrible thing and that’s why we have psychiatrists and psychologists. This is a blanket generalization of course. But my point is that if a young person is taught to be free within themselves and [understands] the need to have information at some point of development, I think you’ve got a good balance there because you can always learn the information.
MC: Would you say, though, that it’s a contradiction to teach improvisation, a contradiction in terms? Would you say it’s even a bigger contradiction to teach [others] how to teach improvisation?
DL: Yes, in a way, because [improvisation] is natural. It’s supposed to be there from the beginning. It is there from the beginning. But we have to re-learn. We’re re-educating is what we’re doing. I mean, I have to learn to be free and feel okay about playing on a C scale. And, in a way, I might have known that [concept] better when I was two or three or four or five years old. But, of course, I didn’t have any awareness of it for obvious reasons. So, we are re-educating. But isn’t education in general re-educating? I mean, as far as the deep tendencies of education. Not information – that you have to [get] when you’re ready to learn what a scientific formula is, etc. … But to learn how to be free, and to be who you are, and to express yourself, this is something that’s natural to being a child. Unfortunately, it gets stifled in the Western culture.
MC: Within the context of teaching and didactics generally, would you say it’s an error to think of jazz as the only reference point for the study of improvisation?
DL: [Yes], because … improvisation [is] certainly in so many musical cultures. Look at Indian music, and Bulgarian music. Brazilian. I mean, everywhere. Improvisation is natural to the human species. It’s just that in our world here, the … Eurocentric world, jazz has sort of become THE improvised art, of course alongside whatever folk music exists, [whether] it’s Finland or French folk music or whatever. Improvising happens in [that] music. But in a certain sense we have adopted jazz universally – which is not a terrible thing. I was in Ireland at a festival one week. … It was called the Johnny Clancy or something Festival. In this town, … all the fiddlers and the guitarists take over. There were 15 people sitting together [who] completely know everything [about] what they’re doing. There’s no written music. I mean they’re obviously improvising with a little melody and a little format. These are … normal, working people, they’re not musicians. That’s a very big tradition in Irish music. It’s everywhere – every culture has its aspect of improvisation, almost every culture. I couldn’t sit here and give you a list but I’m sure if we went to the Sudan there’d be some music that involves improvisation. So, it’s natural to the human thing. It’s just that jazz has become, thankfully, one of the major Western ways of doing it.
MC: What would you say is the relationship between musical language and improvisation? How many of the various musical languages use improvisation?
DL: Well, I’m not sure what [you] mean by musical language, but if [you] mean the tools of music in the Western world, those are the tempered scale, twelve keys, half steps and whole steps, what’s sonorous and what’s consonant and what’s dissonant. These are the rules of music as we know them. Indian music has different rules. You’re responsible to know what [the rules are] so that when you talk you have the vocabulary to [communicate].
MC: Yes, right – the command of the language.
DL: It’s one thing for a baby to take paints and do a finger-painting. It’s great. That’s a wonderful expression of who they are. They’re improvising. But that’s not going to really work at 25 years old. By then, you need to have some knowledge and some [ability] to express yourself in the language of the form you’re using: what came before; what is happening presently; and what, hopefully, is happening in the future. There are three stages of learning: imitation, stylization (the present), and innovation, potentially. And innovation ranges from the individual to an entire sub group. It could be that the way I play an F sharp is different from the way you play it. Or it could be Coltrane and change the language. So we have many levels of innovation. But you have to go through imitation – what came before; stylization, which is the current configuration of the art form within the culture. And, of course, hopefully, after 20 years or so of doing something, or whatever the period is depending on the art, you’re ready for some sort of innovation – to be who you are. Now, that’s a process that we as musicians go through. An ordinary person doesn’t need to go through that. But [for] somebody who [aspires] to be an artist or a professional in what they do, it is incumbent that they go through these three stages, or certainly the first two stages.