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Improvisation

for classical musicians

Further discussion on learning (2)

All about learning - conscious? unconscious? What's the difference? Does it matter?

Previously I quoted from Nick Ellis's (2011) chapter: Implicit and Explicit SLA and Their Interface, which is found in Sanz, C., & Leow, R. P. (Eds), Implicit and explicit language learning: conditions, processes, and knowledge in SLA and bilingualism. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Ellis is one of the few writers who not only distinguishes between the two types of learning process (implicit and explicit) but also tackles the issue of what role each process plays in learning. I began by quoting his distinctions:

  • Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process that takes place naturally, simply, and without conscious operations (p.38)
  • Explicit learning is a more conscious operation, where the individual attends to particular aspects of the stimulus array and volunteers and tests hypotheses in a search for structure (p.38)

But then proposed my own assertion that implicit (unconscious) acquisition of the rules necessary for improvisation was not sufficient for improvisation. Why not? If such processes are sufficient for learning the complexities of our mother tongue (L1), why not for music? Such a comparison is, after all, valid if we believe that the ideal improviser is one who can 'speak' music in the same way that one speaks one's birth language. Would implicit (unconscious) acquisition of the rules then be sufficient if we learnt to improvise in the same way as we are taught to speak a birth language? To reconstruct these conditions would be an interesting experiment! It would mean:

  • thousands of hours of one-to-one instruction.
  • the use of music to communicate one's basic emotional and physical needs.
  • the acquisition of skill during the years of greatest neurological plasticity and cognitive growth, i.e., one would learn to express oneself in music in parallel to the processes of adapting to and understanding the surrounding social and physical environment.

It's relevant I think to note that L1 acquisition is not as implicit as it is often implied. Explicit instruction need not be restricted to the teaching of abstract rules and theory, but can also apply to forms of guidance in which the individual receives 'explicit' (i.e., clear) feedback, guidance and correction. Successful learning could hardly occur through meer passivity, as Ellis remarks:

Whatever the domain, learning the patterns, regularities or underlying concepts of a complex problem space or stimulus environment with explicit instruction, direction, and advances clues, heuristics, or organisers is always better than learning without any cues at all. Ellis (2011, p.38)

It's my personal conviction that musical improvisation could be learnt in the same fashion as L1 under the optimal conditions outlined above. Quite possibly, improvisers who learn the skill of improvisation also benefit from some of these conditions - in particular the learning of improvisatory skills alongside other musical skill formations, and the development of these skills during periods of general cognitive and personal development. In a sense, young improvisers in common with L1 learners are equipped with a mental white sheet, whereas classically-trained performers have to adapt their existing systems of musical perception to the new ones of improvisation, in common with L2 learners. In this, second case, the contexts of learning (of both music and language) are usually not comparable, calling for a different approach to learning, as Ellis (2011) describes: 

In contrast to the newborn infant, the L2 learner’s neocortex has already been tuned to the L1, incremental learning has slowly committed it to a particular configuration, and it has reached a point of entrenchment where the L2 is perceived through mechanisms optimised for the L1. Thus the L1 implicit representations conspire in a “learned attention” to language and in the automatised processing of the L2 in nonoptimal, L1-tuned ways. (Ellis, 2011, p.40)

Let's look more closely at the contrasting nature of these two types of knowledge could be applied to learning situations, using the insights of Ellis (2011), Hiebert (1986), Carpenter (1986) and others.

EXPLICIT LEARNING.

  • Ellis (2011, p.38). When the material to be learned is simple, ... and the critical features are salient, then learners gain from being told to adopt an explicit mode of learning where hypotheses are to be explicitly generated and tested and the model of the system updated accordingly. As a result they are also able to verbalise this knowledge and transfer to novel situations. 

  • Hiebert & Lefevre (1986, p.3-4). Conceptual knowledge is characterised most clearly as knowledge that is rich in relationships. It can be thought of as a connected web of knowledge, a network, in which the linking relationships are as prominent as the discrete pieces of information. Relationships pervade the individual facts and propositions so that all pieces of information are linked to some network. In fact, a unit of conceptual knowledge cannot be an isolated piece of information; by definition it is a part of conceptual knowledge only if the holder recognises its relationship to other pieces of information.

  • Ellis (2011, p.41). ... conscious processing is spread wide over the brain and unifies otherwise disparate areas in a synchronised focus of activity. 

  • Ellis (2011, p.41). Conscious activity affords much more scope for focused long-range association and influence than does implicit learning. It brings about a whole new level of potential associations.

  • Ellis (2011, p.42). Compared with the vast number of unconscious neural processes happening in any given moment, conscious capacity evidences a very narrow bottleneck. But the narrow limits of consciousness have a compensating advantage: consciousness seems to act as a gateway, creating access to essentially any part of the nervous system. ... It is a facility for accessing, disseminating, and exchanging information and for exercising global coordination and control: consciousness is the interface.

  • Ellis (2011, p.43) ...where L1 experience has tuned the learner’s attention elsewhere. ... Instruction is thus targeted at increasing the salience of commonly ignored features by first pointing them out and explaining their structure and, second, by providing meaningful input that contains many instances of the same grammatical meaning-form relationship. 

  • Ellis (2011, p.45).Consciousness creates access: its contents are broadcast throughout the brain to the vast array of our unconscious sources of knowledge, and by these means, consciousness is the interface.

IMPLICIT LEARNING.

  • Ellis (2011, p.35): The acquisition of L1 grammar is implicit and is extracted from experience of usage rather than from explicit rules - simple exposure to normal linguistic input suffices, and no explicit instruction is needed.

  • Ellis (2011, p.38): When the material to be learned is more randomly structured with a large number of variables and when the important relationships are not obvious, then explicit instructions only interfere and implicit mode of learning is more effective. This learning is instance-based but, with sufficient exemplars, an implicit understanding of the structure will be achieved.

  • Ellis (2011, p.39): Implicit learning collates the evidence of language, and the results of this tallying provide an optimal solution to the problem space of form-function mappings and their contextualised use, with representational systems modularising over thousands of hours on task.

  • Ellis, 2011, p.41). ... implicit learning occurs largely within modality and involves the priming, or chunking, of representations or routines within a module; it is the means of tuning our zombie agents, the menagerie of sepcialised sensorimotor processors ... that carry out routine operations in the absence of direct conscious sensation or control.
  • Ellis (2011, p.41). ... our implicit systems automatically process the input, allowing our conscious selves to concentrate on the meaning rather than the form. Implicit, habitual processes are highly adaptive in predictable situations. But the more novelty we encounter, the more the involvement of consciousness is needed for successful learning and problem solving

THE ROLE OF CONSCIOUS KNOWLEDGE IN LEARNING. One thing that emerges from these useful definitions is that the role of conscious knowledge (declarative knowledge, conscious awareness or conscious control) becomes more circumscribed. It's clear that, although Hiebert & Lefevre (1986) describe conscious knowledge as 'rich in relationships' and 'a connected web of knowledge' these connections are conceptually different to the kind of multitudinous connections calculated by implicit knowledge, which, over time - Ellis mentions 'thousands of hours on task' - furnishes us with instincts for what is appropriate or fitting in form and gesture. There is so much of skilled learning and performance which cannot be ascribed to consciousness: most importantly (i) I cannot consciously control or train my muscles, (ii) I cannot consciously control, generate or even fully understand the functioning of the music I improvise in real time, (iii) I cannot consciously understand the processes of automatisation which are so essential to fluency, (iv) the very nature of automatisation is that it reduces demands on consciousness and allows the performance of parallel rather than serial processes.

Yet, Ellis (2011) claims that implicit learning is itself inadequate for the learning of a new language, due to effects of interference arising from already existing skills in the native language. In what way do the existing language skills interfere with the acquisition of new skills? Can these effects be comparable to learning improvisation? 

Problems seem to arise when existing language skills prevent the learner from noticing what is important (salient) in the new material: '...where L1 experience has tuned the learner’s attention elsewhere' (Ellis, 2011, p.43). Why should this occur? Presumably because individuals try to understand or process the new language in similar ways to that in which they habitually process or understand their native tongue. This feature alone I think is directly replicable in the learning of improvisation (= the acquisition of novel generative skills) by musicians trained in performance (= possession of interpretative skills). The fact that music is not learned implicitly in an L1 fashion should not disrupt the comparison because, for trained musicians, the initial declarative methods of learning music will have been long transformed into automatic procedures. (In other words, the trained and fluent performer possesses an intact and specialised knowledge base sufficient for the task of performance, and it is this specialised and intact knowledge base which is brought to the task of learning improvisation.) Of course, when we have great familiarity with a task we don't need to analyse the techniques we use to perform it, not do we think of the constituent parts of the task, or in what way these parts are combined to make greater structures. The step-by-step learning of our native tongue, so embedded in communicative needs and direct feedback, is long since transformed into unconscious performance; likewise, the hard-won technical mastery of a musical instrument and the skills of meticulous score-reading and interpretation are second nature to the trained performer. How then should a musician with such a training look anew at a score and understand it as a model, say, for improvisation? As Ellis suggests, ',,, our zombie agents, the menagerie of specialised sensorimotor processors' which characterise implicit learning are inadequate for these initial stages of learning, powerful instruments though they are. The processes of unconscious learning must be steered in a certain direction by consciousness, given specific goals to head for, and have these goals reiterated through a clear framework of instruction: 'Instruction is thus targeted at increasing the salience of commonly ignored features by first pointing them out and explaining their structure and, second, by providing meaningful input that contains many instances of the same grammatical meaning-form relationship (Ellis, 2011, p.43). 

In this way, consciousness, though restricted as a tool for the actual performance of improvisation, and inadequate in terms of perceiving intrinsic matters of form in the material (whether music or language) through experience, can be seen to play an essential, leading role in the early stages of adult learning. How does it do this? Ellis suggests that there is no part of the nervous system to which consciousness does not have 'access'. Through this right of access then, consciousness can act as an interface between disparate, automatic systems, as a force which coordinates, sychronises and ultimately exercises 'global coordination and control' (p.42).

PROCESS PURE: Are the two types of knowledge really distinct? Much of the research giving rise to these distinctions comes from tests on amnesiac patients (Green & Shanks, 1993, p.304): 'Although amnesics are severely impaired on tasks of explicit memory, their performance is often within the normal range on implicit memory tasks. Normal controls, as well as amnesics, exhibit this independence of performance on implicit and explicit memory tasks.' The same authors also warn that, with regard to implicit memory (recall of unconsciously learnt material) '... individual memory tasks are not process-pure. In other words, a single task may involve the contribution of more than one type of memory process. A given task, for example, may involve any combination of conscious and automatic processes, such as those that are conceptually and data driven (Green & Shanks, 1993, p.314).

Hiebert & Lefevre (1986), also warn that '... the distinction provides a classification scheme into which all knowledge can or should be stored. Not all knowledge can be usefully described as either conceptual or procedural. Some knowledge, seems to be a little of both, and some knowledge seems to be neither' (p.3).

 

Further discussion on learning (1)

SOME OPENING THOUGHTS

When I improvise, what is it that I learn?

1. I will experience learning through implicit processes, i.e. unconsciously.

2. I will experience learning through explicit processes, i.e. reflectively, of which I am aware.

What do I then retain from these experiences for the future? In what way have I developed?

 

VARIABLES (Can also be discussed under the 'goals' of the improviser)

1. I have a certain knowledge and disposition which I bring to the task.

2. I also have certain goals, set by myself, or my teacher. These goals, in all probability will form the focus of my attention while improvising. They will play an important role in the nature of feedback.

