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Who Needs an Arrangement?

In addition to being a devotee of what most people call ‘classical’ music (in my more specific case, European art music belonging primarily to the Romantic and late High Classical periods, with a good dose of neo-tonal Post-modernism), I have a love of jazz music (again, perhaps an oversimplification). So I was understandably thrilled to be involved with the restarting jazz program at the school I’m finishing my student teaching at. But I wanted to try something a little different, and it’s because of what I saw during my first two years of post-secondary.

Most universities which have a decent-sized music program will have at least one jazz band (typically in the style of an Ellington or Basie big band). These are quite often good groups populated with either the severely passionate or music of any kind obsessed. However, most of them come to these groups with only whatever education a high school jazz program offered them; most of them either find it difficult to or don’t know the first thing about doing a solo.

Improvising a solo is one of the bedrock elements that makes jazz jazz. The African folk songs that were its genesis rely on oral tradition and spontaneous creation in order to survive, and so it is impossible to think of jazz without grappling with the concept of a solo.

The number one thing that I’ve seen affect the ability of a performer to participate in improvisation is fear. For some reason, the education that they receive about ‘making it up’ has left them terrified of making ‘a mistake’. I thought that if I could do anything to help these students break through that barrier early, maybe they might go on and encourage others to do the same and be leaders in a different setting than the rigidly structured concert band/symphony paradigm offers.

So, we’re teaching them from scratch. They get handed a typical lead sheet (in our case, ‘Blue Monk’ and ‘Mr. PC’), hear the chords, see a couple of note patterns, and then get to combine and create in whatever way they see fit, complete with daily improvisation. It’s amazing the kind of sound and feel you can get out of a group of students who’ve never seen a lead sheet before when you just give them a gentle nudge into doing the exact sort of easy things that led to the development of jazz as an idiom in the first place.

Incidentally, I think a lot of what we might call the ‘traditional’ classical music world (both in educational and professional areas) is missing out on this ability to improvise. Cadenzas in concerti, for example, would have been always improvised in the time of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. Somewhere along the line, the ability to simply make it up as one went along died out as a necessity, and I think that the vibrancy of art forms that incorporate that spontaneous creation (like jazz, dance, etc.) speaks to the need to rediscover that potential in ‘classical’ music.

Miles Davis said ‘If you play a wrong note, play it again, and it’ll be right’ (loosely paraphrased, of course). I wish that the ‘classical’ world felt as accepting of things like interpreting passages with additions, creating your own codas, or even just messing up in creative ways.

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1 Comment

  1. I was fortunate in that my cello professor at the music school I attended was getting into improvisation while I was there. So his cello students had to improvise in lessons and during the weekly cello classes. He eventually started an improvisation chamber music class that has been going strong ever since. The fear of ‘making a mistake’ is always one of the first big obstacles-I think the first one might very well be having no idea what to ‘say!’

    It is sad that the classical tradition has all but eliminated improvisation, but there is a slowly growing trend to bring that back (at least in the States). Eric Edberg (my old cello prof) was one of the educators featured in a Wall Street Journal piece on classical improv:
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122781195665062021.html#articleTabs%3Darticle

    And he still maintains some improvisation resources (and for a while was in the middle of writing a book on that for classical musicians). Here’re some of those:

    http://www.ericedberg.com/improvbibliography.htm
    http://www.ericedberg.com/improvisation.htm
    http://classicalimprov.com/

    Here’s his blog:
    http://ericedberg.wordpress.com/

    Much luck with this!!

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