30 July 2018

Can We Teach Improvisation ?

When Trinity introduced Improvisation into its examination syllabus, many of us rejoiced.  Much as the exam boards protest that they offer a syllabus rather than a curriculum, in reality we all know that most teachers around the world teach to the exam syllabus and no further; if it’s not in the syllabus, their thinking goes, there’s no reason to teach it.  So when improvisation appeared on the syllabus, many teachers felt obliged to teach it.  And that has to be a good thing.

Unfortunately, as with so much else that Trinity did at the time, improvisation was introduced to the exam syllabus with such crashing ineptitude that over the first few years at least, any beneficial effects were largely obscured by administrative idiocy.

For a start, no clear guidance was offered to teachers.  More seriously, so verbose and confusing were the instructions given to examiners that you could read into them whatever you wanted to read into them; if I remember rightly the phrase “appropriate length” cropped up!  The result was that most examiners took their own approach to improvisation as the yardstick and assessed what was presented to them in the exam room accordingly.   

The take-up by candidates was small and, perhaps inevitably, largely by those who already were gifted and experienced in the art of improvisation.  So for many of us examiners, our first experiences of improvisation in the exam room were wholly positive.  I remember a brilliant pianist in South Africa and a fabulous saxophonist in the USA whose improvisations were so fluent and accomplished that it seemed almost superfluous to add a comment to the full marks I gave.  Yet when I mentioned one to a colleague, I was told that she would have marked the candidate down because clearly the improvisation had gone on too long (I had let it run for the best part of 20 minutes!). 

At teachers’ meetings I was asked time and time again to offer advice.  “How”, I was asked, “do we teach improvisation?  What books do we need?”  Even more concerning was a question asked with rather disturbing regularity; “What exactly is improvisation?”  Eventually, of course, various books and tutors on the subject did crop up, but with a very unwholesome result.  Whatever stimulus you gave the student – the choice was a rhythmic pattern or a row of notes upon which they expanded and elaborated, or a row of chords above which they improvised a melody line (a gift to singers, although never once did I have a singer improvising in an exam) – they roundly ignored and presented their prepared “improvisation” in a key, to a time signature and with a melodic outline which bore no relation whatsoever to the stimulus.  I routinely failed these until a circular from Head Office told us not to; it suggested that since we could not know whether the student was improvising or not (unless, as some did, they had the written out copy with them) we had to let it pass, merely commenting that the relationship with the stimulus was unclear!

Last year Trinity completely revamped its Improvisation making it far more coherent for teachers and far easier to assess for examiners.  But in so doing, I wonder whether it has become too prescriptive, taking away the art and concentrating on the science – clearly defined chordal progressions, pre-ordained metres, repetitive rhythmic patterns.  In short, does it stifle creativity in its endeavour to be accessible?  Talking with former examiner colleagues, I get the picture that improvisation in the exam is now more in the manner of a prepared and rehearsed exercise.

As an organist, improvisation is a daily fact of life – as it is to jazz players – and the one thing that you quickly learn is that you cannot be too prescriptive.  So much depends on context and setting.  You improvise at a funeral in a very different way than you improvise in a bar.  At weddings, as the bride hovers around the west door having countless photographs taken and veils re-aligned, you cannot start on any kind of inevitable harmonic sequence when, at any moment, that light might flash and you have to launch into B flat major for the Bridal Chorus (please tell me brides never have that anymore!).  While the money is being collected (sorry, “offerings being made”) do you remind them that the organ find could do with a bit extra by making the instrument sound odd, or do you soothe them into a complacency which prompts more generous giving?  If you approach the improvisation with a pre-ordained set of harmonies, a strong melodic design or a coherent rhythmic pattern, will you be able to jump out of it at a moment’s notice and pass on to the next thing seamlessly.

When I was in Sydney for three months a couple of years back I regularly went to the spectacular St Mary’s Cathedral – my apartment was looking on to it, so it was but a short walk for me – not driven by profound religious observations, but by sheer admiration for the then assistant organist’s glorious improvisations.  He could go from a plainchant to a Victorian hymn, from a Haydn Mass to a Taize chant or from a children’s carol to a soft-porn “worship song” without dropping a beat.  Music flowed with such fluency and charm that I felt closer to Heaven then than I have ever done before or since.  I did once go to congratulate him after the service, but others were there including some appalling Poms who asked “What was that music you played during the collection?” and refused to believe he had simply made it up on the spot – I felt that nothing I said could have offered greater praise to a brilliant improviser.

We are blessed in the organ world with a lot of brilliant improvisers and a lot more, like me, who are barely adequate.  But we never did improvisation in our exams and many of us never studied it until we were already very well versed in its intricacies and simply wanted to increase our improvisatory vocabulary.  Which begs the question, is there any real value in teaching improvisation to young students?  Is it not something which comes with either experience or natural talent, and needs only to be guided rather than taught from scratch?  In which case, for all its good intentions, was the Trinity idea misguided?

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