As this discussion has immediately raised the subject of implicit/explicit learning, here are some further thoughts about the distinctive characteristics of these different yet complimentary processes:

Nick Ellis (2011) makes the following observations:

  • Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process that takes place naturally, simply, and without conscious operations (p.38)
  • Explicit learning is a more conscious operation, where the individual attends to particular aspects of the stimulus array and volunteers and tests hypotheses in a search for structure (p.38)

1. A NEUROLOGICAL DISTINCTION BETWEEN IMPLICIT AND EXPLICIT LEARNING:

Paradis (1994): ‘... that the memory system that subserves the formal learning of a second language (declarative memory) is neurofunctionally and anatomically different from the one that subserves the first language or a foreign language acquired in conversational settings (procedural memory)’ (p.393).

Ellis (2011): ‘Explicit learning is supported by neural systems in the prefrontal cortex involved in attention, the conscious apperception of stimuli, and working memory; the consolidation of explicit memories involves neural systems in the hippocampus and related limbic structures. In contrast, implicit learning and memory are localised, among other places, in various areas of perceptual and motor cortex’ (p.38).

Ellis (2011, p.40). There are different types of knowledge of and about language, stored in different areas of the brain, and engendered by different types of educational experience.

The preceding quotations propose that it is explicit functions which govern attentional systems, and involves emotional states. Implicit learning in contrast runs in an automatic fashion through processes of perception and motor coordination. Paradis (1994) has already implied that the essential elements of performance are learned implicitly and performed implicitly, i.e.,

It appears that what has been acquired incidentally is stored implicitly and can only be evidenced through behaviour (performance) (Paradis, 1994, p.401).

But what exactly do we retain from the engagement of implicit mechanisms? Presumably information which organises the action of improvisation, for after all, we know that we cannot coordinate our actions directly, but only in relation to a perceived point (i.e., Hommel et al. 2001, p.876, who conclude that: '... coordinating actions and events is much easier in terms of distal than proximal representations'). However, is the information resulting from implicit mechanisms sufficient for the task of improvisation? In my experience I would say no. I am currently practising various tasks in baroque improvisation. Tasks, such as harmonising chorale melodies in a German baroque style, or accompanying a phrase of gregorian chant as a cantus firmus in the French style, demand a knowledge (perception) of a given body of music to the extent that I can generate new music in this style on demand.' When I place my hands on the keyboard I need more than motor memory to see me through at this stage of learning! For this particular genre of improvisation the musical material must be highly organised to be a convincing representation of the style. I find that at the outset of each practice session I have very little idea of what I should do. After a few attempts at harmonising, my developing knowledge is engaged and certain patterns emerge. However, in general, much testing of choices and pauses for thought (and also for writing solutions) characterises my improvising, and any attempt to perform in this style (at this stage) would, I think, be doomed to failure.

Expert knowledge on the other hand is generally characterised by fluency. According the words of performers theselves, and the assertions of researchers into memory and human performance, their improvisation is generally conducted unconsciously. What then is the nature of their knowledge? Is it merely quantitative, i.e., does the expert simply remember more connections, more characteristic chord progressions (or contrapuntal textures, or cadences etc.) with their corresponding hand movements than I do? Or is the knowledge more qualitative in essence, being linked to, or integrated within a host of other cognitive, emotional and perceptive mechanisms? Why can't the knowledge of the expert be simply explained to a novice? Why does the novice themselves have to experience over time the nature of the musical material to attain expert insights? Note that Johnson-Laird (2002) asserts:

‘... whenever a creative process calls for working memory, it is likely to depend on a multistage procedure’ (p.239).

So, what are the various stages of a 'multistage procedure', and why is it necessary that human skill learning should be such a lengthy and subtle process? Clearly, by now, we can describe expert performance as primarily unconscious; presumably then, it is a necessary condition of unconscious performance that it takes considerable time to develop. In addition, we can assume that the material which we are learning to manipulate is poses problems which are extremely complex to master and to understand; that mastery of this material cannot be understood singly, but is the result of a plurality of experience, occuring sequentially (one step in the knowledge base must be assimilated before another can be perceived) over time; and that the resulting codes or representations of knowledge used by expert improvisers refer to a multilayered, multi-experiential database which cannot (for example) be transfered to a third party. 

 

Surely it makes sense then to look to general theories of cognitive development for illumination of this process, as (I have no doubt) that expert skill, resulting as it does from such a considerable investment of time, attention and cognitive resources, should be described in terms of cognitive growth. 

One aspect of learning which seems to me overlooked by researchers, is the fact that the novice often cannot bring his (implicit) critical or evaluative faculties to bear on his own work. That some rules of music construction are unconsciously perceived seems to be beyond question, i.e., Tillmann & Bigand (2004):

By mere exposure to musical pieces, Western listeners acquire sensitivity to the regularities underlying tonal music. This implicitly acquired knowledge allows listeners to perceive subtle relations between musical events and permits musically untrained listeners to behave as musically trained listeners ... (p.211) 

So why, then must the pupil Josephus, in Joseph Fux's (1725) famous treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, be explicitly instructed in rules of counterpoint which exist primarily to avoid unpleasant acoustic effects:

'This mi against fa you have written in the progression from the sixth to the seventh bar by a skip of  an augmented fourth or tritone which is hard to sing and sounds bad, for which reason it is forbidden in strict counterpoint (Fux, transl. Mann, 1971, p.35)

If these rules reflect all that is natural and pleasing to the ear, why cannot Josephus apply his listening and critical faculties to his own work? Nor do I need to look towards literature for illustrations of this problem, as in my own case, when I am harmonising a chorale: why is it that I can be utterly convinced of a solution while writing (a certain chord or distribution of voices), only to find that later such a solution is clearly wrong and inadequate? Why is 'doing' so far removed from 'hearing'? Is it simply a question of attention, which is claimed by selected goals of learning at certain stages? While desperately trying to fulfill certain goals, do we simply fail to notice other problems? I notice that Johnson-Laird also comments on this phenomenon when he refers to Perkins' (1981) description of '... the fundamental paradox of creativity: people are better critics than creators.' And that artistic creativity '... is based on unconscious knowledge acquired only by laborious practice in creating' (p.422). However, this offers no more than a description of the problem, which it is implied will resolve itself over time. The alignment of skill with the unconscious perception of rules (proportion, beauty etc.) is presumably a goal of skill learning, but more information is needed to (i) explain why this misalignment should occur in the first place, and (ii) through what processes or stages of development are these two different areas brought into alignment?

 

 

Problems of learning in improvisation.

My main motivation for starting this PhD was in order to improvise better. Better? Well, to learn how to express myself musically, to escape from the frustration and confusion I felt when I tried to improvise. The motivation was in this sense primarily musical. But, I realised that, in order to attain this musical goal, I had to make sense of my experience in some way, which was why I turned to psychology as the field of investigation rather than seeking another strategy, such as practising harder. I was unclear what to practise, so to increase the hours spent at the keyboard would have been to simply augment my confusion.

I remember that at the outset I had the impression that I might, through a certain type of investigation, discover discrete answers to the problems I faced. For example, as one of my main problems was in choosing the next chord, I thought I might discover a technique for encoding sequences of chords which would solve this problem. I suppose that the difficulties of improvisation occurred to me then to be difficulties of processing information: experts were somehow able to process musical material efficiently, whereas novices could not. 18 months later, I have discovered a host of different perceptions on a vastly more complex subject than I originally perceived. I have experience in intuition, in which the next chord is felt rather than (theoretically) known; my inner ear has developed, and I have explored different modes of relating to improvisation - through movement and through an increasing awareness of my own intentions. More recently I started lessons with a pedagog and expert improviser which caused me to profoundly question my own musical knowledge, and the ways in which music is known, (encoded, memorised, represented among other terms) so that it can be used for improvisation. In some ways, I suspect that I may come full circle, and perhaps indeed discover (for myself and under certain musical conditions) a discrete form of (for example) harmonic representation, but certainly this knowledge comes as part of a gradual and multimodal increase in experience, and could never be written down as a formula and communicated to a novice in a form in which they would then understand what I now understand. 

What do we learn, when we learn something?

My more recent interests could be formulated by this question: When J.S.Bach copied the works of Nicolas de Grigny in 1713, what did he learn from this process? Copying music is quite a common technique for learning, but what is it that we learn from copying which we don't learn from playing or reading? Johann Sebastian, from accounts of his life was earnestly seeking a deeper understanding of the ways in which music could be constructed. Apparently he was quite indefatigable in this respect. What did he then discover from his copying? Do I discover the same features of the musical material, or reach the same understanding of these pieces as Johann Sebastian when I copy them? Presumably, as it's not hard to imagine someone engaging in the same task and discovering nothing at all, then we could propose that what we might gain from the process is a very personal process, and that, for example, our motivations for copying may influence our perception of the musical material, just as much as mechanisms such as priming (what we are currently interested in) or in fact, any of our individual cognitive and emotionl states might dictate a different form of understanding. Are there any generalities then that can be learnt or surmised?

A specific type of knowledge for improvisation?

The ways in which individuals seek and discover knowledge are questions crucial to the subject of improvisation, because the improviser is a seeker after knowledge, but a knowledge of a particular type. We need a type of knowledge about music that enables us to generate music at speed. If I say it is not therefore a reflective knowledge suitable for discussing and analysing musical scores, but an action knowledge suitable for adaptable, generative output in real time, then it becomes clear that the difference may not be the knowledge or facts of the matter which are conceptually different, but the form in which those facts are represented, encoded or understood in a way which facilitates improvising. In this sense we can talk of the reflective knowledge being interpreted for action (see Anderson, 1982). Unfortunately, this results in forms of knowledge which may be unavailable to conscious awareness, eluding analysis, as Paradis (1994) reveals, when he discusses the development of speaking capacity in individuals' linguistic development:

The aspect of practice which is useful, i.e., conducive to improvement of competence, is not the aspect(s) of which the speaker is aware. The aspect of which the speaker is aware does not get automatised, transferred or converted into what is stored in procedural memory - and what does get stored is not within the speaker’s awareness. Practice of utterances is what is directly conducive to improvement of implicit competence. Knowledge of the rules is not (Paradis, 1994, p.404-405).

Knowledge of facts, or knowledge of action?

So, through action - perhaps the action of writing/copying, or perhaps the action of improvising, aspects of knowledge become secretly encoded. And it is this secretly encoded knowledge, unavailable to consciousness which pertains directly to the development of the action itself. Does this mean we should dispense with factual learning all together?Apparently not, as Paradis (1994) in the same article also argues for a role of explicit awareness of rules in forming productions (automatic performance): 'It appears that what has been acquired incidentally is stored implicitly and can only be evidenced through behaviour (performance). On the other hand, some deliberately learned tasks seem to gradually become automatic through prolonged practice' (Paradis, 1994, p.401). So, consciously learnt facts do play a part in some aspects of learning! As this may appear rather confusing I will quickly summarise some of Paradis's findings, and then use these to illustrate the problems facing novice improvisers:

  1. that the implicit or unconscious memory systems used for fluent performance (i.e. first language production or expert improvisation) are 'neurofunctionally and anatomically different' (p.393) from those used for conscious recall of declarative information (i.e. formal study of second language, or theoretical knowledge about musical improvisation).
  2. that, as a result, individuals have two types or sources of knowledge, one which is available to consciousness (explicit), and one which is not available to consciousness (implicit).
  3. that, when we act fluently (i.e., speak or improvise) we rely on implicit knowledge for this fluency, In the words of Paradis (1994, p.400): '... in natural conversational settings, the production of the utterance remains non conscious.' Explicit knowledge then can only be used to slowly construct performance (a rather painful process for the performer and listener alike!), but explicit knowledge can also be used to reflect or check on the output of performance. However, explicit knowledge cannot control performance; as a knowledge type it is entirely unsuited for this task.
  4. that, because of this unsuitability, the introduction or intrusion of one type of explicit knowledge during performance causes interference in the processes of implicit knowledge. (The effects of this interference cause well-known phenomena of slowing down or pauses during performance.)

From this, it would seem that, while facts play an unavoidable part of adult learning, it is only through the repetition and automatisation of these facts that anything approaching natural (fluent) performance can result. As to the nature of performance itself, Paradis's distinctions are important, because they describe in a particularly clear way an aspect of improvisation which is often difficult to understand and to experience: namely, that to be fluent, improvisation has to be unconsciously executed; that, in essence, we must act in a way that we cannot know or describe. 

Implicit knowledge gained through action.

However, this distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge, the functions of which are so clearly described by Paradis, is not a symptom purely of fluent performance, nor is it a distinction that can be understood only in terms of improvisational output. Rather, the relationship between unconscious and conscious is dynamically present at all stages of learning; or perhaps it is better conceptualised as the role of the unconscious in all stages of learning. For example, if we return to my opening question: When J.S.Bach copied the works of Nicolas de Grigny in 1713, what did he learn from this process? we can now conjecture that, in addition to what Bach saw in the musical material, and recognised in theoretical, analytical, or musical terms, he also learnt something from the action of writing. And that whatever perceptions were gained through this action, yet more learning would have occurred when Bach attempted to generate new music from this knowledge, either by writing or improvising. For, through the actions themselves, an awareness of action is created, and '... when often repeated, end up leaving proprioceptive kinaesthetic traces' (p.401) and it is this 'proprioceptive data' that is 'stored in implicit memory'. As Paradis is at pains to point out, it is not the facts of  improvisation, or music which are rehearsed, but their production in performance (of those facts), and the processes by which we interpret and act on these facts are not known to us. 'The speaker (or improviser) is only conscious of the result, not of how it is obtained' (p.401). 

Not that this aspect of learning can account for J.S.Bach's musical knowledge! Far from it... either that that he learnt from De Grigny, or from listening to Dietrich Buxtehude or any other aspect of his musical formation. But, it does I think account for an often overlooked aspect of learning which is particularly useful for illuminating the learning of improvisation. 

 

Competence vs. Performance

Distinction between competence - performance in language and improvisation; presence of rules - are rules a good aid to learning? - contrasting the rules of theory and musical construction, vs. rules of production.

(image, Noam Chomsky)

One idea which constantly recurs in theories of language learning is the idea of competence - a person's knowledge or awareness of language, as against their performance - the actual production of words, sentences, phrases etc. Can this distinction, which has come under considerable criticism in the field of linguistics, be usefully applied to improvisation? By usefully, I mean can the concept of two differing forms of knowledge and ability help in pedgaogical or performance situations of improvisation?

My first thought is that one form of ability - the performance, can be much more easily assessed than the other - competence. (Competence, as a concept, was originally formed to describe the linguistic knowledge of native speakers, who seem to miraculously gain knowledge of a language within the first five years of development without recourse to formal learning of grammatical rules.) Performance, for example, is the evidence of a person's ability: when musicians improvise, then it is the performance of their knowledge that we hear, enjoy, criticise and process as listeners. Conversely, a person's competence - what they know about improvisation - is hidden, revealed only through conversation or through the act of improvising itself. Perhaps for this reason, research and teaching often focuses principally on the performance of individuals, perhaps comparing improvisations to compositions (reflecting on the artistic value), or by teaching students as if their faulty performance was entirely and consciously willed - instead of the outcome of incomplete or insufficiently connected knowledge. 

In this sense, Chomsky's distinction is valuable, because it is on the knowledge base (competence) of musicians that improvised performance is constructed, and it is upon the nature of this knowledge base that research and teaching should (in my opinion) focus.

One aspect of language learning which is I think directly linked to improvisation- at least the rather strict style of baroque improvisation which is my present study - is the question of rules. Before discussing the acquisition of rules, let's first define what they are. Some improvisers may reject the very idea of artistic creativity being rule based. My own difficulty with rules comes from the limitations of working memory, which argues against the conscious use of rules while improvising, i.e., "Don't give me another rule to remember, just let me express myself!". Yet, we must accept that the 'language' or chosen genre in which improvisers express themselves musically or in which they construct their artistic productions, must, to be coherent and recognisable to a listener, follow certain rules.

My recent lessons with Jürgen Essl in Stuttgart taught me that my knowledge of certain rules - we could call them characteristics of J.S.Bach's style of writing - was shaky to say the least. For example, when harmonising a chorale melody I did not perceive that each phrase should remain in one tonality, defined by the final cadence. To understand this allowed me to construct a harmonisation which was more true, expressive and recognisable within the idiom of J.S.Bach's style of harmonisation.

Ideally, we would improvise as we speak our native language. Certainly I have imagined ideal scenarios similar to L1 acquisition in which improvisation occurs as a natural communicative device between mentors and novices, who through many hours of exploration and one-to-one guidance allow natural learning abilities to develop a rich resourceful capacity for improvising directly linked to emotional intention. Yet, such idealised forms of learning to improvise are unlikely to occur when we are exposed to the learning process as adults (in which we are considerably more self-aware and conscious of the learning process); or when learning to improvise occurs as an addition to our existing musical training (in which case new knowledge and new ways of understanding music must be connected with existing forms, a source of much friction and conflict). In these situations some similarities can be observed between learning a second language and learning to improvise, in which case the insights of researchers into L2 acquisition can be usefully employed as guidance to improvisers.

Sharwood Smith (1994) describes the strange dichotomy between child and adult language learning thus:

First language acquisition happens in the natural world in the natural course of things as children try to communicate with the outside world. Older learners rarely experience this both naive and successful way of language learning because they are older and more worldly-wise. They have some idea what language is. They know it is a system with rules and principles that have somehow to be acquired. They worry about their failure to work that new system. They want to understand more about the nature of the task in the hope that this understanding will help them more. At the same time, the increase in awareness about the language being learned often seems not to be accompanied by a corresponding increase in proficiency, hence the question: do rules help?

From this account, it might be reasonably assumed that adults then somehow obstruct natural learning capacities? Perhaps, because of embarrassment or self-consciousness, adults are unwilling to experiment or play with language; after all if you don't try then you can't learn. On the other hand, Reber (1993) warns against the assumption of mysterious or innate powers of language competence in the child, reminding us how, during the first seven years of the child's life '... just how much learning takes place' (p.151). If, then, a child consciously practices language for 3 hours a day, '... we still find a very large number, 8,214 hours of practice in one's native language. Cut the estimate to 1 hour a day and we still end up with 2, 738' (p.152). This number he argues is consistent with research which asserts the amount of time needed to '... learn the structure of any rich, complex, abstract domain such as those that underlie natural sciences like physic, social sciences like psychology, or performing arts like music or dance. Numbers between 1000 and 5000 hours keep cropping up, no matter what the discipline' (p.152).

To return to Sharwood Smith's question: 'Do rules help?' it seems sensible to explore the different meanings given to rules by individuals in different learning contexts. 

For example, when Sanz & Leow (2011) conclude: 'Whatever the domain, learning the patterns, regularities or underlying concepts of a complex problem space or stimulus environment with explicit instruction, direction, and advances clues, heuristics, or organisers is always better than learning without any cues at all' (p.38); they refer to rules as cues - a substantially more friendly term than rules. Sharwood Smith (1994) also widens the terms of reference: 'The idea of a rule - whether it is called a rule, a routine, a plan or a process is immaterial...' (p.37), to illustrate the plain existence of rules as a means of structuring or organising experience. Perhaps the main problem with rules then is our usage of them; the danger being that in some learning environments, theory takes precedence over performance and rules '... may be couched in very abstract and technical terms such that they do not appear to offer much of immediate benefit to teacher or learner' (Sharwood Smith, 1994, p.34). Taken to further extremes, rules can be couched in coercive terms - a characteristic of much musical teaching of the 19th century conservatoire approach. In this sense, rules can be more than cues for structuring perception and understanding; instead they are conditions under which music-making is accepted or rejected. Such rules or 'Rules', if taken literally by the student, dominate the learning process in particular through their influence on attentional processes and feedback, as the student seeks naturally to align the ouput of improvisation with the idealised (imaginary) product of the Rules. 

One interesting aspect of Sharwood Smith's article (1994) is his elaboration of the different kind of knowledge needed for speaking, rather than listening or thinking about language: '...we may assume that the on-line production and reception processes during actual language performance are governed by principles requiring theoretical explanations of quite a different character to those used to explain competence' (p.37). This interested me because, in my experience, my competence (in the Chomskian sense of implicit or idealised knowledge) in improvisation greatly exceeds my improvised performance. For example, while driving to church I can plan and imagine the most marvellous improvisations, which, when I approach the organ seem to fade, and when I start actually improvising evaporate entirely, leaving little if any trace behind. Clearly, when I start to play, I am under the authority of a different set of constraints altogether, and these constraints or principles, as Sharwood Smith suggests, require a different theoretical explanation. (This, being a private or inner experience takes the investigation of improvisation in a new direction: if we are to discover or describe the consciousness of improvisation then a new framework is needed, a phenomenological account which could (i) describe this experience in embodied, first-person terms, (ii) explore research into proprioceptive memory and experience, and (iii) analyse ways in which musical material is inwardly represented.) 

For Sharwood Smith (1994), what follows from this distinction between the knowledge we bring to language use (or improvisation) and the knowledge we actually use while  speaking (or improvising), is that rules of construction once more assert themselves into the process. Improvising and speaking take place in real time, and thus, events have to be organised into a serial stream. Ideally, at expert level, this stream is fluent and is enacted without breaks and pauses, meaning that the individual has to have the material-to-be-improvised sequentially organised. While we may theoretically adopt a relaxed attitude towards construction (for example, it is often said in improvisation circles that mistakes don't matter and can be turned to creative advantage), the fact is that the improviser must '... determine what takes place first, what second, and what takes place simultaneously' (p.37); if they cannot determine this, for what ever reason, then faults emerge in their performance. This necessity for organisation can, as Sharwood Smith suggests, best de described as rules, and, whether applied to language or musical improvisation, such 'performance rules determine what happens millisecond by millisecond, second by second, etc.' (p.37).

Thus, performance itself is governed mercilessly by its own rules - rules of production. The acquisition of these rules, through experience and learning is the subject of other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

  • rules and creativity
  • attitude to rules
  • acquisition of rules - contrast between theory and performance.

References:

Sharwood Smith, M. A. (1994). The Unruly World of Language. In Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 33-44). Bodmin: Academic press.

 

New lessons!

I recently started a new course of study with the composer, organist and improviser Jurgen Essl in Stuttgart.

This is a wonderful and salutary experience for me, having worked so much on my own, to bring my development as an improviser to the attention of someone with this level of experience and deep musical knowledge.

My first lesson was, from the point of view of my own proficiency (i.e., as a demonstration of skill), a disaster! Clearly I was unable to piece together even the simplest material in the Baroque style which I had been studying for so long.. From a psychological point of view, perhaps it was more successful: rather than feeling cast down by my miserablt show of abailities, I was able to focus on Jurgen's instructions which clearly formed a basis for further development. I think if this kind of experience had happened to me as a young man, I would have been very upset and humiliated, so clearly I have learnt something from my psychological investigations!

In general, I knew it was not going to be easy, but still I was surprised at the extent to which I was unable to produce a simple, fluent improvisation. In spite of my recent work improvising in baroque style at home, it seemed as if a vast gulf exists between what Chomsky (in a linguistic context) would refer to as my competence (mental awareness, implicit knowledge and ideals) and performance (what I actually produce). Let's consider then what I had been doing:

  • I had been piecing together lots of ideas in a baroque style, practising figurations, making sequences, and trying to understand the various relationships of consonance and dissonance. 
  • I had been studying works by Bach and Buxtehude, analysing some of the structural plans, writing out the rhythmic motifs.
  • I had been practising fugue constructions, using a variety of different fugal themes.

This practice had left me with an unfocused and generalised knowledge base.

While playing at home, I could sometimes achieve nice results - but these results were momentary, interspersed amongst a great deal of trial and error. Probably my biggest achievement was emotional, in the sense that I was not afraid to improvise: I could enjoy the process of trial and error, and could play around with all different types of musical construction. My biggest problem was that, when it came to a 'product' moment - when I actually had to come up with something coherent, then I didn't know what to do. Playing in church for example was an ordeal, because I had no resources or techniques with which to organise my material. I was left with a very complex mental state, of incoherent goals, and (corresponding) emotional reactions. Note, that the incoherence of my knowledge (by this I mean the procedural knowledge of 'what to do') left me with other problems to confront: I questioned my relationship with the listeners, the context in which I found myself, my attitude towards music, performance, etc.

Working with Jürgen taught me the following:

  • To focus unrelentingly on one aspect of the texture - in this case the harmonisation of a chorale theme.
  • Jürgen told me to decide on a harmonisation of the chorale melody, and to keep this harmonisation for further treatment (variations). 
  • From this harmonisation, came tasks such as putting the melody in the alto, the tenor and the bass.
  • To harmonise with three voices in the right hand, just the bass in the left; to harmonise then with two voices in the left (alto and tenor), with an ornamented melody in the right, and the bass in the pedals; also to harmonise with two voices in each hand.

Deciding on a harmony - i.e., to have a memory of that harmony was something I found I couldn't do as my approach to harmonising was too random. My goal (to this point) when harmonising was to find something that fitted and then to move on. This meant that the harmony I selected had no real function or relation to something which I could define. It was ad hoc, - to hand.. For me, this ad hoc-ness was quite an achievement, as it meant I had progressed from searching for the 'correct', theoretical version, to something improvised, something which allowed for margins of error. I had stopped searching for the version, and was now searching for version; I had emerged from a product state of mind, to a process approach.

Jürgen's advice seemed at first to be a return to the product view: I had to define my harmonisation, and then to write it down. Why do this? To define more clearly what the harmony is? Actually, I think (I write now from the perspective of a week's fairly intensive experience) the process of writing down is to understand more clearly what the role of a harmonisation is - perhaps in terms of its possibilities, or functions. Remember that before I was using a bricolage or ad hoc technique. Anthing could be used so long as it sounded good in that moment. Once I'd played my choice of harmony, it was gone, because that moment had gone - it was not connected to anything else in the improvisation.

Writing down is an iterative technique, as one returns from writing to playing, and repeats this process until a version is arrived at. It is also an elaborative technique, as to write is to see one's harmonisation more objectively, perhaps too to see it with the same mechanisms as one would view a printed score. No longer is the harmonisation a thing of air and fantasy, the possibilities of a moment; it is corporeal, and can be repeated verbatim. After writing, I also see visually some connections within the harmony which I didn't perceive when playing; from this I find that some problems can be viewed graphically and perhaps solved analytically. Writing down the harmony does not produce a solution, as often new 'solutions' arrive through playing, in which case writing takes a form of dictation: writing usually takes its cue from the playing, but it helps to refine and instruct the process of playing.

Learning can be a difficult process, because one's faulty or incomplete knowledge leads one's instincts and capacities for doing astray. It's hard to arrive at a solution and be told that it is not a good solution! But, in this disciplined form of improvising there are clear and practical reasons for doing certain things (i.e., ways of harmonising) in certain ways. But this is the subjetc of another post..

The beginnings of learning to improvise

How do I begin to build a theory of learning to improvise? There are so many elements, so many sides to it, so many different types of experience..!

One thing I notice, even as I write, is that there are distinct stages to the experience. This is confusing and even exasperating in one sense, because, as an individual trying to consciously understand or describe 'the experience of learning to improvise' I realise that I cannot reduce it to a formula. I cannot, for example say, that improvisation is about learning to feel my way forwards (although feeling the next musical steps, instead of thinking about them will, I am sure, be a crucial element in my growing competence); or that, within a tonal structure, my perception and rehearsal of certain connections within the harmony is the key to fluent decision-making. The list goes on, marked by a certain perception or new idea, even inspiration, concerning my performance - how I set about the task - which seems to transform the whole activity; yet, ultimately, these perceptions are strongly linked to a certain context: my perception is strongly linked to a certain musical texture (perhaps fugal, or Baroque concertante, or free atonal, whatever ...) and becomes, after a few days, not the way of improvising, but a way of improvising - a weapon in the growing arsenal with which to tackle this task.

I can say then, that in the sense that my development is marked by certain stages, that these stages happen in a serial fashion. It often occurs to me, that I wish I had more expertise: and almost consecutively I have grown to realise that the length of time in which one elaborates musical elements before committing oneself to fluency is personal, individual. But I think it helps to understand that this personal, individual approach (of processing musical elements for the performance of those elements) is part of a bigger picture: that is, the general adaptive nature of humans to absorbing new knowledge. Why? Because when we encounter new knowledge we recognise that this knowledge has the potential to change our behaviour, what a researcher into human cognitive behaviour - John Anderson - identifies with the growth of automatic productions (i.e., fluency).

... that it is dangerous for a system to directly create productions to embody knowledge (Anderson, 1982, p.389)

Because fluent execution of improvisation can only take place unconsciously, this has several consequences or conditions in terms of human behaviour: one, is that an individual can only commit themselves to an unconscious action if they feel sure of the consequences of that action. (The adaptive value of this security check is I think obvious!) So that, even while people are learning how to perform an action, they are testing the consequences of that action before any fluent performance takes place:

For this reason, and a number of others, it was argued that knowledge should first be encoded declaratively and then interpreted. This declarative knowledge could affect behaviour, but only indirectly, via the intercession of existing procedures for correctly interpreting that knowledge.

Even as expertise develops, and procedures for smaller actions are joined together, :

'The safety in interpretive applications is that a particular piece of knowledge does not impact on behaviour until it has undergone the scrutiny of all the system's procedures (which can, for instance, detect contradiction of facts or goals).

One important conclusion from Anderson's research (if we accept his findings) is that we cannot simply perform something that we know in theoretical form. At least, this type of action is extremely difficult to perform - if we think of an action like bungee jumping which cannot be tested, we can see how difficult it is for subjects to make the first jump, and how this, and other types of actions (even sliding down a slide as a child) become substantially easier after the first time. When I think of the many occasions in which I have planned, even sketched out, an improvisation for a Sunday service, only to confront the sheer impossibility of performing it in the actual context of performance. 

These phenomena of human learning emphasise I think the distinction between theoretical knowledge and the mysterious but essential knowledge that only comes to a person through doing. It is indeed unfortunate that this type of knowledge is so inaccessible to consciousness, as it tends to be overlooked by individuals in learning situations and is often sadly missing from pedagogic approaches in general. Yet, it is this particular strain of knowledge which is essential to human action, and it is the amassing of this type of knowledge that learning to improvise should be consciously and strategically directed.

Once started, the process of learning (in theory) becomes routine for acquiring productions of a similar nature:

Another advantage with interpretive application is that the use of the knowledge is forced to be consistent with existing conventions for passing control among goals. By compiling from actual use of this knowledge, the compiled productions are guaranteed to be likewise consistent with the system's goal structure.

One characteristic of this kind of knowledge (of doing) is that the essential components, the essence of the knowledge cannot be communicated. An individual can only acquire the knowledge themselves through acting upon their own explicit (declarative) knowledge. Only through this action, which Anderson describes as an act of interpretation (of declarative knowledge), can subjects understand how they themselves can improvise. It is a specialised knowledge, with limited (if any) transference to other skills, though the experience of acquiring this knowledge can influence our strategies for acquiring other action or doing skills.

Note, that declarative knowledge itself is an interpretation of our perception or awareness of the task. Although this stage can be easily imagined as a text book, given out in the introductory lesson describing successively the basic skeleton of facts which comprise the knowledge base of the subject, when it comes to the subject of improvisation, the facts of the knowledge base may not be so clear. Anderson, quoting Fitts (1964), describes the initial stage of learning as 'an initial encoding of the skill into a form sufficient to permit the learner to generate the desired behaviour to at least some crude approximation' (p.369). This explanation allows for an individual's perception of the skill, in whatever form that skill has impressed itself upon his perception, yet, at the same time, it is clear that an articulate subject could describe these impressions in a series of statements, for example:

  • "I would love to improvise like that!"
  • "The pianist sits at the piano, and simply makes stuff up."
  • "An improviser expresses themselves in the moment; the music flows through their fingers.. etc. etc"

Already with these phrases, we can see how Anderson's description of declarative knowledge as a 'crude approximation' is correct. Such knowledge is far from the specialised knowledge of doing improvisation, and in fact may lead to many errors and false paths in the process of learning, as I will show in another blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling harmony ... how? what?

Am taking a trip back in history, today, away from Reger - to Franz Schubert. This is partly because I'm hoping to programme some movements from the Deutsche Messe in a concert soon. The harmony of Schubert is so different to Reger (in whose harmonic language I've been kind of saturated during the last few days) that my first thought was 'why is Schubert satisfied with so little chromaticism?' 

Extract from the opening of the Gloria in Schubert's Deutsche Messe

This is an example of Schubert's very plain, but (somehow) very expressive harmony. I don't think it's necessary to theorise or speculate on why this music works so well. Perhaps you might disagree. Ultimately, I can only say that I find it so.. what I'm interested in, is my assumption that so much depends on 'the harmony'. I'm starting to ask myself more and more, what I mean by this word Harmony - (I may refer to this sometimes as the H-element) - which is so pregnant with meaning for musicians.

I'll restrict myself to a couple of observations here: one, is that Schubert is using a very simple harmonic language to communicate an effective and equally simple march tune, or motif of triumph. Without this motif, we would have very little of interest. So, clearly there is no key or guarantee that, for example, a particular harmonic solution (i.e., a sequence of chords) results in expressivity: the H-element is simply a strong characteristic of Schubert's general expressive intention.

The other observation, is that, perhaps in revolt against the rather loaded concept of the H-element, and the sterile, abstract way in which we often imagine it functions, I have tried to imagine harmony more in contrapuntal terms, perhaps in the way that Ernst Toch proposes: as frozen (contrapuntal) motion. But this doesn't really wash ... If we look again at Schubert's opening, the contrapuntal motion is negligible. I hear and understand this music as chords - elegantly spaced and voiced, true, but certainly as chords. Perhaps an argument could be made that the chords are a kind of recognised shorthand, in which rich contrapuntal motion is implied or encoded, though not explicitly stated. Perhaps.. Certainly, there exists, for me, an expressive power in moving from one chord to the next, a power which I have tried to express as tonal centres. 

What is important is that in realising this, I can start to enjoy the simple power of chords. And with this enjoyment comes a new form of cognition, one that results from a slight, but definite shift in attention. How can I describe this? Through goals and referents perhaps? Before, playing chords was more of a chore, something unavoidable, a technique or skill to be mastered; in a word the goal was external. With this mindset, whenever I play a chordal texture, I become very self-conscious and question each movement against an unspecified referent. The fact that the referent is unspecified makes it no less intensive. In fact, the lack of specificity makes it numerous rather than single, and is presented in my working memory through several assumptions, i.e., J.S.Bach advised his students to write their chorale harmonisations on seperate staves to ensure independence of line, while observing the correct rules of voice-leading. I give this phrase as an example of something I know I have learnt, that in a dim way this phrase or knowledge forms my impression of Harmony as a task. It corresponds to an ideal harmony; it is external, declarative, something that I could write or read about in a book, discuss with colleagues etc., it does not correspond to my personal knowledge of doing things.

Enough for one post ... I'll stop with two conclusions from today's practice:

  • Harmonic (chord) movements are expressive in themselves.
  • That imposing conditions - rules or constraints - can generate frustration. Why?

Back to Reger..

I guess the organ music of Max Reger is a bit of a puzzle for me..

Here I am again with a spot of analysis, this time of the pices Op.59, though I've only just started on the opening bars of the first piece. The fact is, the sound of these pieces is 'something else'.. exotic, bewildering, deeply intriguing - a complex jigsaw of interconnected, blah, blah, .. Cut to the chase, and I want to know how to improvise it! As Lizst, reportedly while giving a masterclass on Chopin's Preludes: "I want to play this!" and took the ninth prelude as the inspiration to a prolonged improvisation. (Note, that this desire has nothing of the jackdaw copycat about it - rather, it springs from a desire for closeness with the music, the kind of closeness we can never experience from simply performing the notes.)

The problem then is one that confronts me every time I take a composition as a 'model' for improvisation. It is a problem in which I need to find the rules (or guiding principles) for copying. What must I do to capture the qualities that I like? It is difficult because the principles of performance (and there must be principles or rules of performance) are by no means literal transcriptions of the theoretical rules (rules that generally arise from analysis of the score). In short, when we work with models then we come up against the whole issue of rules in music. In the words of M.A.Sharwood Smith, 'The use of rules as opposed to principles, then, varies greatly with the particular theoretical approach ... that has been adopted. Also, both rules and principles may be couched in very abstract and technical terms such that they do not appear to offer much of immedite benefit to teacher or learner (1994, p.34).

As always with Reger, my first impression is one of impressive harmony, a subject for rules if ever there was one. So, hoping for inspiration I made a harmonic skeleton of the first few bars. The original is below:

Original openingharmonic skeleton

The skeleton, surprisingly, retains quite a bit of the drama of the original, which proved (to me at least) that quite a bit of the character of the opening resides in the harmonic motion. But this information doesn't take me very far unless I decide what it is about the harmonic motion which I like. It also depends on exactly what we mean by harmony, and in this I'm reminded of Ernst Toch's thesis that harmony, rather than being a series of chords should be thought of more contrapuntally - For although harmony may still be defined as the combination of three or more tones, it has to be interpreted beyond this concept as a momentary situation brought about by moving voices; as the cross-section arising at times of arrested motion; or briefly and plainly as arrested motion. Toch, I think is right up to a point. The difficulty for people like myself, who are not really trained to use harmony, but only to respect it from a difference, is that we have a kind of mystical reverence for the phenomenon, without really understanding what harmony might mean... As my student said "I must learn harmony" but do either of us know what it is he must learn? 

A few things I did notice about Reger's strange functions which he gives to chords: (i), they are strange indeed. In fact, what I really like about Reger's prelude style is the dramatic way in which he sets up and evades or manipulates expectations. For example, 7th chords, never function as dominant 7ths, but are resolved in other ways; another related point, is that tonal centres are never what we expect. Perhaps this second point is more characteristic of Reger: precisely because his use of triadic block-chords hints at a chorale-like language in which tonal centres are very carefully established. The result is a kind of expressive delirium, made coherent through Reger's excessively driven voice-leading. 

 

 

Are rules necessary?

A student said to me recently that he felt he "needed to know harmony" in order to improvise.

My first reaction was one of alarm, as my own harmonic knowledge feels somewhat piecemeal, the result of O and A-level work and a few classes at the RAM some years ago. Last year I became the proud owner of a book of a Guide to Practical Harmony by the composer Tchaikovsky, who (unbeknown to me) was professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. It must be said, of course, that any thoughts on harmony by a musician of this standing must be worth something; yet, I have to confess that I struggle with the style in which information is usually communicated in music-theory text books, and this one is no exception. 

The image on the left is an example. I don't mean to overly-criticise Tchaikovsky for a style of pedagogy which I'm starting to recognise is very characteristic of the 19th century, emerging and developing alongside the new institutions - the conservatoires and academies of many principal cities in Europe.( Such institutions were specifically orientated towards tutoring the musically unaware, and in the effort to communicate essentials about 'art music' in contrast to all other folk or everyday types of music, pedagogy frequently takes a hectoring and diactic tone.) Actually Tchaikovsky's tone is quite gentle: for example, in discussing sequences of 7th-chords (see below): "However smoothly we lead the harmonic progressions in these sequences, jumps are unavoidable." or "Now, where so many strongly dissonant chords follow in close succession, it should certainly be our aim so completely to fuse them together, that not a single jump occurs."

The problem for me is the form that Tchaikovsky's (and other harmony treatise writers') knowledge takes. This kind of distillation (of a personal and rich experience in music) into formulas and rules makes the knowledge very difficult to use. How are we to construct imaginative, expressive music with such constructs? Do we start with the rules, and try to add music to them, or do we start with our imagination and check this against the rules?

I was reminded of this problem by something I read today about the presence of rules in language learning: 'Because the particular language in question involves some selection from a set of options on how sentence structure can be built, the verb just cannot go anywhere else. It seems unnecessary to capture this idea in the form of a rule. You do not need a rule to determine where water exits a bathtub. Things (the laws of physics) are set up so it can only go out one of two ways, past the plug and down the drain or by overflowing. In the same way, a verb is prevented from going anywhere but its one position. There is no other place for it to go.'

I am not alone in finding theoretical knowledge about music difficult to digest and to use, and the fact that it tends to bypass the existing intuitive musical knowledge and awareness of the student. What is the solution? One option of course is to throw away the rules, and much experimental and valuable work is done by adopting this approach. However, the fact remains, that if we want to improvise a certain style or genre of music, there are ways of making this music recognisable - as a genre or style; ways of doing things that could be called rules or principles. Difficulties arise then, for me, in a didactic, moral ('woe to you if you break the RULE') approach to teaching music. After all, rules or principles could easily be understood more simply as 'ways of doing' - an approach typified in the 18th century partimenti school of musical construction over figured bass, (see Robert Gjerdigen's resouceful website for everything about partimenti). This school of keyboard instruction, celebrated in Naples, taught harmony and counterpoint with as little theory as possible, in a hands on, practical approach - everything shown by a more experienced tutor or master and copied by a less experienced student. Such an approach has resonance throughout music history - think of J.S.Bach, surrounded by family members as tutors in a musically-saturated environment - until the 19th century, when attitudes about the elevated status of music began to supercede musical practice. 

Of course, some of the problems lie in codifying knowledge into book form, rather than in person to person communication. But still, many of our problems I believe, lie in treating subjects such as harmony and counterpoint as starting with rules rather than intuition, rather than the converse. This issue arises particularly acutely when learning to improvise. I have found with my own development that I often begin with the satisfying of (dimly understood) rules, before engaging my intuition - a process I am determined to reverse!

Perhaps one solution is to adopt a 'fuzzy' approach to rules as explained by the same author (M.A. Sharwood-Smith) as I quoted earlier: 'Some rules are categorical ... Others are expressed in terms of tendency - these may be termed fuzzy rules: 'P tends to include Q', or 'in situation X it is most usual to do Y'. Such an approach is much more suitable to musical 'rules' or procedures, as it's actually very difficult to imagine a single rule in music that can't regularly be broken. To express, search for and learn musical connections and constructs in terms of tendencies, or situations where it is most usual to do, clearly exist in abundance and almost serves as a useful definition of 'rules' in music. I'm also reminded by these terms of the kind of spoken language used by teachers when they are being helpful rather domineering ;-).

M.A.Sharwood-Smith (1994). The Unruly World of Language. In Nick Ellis (Ed.) Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages pp 33-43. GB: Academic Press Ltd.

Composition vs. Improvisation

This is an age-old debate, under which improvisation usually has some explaining to do.. at least a bit of defensive ground to make up.

The fact seems to be that improvisers often feel at a disadvantage when it comes to the output of their art. After all, how can an improvised piece of music match the long process of creative decision-making that composers invest in their art? This came to my mind recently as I read an article by Andrew Goldman (2013): Towards a cognitive-scientific research programme for improvisation. In this article, Goldman puts his finger on the false premises under which this debate is run - that of conceptualising music as a product rather than a process. As Goldman suggests, the question of real-time creativity and the implied value judgments in this conceptualisation disappear when we look at the processes of music-making: 'Without considering a musical product, however, the consideration of time becomes less important - composing, improvising, and playing from memory, at least in cognitive terms, are all "in real time".

The question is, are they so similar? I think the answer to this question depends very much on the musical style, and goals of the creator. In one sense, (for example, the Baroque sense epitomised by J.S.Bach) improvising, composing, performing, memorising, can be so similar or inter-related as cognitive activities - all means to a common end as it were - that it becomes senseless to try and find a dividing line between the actions themselves. When we see how precious the compositional process is, or has become during the last 200 years, however, certain distinctions begin to emerge. Whether we like it or not, romantic ideals, born of the late 18th century and crystallised into the practice and pedagogy of music during the 19th, remain a significant part of our attitude towards music-making in the 21st century. The ideals of romanticisim, beginning with a desire to capture something of the natural world, and then to define something of human existence in, or perception of, the same natural world, has led to composers investing huge amounts of effort in the descriptive and communicative potential of music. In particular, composers think a great deal about form - the proportions and structure of musical contruction. The aim - I believe of these efforts - is to successfully communicate a series of psychological states, perhaps in the form of a narrative, perhaps as a series of tableaux or glimpses from different angles of a significant scene or event. Either way, this style or approach to composing is generally the result of intensive reflection, and is usually discussed in terms of (the product of) unconscious processes taking place over a period of time.

In what way can improvisation compare to these processes?

 

Impro blog

Further discussion on learning (2)

All about learning - conscious? unconscious? What's the difference? Does it matter?

Previously I quoted from Nick Ellis's (2011) chapter: Implicit and Explicit SLA and Their Interface, which is found in Sanz, C., & Leow, R. P. (Eds), Implicit and explicit language learning: conditions, processes, and knowledge in SLA and bilingualism. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Ellis is one of the few writers who not only distinguishes between the two types of learning process (implicit and explicit) but also tackles the issue of what role each process plays in learning. I began by quoting his distinctions:

  • Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process that takes place naturally, simply, and without conscious operations (p.38)
  • Explicit learning is a more conscious operation, where the individual attends to particular aspects of the stimulus array and volunteers and tests hypotheses in a search for structure (p.38)

But then proposed my own assertion that implicit (unconscious) acquisition of the rules necessary for improvisation was not sufficient for improvisation. Why not? If such processes are sufficient for learning the complexities of our mother tongue (L1), why not for music? Such a comparison is, after all, valid if we believe that the ideal improviser is one who can 'speak' music in the same way that one speaks one's birth language. Would implicit (unconscious) acquisition of the rules then be sufficient if we learnt to improvise in the same way as we are taught to speak a birth language? To reconstruct these conditions would be an interesting experiment! It would mean:

  • thousands of hours of one-to-one instruction.
  • the use of music to communicate one's basic emotional and physical needs.
  • the acquisition of skill during the years of greatest neurological plasticity and cognitive growth, i.e., one would learn to express oneself in music in parallel to the processes of adapting to and understanding the surrounding social and physical environment.

It's relevant I think to note that L1 acquisition is not as implicit as it is often implied. Explicit instruction need not be restricted to the teaching of abstract rules and theory, but can also apply to forms of guidance in which the individual receives 'explicit' (i.e., clear) feedback, guidance and correction. Successful learning could hardly occur through meer passivity, as Ellis remarks:

Whatever the domain, learning the patterns, regularities or underlying concepts of a complex problem space or stimulus environment with explicit instruction, direction, and advances clues, heuristics, or organisers is always better than learning without any cues at all. Ellis (2011, p.38)

It's my personal conviction that musical improvisation could be learnt in the same fashion as L1 under the optimal conditions outlined above. Quite possibly, improvisers who learn the skill of improvisation also benefit from some of these conditions - in particular the learning of improvisatory skills alongside other musical skill formations, and the development of these skills during periods of general cognitive and personal development. In a sense, young improvisers in common with L1 learners are equipped with a mental white sheet, whereas classically-trained performers have to adapt their existing systems of musical perception to the new ones of improvisation, in common with L2 learners. In this, second case, the contexts of learning (of both music and language) are usually not comparable, calling for a different approach to learning, as Ellis (2011) describes: 

In contrast to the newborn infant, the L2 learner’s neocortex has already been tuned to the L1, incremental learning has slowly committed it to a particular configuration, and it has reached a point of entrenchment where the L2 is perceived through mechanisms optimised for the L1. Thus the L1 implicit representations conspire in a “learned attention” to language and in the automatised processing of the L2 in nonoptimal, L1-tuned ways. (Ellis, 2011, p.40)

Let's look more closely at the contrasting nature of these two types of knowledge could be applied to learning situations, using the insights of Ellis (2011), Hiebert (1986), Carpenter (1986) and others.

EXPLICIT LEARNING.

  • Ellis (2011, p.38). When the material to be learned is simple, ... and the critical features are salient, then learners gain from being told to adopt an explicit mode of learning where hypotheses are to be explicitly generated and tested and the model of the system updated accordingly. As a result they are also able to verbalise this knowledge and transfer to novel situations. 

  • Hiebert & Lefevre (1986, p.3-4). Conceptual knowledge is characterised most clearly as knowledge that is rich in relationships. It can be thought of as a connected web of knowledge, a network, in which the linking relationships are as prominent as the discrete pieces of information. Relationships pervade the individual facts and propositions so that all pieces of information are linked to some network. In fact, a unit of conceptual knowledge cannot be an isolated piece of information; by definition it is a part of conceptual knowledge only if the holder recognises its relationship to other pieces of information.

  • Ellis (2011, p.41). ... conscious processing is spread wide over the brain and unifies otherwise disparate areas in a synchronised focus of activity. 

  • Ellis (2011, p.41). Conscious activity affords much more scope for focused long-range association and influence than does implicit learning. It brings about a whole new level of potential associations.

  • Ellis (2011, p.42). Compared with the vast number of unconscious neural processes happening in any given moment, conscious capacity evidences a very narrow bottleneck. But the narrow limits of consciousness have a compensating advantage: consciousness seems to act as a gateway, creating access to essentially any part of the nervous system. ... It is a facility for accessing, disseminating, and exchanging information and for exercising global coordination and control: consciousness is the interface.

  • Ellis (2011, p.43) ...where L1 experience has tuned the learner’s attention elsewhere. ... Instruction is thus targeted at increasing the salience of commonly ignored features by first pointing them out and explaining their structure and, second, by providing meaningful input that contains many instances of the same grammatical meaning-form relationship. 

  • Ellis (2011, p.45).Consciousness creates access: its contents are broadcast throughout the brain to the vast array of our unconscious sources of knowledge, and by these means, consciousness is the interface.

IMPLICIT LEARNING.

  • Ellis (2011, p.35): The acquisition of L1 grammar is implicit and is extracted from experience of usage rather than from explicit rules - simple exposure to normal linguistic input suffices, and no explicit instruction is needed.

  • Ellis (2011, p.38): When the material to be learned is more randomly structured with a large number of variables and when the important relationships are not obvious, then explicit instructions only interfere and implicit mode of learning is more effective. This learning is instance-based but, with sufficient exemplars, an implicit understanding of the structure will be achieved.

  • Ellis (2011, p.39): Implicit learning collates the evidence of language, and the results of this tallying provide an optimal solution to the problem space of form-function mappings and their contextualised use, with representational systems modularising over thousands of hours on task.

  • Ellis, 2011, p.41). ... implicit learning occurs largely within modality and involves the priming, or chunking, of representations or routines within a module; it is the means of tuning our zombie agents, the menagerie of sepcialised sensorimotor processors ... that carry out routine operations in the absence of direct conscious sensation or control.
  • Ellis (2011, p.41). ... our implicit systems automatically process the input, allowing our conscious selves to concentrate on the meaning rather than the form. Implicit, habitual processes are highly adaptive in predictable situations. But the more novelty we encounter, the more the involvement of consciousness is needed for successful learning and problem solving

THE ROLE OF CONSCIOUS KNOWLEDGE IN LEARNING. One thing that emerges from these useful definitions is that the role of conscious knowledge (declarative knowledge, conscious awareness or conscious control) becomes more circumscribed. It's clear that, although Hiebert & Lefevre (1986) describe conscious knowledge as 'rich in relationships' and 'a connected web of knowledge' these connections are conceptually different to the kind of multitudinous connections calculated by implicit knowledge, which, over time - Ellis mentions 'thousands of hours on task' - furnishes us with instincts for what is appropriate or fitting in form and gesture. There is so much of skilled learning and performance which cannot be ascribed to consciousness: most importantly (i) I cannot consciously control or train my muscles, (ii) I cannot consciously control, generate or even fully understand the functioning of the music I improvise in real time, (iii) I cannot consciously understand the processes of automatisation which are so essential to fluency, (iv) the very nature of automatisation is that it reduces demands on consciousness and allows the performance of parallel rather than serial processes.

Yet, Ellis (2011) claims that implicit learning is itself inadequate for the learning of a new language, due to effects of interference arising from already existing skills in the native language. In what way do the existing language skills interfere with the acquisition of new skills? Can these effects be comparable to learning improvisation? 

Problems seem to arise when existing language skills prevent the learner from noticing what is important (salient) in the new material: '...where L1 experience has tuned the learner’s attention elsewhere' (Ellis, 2011, p.43). Why should this occur? Presumably because individuals try to understand or process the new language in similar ways to that in which they habitually process or understand their native tongue. This feature alone I think is directly replicable in the learning of improvisation (= the acquisition of novel generative skills) by musicians trained in performance (= possession of interpretative skills). The fact that music is not learned implicitly in an L1 fashion should not disrupt the comparison because, for trained musicians, the initial declarative methods of learning music will have been long transformed into automatic procedures. (In other words, the trained and fluent performer possesses an intact and specialised knowledge base sufficient for the task of performance, and it is this specialised and intact knowledge base which is brought to the task of learning improvisation.) Of course, when we have great familiarity with a task we don't need to analyse the techniques we use to perform it, not do we think of the constituent parts of the task, or in what way these parts are combined to make greater structures. The step-by-step learning of our native tongue, so embedded in communicative needs and direct feedback, is long since transformed into unconscious performance; likewise, the hard-won technical mastery of a musical instrument and the skills of meticulous score-reading and interpretation are second nature to the trained performer. How then should a musician with such a training look anew at a score and understand it as a model, say, for improvisation? As Ellis suggests, ',,, our zombie agents, the menagerie of specialised sensorimotor processors' which characterise implicit learning are inadequate for these initial stages of learning, powerful instruments though they are. The processes of unconscious learning must be steered in a certain direction by consciousness, given specific goals to head for, and have these goals reiterated through a clear framework of instruction: 'Instruction is thus targeted at increasing the salience of commonly ignored features by first pointing them out and explaining their structure and, second, by providing meaningful input that contains many instances of the same grammatical meaning-form relationship (Ellis, 2011, p.43). 

In this way, consciousness, though restricted as a tool for the actual performance of improvisation, and inadequate in terms of perceiving intrinsic matters of form in the material (whether music or language) through experience, can be seen to play an essential, leading role in the early stages of adult learning. How does it do this? Ellis suggests that there is no part of the nervous system to which consciousness does not have 'access'. Through this right of access then, consciousness can act as an interface between disparate, automatic systems, as a force which coordinates, sychronises and ultimately exercises 'global coordination and control' (p.42).

PROCESS PURE: Are the two types of knowledge really distinct? Much of the research giving rise to these distinctions comes from tests on amnesiac patients (Green & Shanks, 1993, p.304): 'Although amnesics are severely impaired on tasks of explicit memory, their performance is often within the normal range on implicit memory tasks. Normal controls, as well as amnesics, exhibit this independence of performance on implicit and explicit memory tasks.' The same authors also warn that, with regard to implicit memory (recall of unconsciously learnt material) '... individual memory tasks are not process-pure. In other words, a single task may involve the contribution of more than one type of memory process. A given task, for example, may involve any combination of conscious and automatic processes, such as those that are conceptually and data driven (Green & Shanks, 1993, p.314).

Hiebert & Lefevre (1986), also warn that '... the distinction provides a classification scheme into which all knowledge can or should be stored. Not all knowledge can be usefully described as either conceptual or procedural. Some knowledge, seems to be a little of both, and some knowledge seems to be neither' (p.3).

 

Further discussion on learning (1)

SOME OPENING THOUGHTS

When I improvise, what is it that I learn?

1. I will experience learning through implicit processes, i.e. unconsciously.

2. I will experience learning through explicit processes, i.e. reflectively, of which I am aware.

What do I then retain from these experiences for the future? In what way have I developed?

 

VARIABLES (Can also be discussed under the 'goals' of the improviser)

1. I have a certain knowledge and disposition which I bring to the task.

2. I also have certain goals, set by myself, or my teacher. These goals, in all probability will form the focus of my attention while improvising. They will play an important role in the nature of feedback.

As this discussion has immediately raised the subject of implicit/explicit learning, here are some further thoughts about the distinctive characteristics of these different yet complimentary processes:

Nick Ellis (2011) makes the following observations:

  • Implicit learning is acquisition of knowledge about the underlying structure of a complex stimulus environment by a process that takes place naturally, simply, and without conscious operations (p.38)
  • Explicit learning is a more conscious operation, where the individual attends to particular aspects of the stimulus array and volunteers and tests hypotheses in a search for structure (p.38)

1. A NEUROLOGICAL DISTINCTION BETWEEN IMPLICIT AND EXPLICIT LEARNING:

Paradis (1994): ‘... that the memory system that subserves the formal learning of a second language (declarative memory) is neurofunctionally and anatomically different from the one that subserves the first language or a foreign language acquired in conversational settings (procedural memory)’ (p.393).

Ellis (2011): ‘Explicit learning is supported by neural systems in the prefrontal cortex involved in attention, the conscious apperception of stimuli, and working memory; the consolidation of explicit memories involves neural systems in the hippocampus and related limbic structures. In contrast, implicit learning and memory are localised, among other places, in various areas of perceptual and motor cortex’ (p.38).

Ellis (2011, p.40). There are different types of knowledge of and about language, stored in different areas of the brain, and engendered by different types of educational experience.

The preceding quotations propose that it is explicit functions which govern attentional systems, and involves emotional states. Implicit learning in contrast runs in an automatic fashion through processes of perception and motor coordination. Paradis (1994) has already implied that the essential elements of performance are learned implicitly and performed implicitly, i.e.,

It appears that what has been acquired incidentally is stored implicitly and can only be evidenced through behaviour (performance) (Paradis, 1994, p.401).

But what exactly do we retain from the engagement of implicit mechanisms? Presumably information which organises the action of improvisation, for after all, we know that we cannot coordinate our actions directly, but only in relation to a perceived point (i.e., Hommel et al. 2001, p.876, who conclude that: '... coordinating actions and events is much easier in terms of distal than proximal representations'). However, is the information resulting from implicit mechanisms sufficient for the task of improvisation? In my experience I would say no. I am currently practising various tasks in baroque improvisation. Tasks, such as harmonising chorale melodies in a German baroque style, or accompanying a phrase of gregorian chant as a cantus firmus in the French style, demand a knowledge (perception) of a given body of music to the extent that I can generate new music in this style on demand.' When I place my hands on the keyboard I need more than motor memory to see me through at this stage of learning! For this particular genre of improvisation the musical material must be highly organised to be a convincing representation of the style. I find that at the outset of each practice session I have very little idea of what I should do. After a few attempts at harmonising, my developing knowledge is engaged and certain patterns emerge. However, in general, much testing of choices and pauses for thought (and also for writing solutions) characterises my improvising, and any attempt to perform in this style (at this stage) would, I think, be doomed to failure.

Expert knowledge on the other hand is generally characterised by fluency. According the words of performers theselves, and the assertions of researchers into memory and human performance, their improvisation is generally conducted unconsciously. What then is the nature of their knowledge? Is it merely quantitative, i.e., does the expert simply remember more connections, more characteristic chord progressions (or contrapuntal textures, or cadences etc.) with their corresponding hand movements than I do? Or is the knowledge more qualitative in essence, being linked to, or integrated within a host of other cognitive, emotional and perceptive mechanisms? Why can't the knowledge of the expert be simply explained to a novice? Why does the novice themselves have to experience over time the nature of the musical material to attain expert insights? Note that Johnson-Laird (2002) asserts:

‘... whenever a creative process calls for working memory, it is likely to depend on a multistage procedure’ (p.239).

So, what are the various stages of a 'multistage procedure', and why is it necessary that human skill learning should be such a lengthy and subtle process? Clearly, by now, we can describe expert performance as primarily unconscious; presumably then, it is a necessary condition of unconscious performance that it takes considerable time to develop. In addition, we can assume that the material which we are learning to manipulate is poses problems which are extremely complex to master and to understand; that mastery of this material cannot be understood singly, but is the result of a plurality of experience, occuring sequentially (one step in the knowledge base must be assimilated before another can be perceived) over time; and that the resulting codes or representations of knowledge used by expert improvisers refer to a multilayered, multi-experiential database which cannot (for example) be transfered to a third party. 

 

Surely it makes sense then to look to general theories of cognitive development for illumination of this process, as (I have no doubt) that expert skill, resulting as it does from such a considerable investment of time, attention and cognitive resources, should be described in terms of cognitive growth. 

One aspect of learning which seems to me overlooked by researchers, is the fact that the novice often cannot bring his (implicit) critical or evaluative faculties to bear on his own work. That some rules of music construction are unconsciously perceived seems to be beyond question, i.e., Tillmann & Bigand (2004):

By mere exposure to musical pieces, Western listeners acquire sensitivity to the regularities underlying tonal music. This implicitly acquired knowledge allows listeners to perceive subtle relations between musical events and permits musically untrained listeners to behave as musically trained listeners ... (p.211) 

So why, then must the pupil Josephus, in Joseph Fux's (1725) famous treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, be explicitly instructed in rules of counterpoint which exist primarily to avoid unpleasant acoustic effects:

'This mi against fa you have written in the progression from the sixth to the seventh bar by a skip of  an augmented fourth or tritone which is hard to sing and sounds bad, for which reason it is forbidden in strict counterpoint (Fux, transl. Mann, 1971, p.35)

If these rules reflect all that is natural and pleasing to the ear, why cannot Josephus apply his listening and critical faculties to his own work? Nor do I need to look towards literature for illustrations of this problem, as in my own case, when I am harmonising a chorale: why is it that I can be utterly convinced of a solution while writing (a certain chord or distribution of voices), only to find that later such a solution is clearly wrong and inadequate? Why is 'doing' so far removed from 'hearing'? Is it simply a question of attention, which is claimed by selected goals of learning at certain stages? While desperately trying to fulfill certain goals, do we simply fail to notice other problems? I notice that Johnson-Laird also comments on this phenomenon when he refers to Perkins' (1981) description of '... the fundamental paradox of creativity: people are better critics than creators.' And that artistic creativity '... is based on unconscious knowledge acquired only by laborious practice in creating' (p.422). However, this offers no more than a description of the problem, which it is implied will resolve itself over time. The alignment of skill with the unconscious perception of rules (proportion, beauty etc.) is presumably a goal of skill learning, but more information is needed to (i) explain why this misalignment should occur in the first place, and (ii) through what processes or stages of development are these two different areas brought into alignment?

 

 

Problems of learning in improvisation.

My main motivation for starting this PhD was in order to improvise better. Better? Well, to learn how to express myself musically, to escape from the frustration and confusion I felt when I tried to improvise. The motivation was in this sense primarily musical. But, I realised that, in order to attain this musical goal, I had to make sense of my experience in some way, which was why I turned to psychology as the field of investigation rather than seeking another strategy, such as practising harder. I was unclear what to practise, so to increase the hours spent at the keyboard would have been to simply augment my confusion.

I remember that at the outset I had the impression that I might, through a certain type of investigation, discover discrete answers to the problems I faced. For example, as one of my main problems was in choosing the next chord, I thought I might discover a technique for encoding sequences of chords which would solve this problem. I suppose that the difficulties of improvisation occurred to me then to be difficulties of processing information: experts were somehow able to process musical material efficiently, whereas novices could not. 18 months later, I have discovered a host of different perceptions on a vastly more complex subject than I originally perceived. I have experience in intuition, in which the next chord is felt rather than (theoretically) known; my inner ear has developed, and I have explored different modes of relating to improvisation - through movement and through an increasing awareness of my own intentions. More recently I started lessons with a pedagog and expert improviser which caused me to profoundly question my own musical knowledge, and the ways in which music is known, (encoded, memorised, represented among other terms) so that it can be used for improvisation. In some ways, I suspect that I may come full circle, and perhaps indeed discover (for myself and under certain musical conditions) a discrete form of (for example) harmonic representation, but certainly this knowledge comes as part of a gradual and multimodal increase in experience, and could never be written down as a formula and communicated to a novice in a form in which they would then understand what I now understand. 

What do we learn, when we learn something?

My more recent interests could be formulated by this question: When J.S.Bach copied the works of Nicolas de Grigny in 1713, what did he learn from this process? Copying music is quite a common technique for learning, but what is it that we learn from copying which we don't learn from playing or reading? Johann Sebastian, from accounts of his life was earnestly seeking a deeper understanding of the ways in which music could be constructed. Apparently he was quite indefatigable in this respect. What did he then discover from his copying? Do I discover the same features of the musical material, or reach the same understanding of these pieces as Johann Sebastian when I copy them? Presumably, as it's not hard to imagine someone engaging in the same task and discovering nothing at all, then we could propose that what we might gain from the process is a very personal process, and that, for example, our motivations for copying may influence our perception of the musical material, just as much as mechanisms such as priming (what we are currently interested in) or in fact, any of our individual cognitive and emotionl states might dictate a different form of understanding. Are there any generalities then that can be learnt or surmised?

A specific type of knowledge for improvisation?

The ways in which individuals seek and discover knowledge are questions crucial to the subject of improvisation, because the improviser is a seeker after knowledge, but a knowledge of a particular type. We need a type of knowledge about music that enables us to generate music at speed. If I say it is not therefore a reflective knowledge suitable for discussing and analysing musical scores, but an action knowledge suitable for adaptable, generative output in real time, then it becomes clear that the difference may not be the knowledge or facts of the matter which are conceptually different, but the form in which those facts are represented, encoded or understood in a way which facilitates improvising. In this sense we can talk of the reflective knowledge being interpreted for action (see Anderson, 1982). Unfortunately, this results in forms of knowledge which may be unavailable to conscious awareness, eluding analysis, as Paradis (1994) reveals, when he discusses the development of speaking capacity in individuals' linguistic development:

The aspect of practice which is useful, i.e., conducive to improvement of competence, is not the aspect(s) of which the speaker is aware. The aspect of which the speaker is aware does not get automatised, transferred or converted into what is stored in procedural memory - and what does get stored is not within the speaker’s awareness. Practice of utterances is what is directly conducive to improvement of implicit competence. Knowledge of the rules is not (Paradis, 1994, p.404-405).

Knowledge of facts, or knowledge of action?

So, through action - perhaps the action of writing/copying, or perhaps the action of improvising, aspects of knowledge become secretly encoded. And it is this secretly encoded knowledge, unavailable to consciousness which pertains directly to the development of the action itself. Does this mean we should dispense with factual learning all together?Apparently not, as Paradis (1994) in the same article also argues for a role of explicit awareness of rules in forming productions (automatic performance): 'It appears that what has been acquired incidentally is stored implicitly and can only be evidenced through behaviour (performance). On the other hand, some deliberately learned tasks seem to gradually become automatic through prolonged practice' (Paradis, 1994, p.401). So, consciously learnt facts do play a part in some aspects of learning! As this may appear rather confusing I will quickly summarise some of Paradis's findings, and then use these to illustrate the problems facing novice improvisers:

  1. that the implicit or unconscious memory systems used for fluent performance (i.e. first language production or expert improvisation) are 'neurofunctionally and anatomically different' (p.393) from those used for conscious recall of declarative information (i.e. formal study of second language, or theoretical knowledge about musical improvisation).
  2. that, as a result, individuals have two types or sources of knowledge, one which is available to consciousness (explicit), and one which is not available to consciousness (implicit).
  3. that, when we act fluently (i.e., speak or improvise) we rely on implicit knowledge for this fluency, In the words of Paradis (1994, p.400): '... in natural conversational settings, the production of the utterance remains non conscious.' Explicit knowledge then can only be used to slowly construct performance (a rather painful process for the performer and listener alike!), but explicit knowledge can also be used to reflect or check on the output of performance. However, explicit knowledge cannot control performance; as a knowledge type it is entirely unsuited for this task.
  4. that, because of this unsuitability, the introduction or intrusion of one type of explicit knowledge during performance causes interference in the processes of implicit knowledge. (The effects of this interference cause well-known phenomena of slowing down or pauses during performance.)

From this, it would seem that, while facts play an unavoidable part of adult learning, it is only through the repetition and automatisation of these facts that anything approaching natural (fluent) performance can result. As to the nature of performance itself, Paradis's distinctions are important, because they describe in a particularly clear way an aspect of improvisation which is often difficult to understand and to experience: namely, that to be fluent, improvisation has to be unconsciously executed; that, in essence, we must act in a way that we cannot know or describe. 

Implicit knowledge gained through action.

However, this distinction between declarative and procedural knowledge, the functions of which are so clearly described by Paradis, is not a symptom purely of fluent performance, nor is it a distinction that can be understood only in terms of improvisational output. Rather, the relationship between unconscious and conscious is dynamically present at all stages of learning; or perhaps it is better conceptualised as the role of the unconscious in all stages of learning. For example, if we return to my opening question: When J.S.Bach copied the works of Nicolas de Grigny in 1713, what did he learn from this process? we can now conjecture that, in addition to what Bach saw in the musical material, and recognised in theoretical, analytical, or musical terms, he also learnt something from the action of writing. And that whatever perceptions were gained through this action, yet more learning would have occurred when Bach attempted to generate new music from this knowledge, either by writing or improvising. For, through the actions themselves, an awareness of action is created, and '... when often repeated, end up leaving proprioceptive kinaesthetic traces' (p.401) and it is this 'proprioceptive data' that is 'stored in implicit memory'. As Paradis is at pains to point out, it is not the facts of  improvisation, or music which are rehearsed, but their production in performance (of those facts), and the processes by which we interpret and act on these facts are not known to us. 'The speaker (or improviser) is only conscious of the result, not of how it is obtained' (p.401). 

Not that this aspect of learning can account for J.S.Bach's musical knowledge! Far from it... either that that he learnt from De Grigny, or from listening to Dietrich Buxtehude or any other aspect of his musical formation. But, it does I think account for an often overlooked aspect of learning which is particularly useful for illuminating the learning of improvisation. 

 

Competence vs. Performance

Distinction between competence - performance in language and improvisation; presence of rules - are rules a good aid to learning? - contrasting the rules of theory and musical construction, vs. rules of production.

(image, Noam Chomsky)

One idea which constantly recurs in theories of language learning is the idea of competence - a person's knowledge or awareness of language, as against their performance - the actual production of words, sentences, phrases etc. Can this distinction, which has come under considerable criticism in the field of linguistics, be usefully applied to improvisation? By usefully, I mean can the concept of two differing forms of knowledge and ability help in pedgaogical or performance situations of improvisation?

My first thought is that one form of ability - the performance, can be much more easily assessed than the other - competence. (Competence, as a concept, was originally formed to describe the linguistic knowledge of native speakers, who seem to miraculously gain knowledge of a language within the first five years of development without recourse to formal learning of grammatical rules.) Performance, for example, is the evidence of a person's ability: when musicians improvise, then it is the performance of their knowledge that we hear, enjoy, criticise and process as listeners. Conversely, a person's competence - what they know about improvisation - is hidden, revealed only through conversation or through the act of improvising itself. Perhaps for this reason, research and teaching often focuses principally on the performance of individuals, perhaps comparing improvisations to compositions (reflecting on the artistic value), or by teaching students as if their faulty performance was entirely and consciously willed - instead of the outcome of incomplete or insufficiently connected knowledge. 

In this sense, Chomsky's distinction is valuable, because it is on the knowledge base (competence) of musicians that improvised performance is constructed, and it is upon the nature of this knowledge base that research and teaching should (in my opinion) focus.

One aspect of language learning which is I think directly linked to improvisation- at least the rather strict style of baroque improvisation which is my present study - is the question of rules. Before discussing the acquisition of rules, let's first define what they are. Some improvisers may reject the very idea of artistic creativity being rule based. My own difficulty with rules comes from the limitations of working memory, which argues against the conscious use of rules while improvising, i.e., "Don't give me another rule to remember, just let me express myself!". Yet, we must accept that the 'language' or chosen genre in which improvisers express themselves musically or in which they construct their artistic productions, must, to be coherent and recognisable to a listener, follow certain rules.

My recent lessons with Jürgen Essl in Stuttgart taught me that my knowledge of certain rules - we could call them characteristics of J.S.Bach's style of writing - was shaky to say the least. For example, when harmonising a chorale melody I did not perceive that each phrase should remain in one tonality, defined by the final cadence. To understand this allowed me to construct a harmonisation which was more true, expressive and recognisable within the idiom of J.S.Bach's style of harmonisation.

Ideally, we would improvise as we speak our native language. Certainly I have imagined ideal scenarios similar to L1 acquisition in which improvisation occurs as a natural communicative device between mentors and novices, who through many hours of exploration and one-to-one guidance allow natural learning abilities to develop a rich resourceful capacity for improvising directly linked to emotional intention. Yet, such idealised forms of learning to improvise are unlikely to occur when we are exposed to the learning process as adults (in which we are considerably more self-aware and conscious of the learning process); or when learning to improvise occurs as an addition to our existing musical training (in which case new knowledge and new ways of understanding music must be connected with existing forms, a source of much friction and conflict). In these situations some similarities can be observed between learning a second language and learning to improvise, in which case the insights of researchers into L2 acquisition can be usefully employed as guidance to improvisers.

Sharwood Smith (1994) describes the strange dichotomy between child and adult language learning thus:

First language acquisition happens in the natural world in the natural course of things as children try to communicate with the outside world. Older learners rarely experience this both naive and successful way of language learning because they are older and more worldly-wise. They have some idea what language is. They know it is a system with rules and principles that have somehow to be acquired. They worry about their failure to work that new system. They want to understand more about the nature of the task in the hope that this understanding will help them more. At the same time, the increase in awareness about the language being learned often seems not to be accompanied by a corresponding increase in proficiency, hence the question: do rules help?

From this account, it might be reasonably assumed that adults then somehow obstruct natural learning capacities? Perhaps, because of embarrassment or self-consciousness, adults are unwilling to experiment or play with language; after all if you don't try then you can't learn. On the other hand, Reber (1993) warns against the assumption of mysterious or innate powers of language competence in the child, reminding us how, during the first seven years of the child's life '... just how much learning takes place' (p.151). If, then, a child consciously practices language for 3 hours a day, '... we still find a very large number, 8,214 hours of practice in one's native language. Cut the estimate to 1 hour a day and we still end up with 2, 738' (p.152). This number he argues is consistent with research which asserts the amount of time needed to '... learn the structure of any rich, complex, abstract domain such as those that underlie natural sciences like physic, social sciences like psychology, or performing arts like music or dance. Numbers between 1000 and 5000 hours keep cropping up, no matter what the discipline' (p.152).

To return to Sharwood Smith's question: 'Do rules help?' it seems sensible to explore the different meanings given to rules by individuals in different learning contexts. 

For example, when Sanz & Leow (2011) conclude: 'Whatever the domain, learning the patterns, regularities or underlying concepts of a complex problem space or stimulus environment with explicit instruction, direction, and advances clues, heuristics, or organisers is always better than learning without any cues at all' (p.38); they refer to rules as cues - a substantially more friendly term than rules. Sharwood Smith (1994) also widens the terms of reference: 'The idea of a rule - whether it is called a rule, a routine, a plan or a process is immaterial...' (p.37), to illustrate the plain existence of rules as a means of structuring or organising experience. Perhaps the main problem with rules then is our usage of them; the danger being that in some learning environments, theory takes precedence over performance and rules '... may be couched in very abstract and technical terms such that they do not appear to offer much of immediate benefit to teacher or learner' (Sharwood Smith, 1994, p.34). Taken to further extremes, rules can be couched in coercive terms - a characteristic of much musical teaching of the 19th century conservatoire approach. In this sense, rules can be more than cues for structuring perception and understanding; instead they are conditions under which music-making is accepted or rejected. Such rules or 'Rules', if taken literally by the student, dominate the learning process in particular through their influence on attentional processes and feedback, as the student seeks naturally to align the ouput of improvisation with the idealised (imaginary) product of the Rules. 

One interesting aspect of Sharwood Smith's article (1994) is his elaboration of the different kind of knowledge needed for speaking, rather than listening or thinking about language: '...we may assume that the on-line production and reception processes during actual language performance are governed by principles requiring theoretical explanations of quite a different character to those used to explain competence' (p.37). This interested me because, in my experience, my competence (in the Chomskian sense of implicit or idealised knowledge) in improvisation greatly exceeds my improvised performance. For example, while driving to church I can plan and imagine the most marvellous improvisations, which, when I approach the organ seem to fade, and when I start actually improvising evaporate entirely, leaving little if any trace behind. Clearly, when I start to play, I am under the authority of a different set of constraints altogether, and these constraints or principles, as Sharwood Smith suggests, require a different theoretical explanation. (This, being a private or inner experience takes the investigation of improvisation in a new direction: if we are to discover or describe the consciousness of improvisation then a new framework is needed, a phenomenological account which could (i) describe this experience in embodied, first-person terms, (ii) explore research into proprioceptive memory and experience, and (iii) analyse ways in which musical material is inwardly represented.) 

For Sharwood Smith (1994), what follows from this distinction between the knowledge we bring to language use (or improvisation) and the knowledge we actually use while  speaking (or improvising), is that rules of construction once more assert themselves into the process. Improvising and speaking take place in real time, and thus, events have to be organised into a serial stream. Ideally, at expert level, this stream is fluent and is enacted without breaks and pauses, meaning that the individual has to have the material-to-be-improvised sequentially organised. While we may theoretically adopt a relaxed attitude towards construction (for example, it is often said in improvisation circles that mistakes don't matter and can be turned to creative advantage), the fact is that the improviser must '... determine what takes place first, what second, and what takes place simultaneously' (p.37); if they cannot determine this, for what ever reason, then faults emerge in their performance. This necessity for organisation can, as Sharwood Smith suggests, best de described as rules, and, whether applied to language or musical improvisation, such 'performance rules determine what happens millisecond by millisecond, second by second, etc.' (p.37).

Thus, performance itself is governed mercilessly by its own rules - rules of production. The acquisition of these rules, through experience and learning is the subject of other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

  • rules and creativity
  • attitude to rules
  • acquisition of rules - contrast between theory and performance.

References:

Sharwood Smith, M. A. (1994). The Unruly World of Language. In Ellis (Ed.), Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 33-44). Bodmin: Academic press.

 

New lessons!

I recently started a new course of study with the composer, organist and improviser Jurgen Essl in Stuttgart.

This is a wonderful and salutary experience for me, having worked so much on my own, to bring my development as an improviser to the attention of someone with this level of experience and deep musical knowledge.

My first lesson was, from the point of view of my own proficiency (i.e., as a demonstration of skill), a disaster! Clearly I was unable to piece together even the simplest material in the Baroque style which I had been studying for so long.. From a psychological point of view, perhaps it was more successful: rather than feeling cast down by my miserablt show of abailities, I was able to focus on Jurgen's instructions which clearly formed a basis for further development. I think if this kind of experience had happened to me as a young man, I would have been very upset and humiliated, so clearly I have learnt something from my psychological investigations!

In general, I knew it was not going to be easy, but still I was surprised at the extent to which I was unable to produce a simple, fluent improvisation. In spite of my recent work improvising in baroque style at home, it seemed as if a vast gulf exists between what Chomsky (in a linguistic context) would refer to as my competence (mental awareness, implicit knowledge and ideals) and performance (what I actually produce). Let's consider then what I had been doing:

  • I had been piecing together lots of ideas in a baroque style, practising figurations, making sequences, and trying to understand the various relationships of consonance and dissonance. 
  • I had been studying works by Bach and Buxtehude, analysing some of the structural plans, writing out the rhythmic motifs.
  • I had been practising fugue constructions, using a variety of different fugal themes.

This practice had left me with an unfocused and generalised knowledge base.

While playing at home, I could sometimes achieve nice results - but these results were momentary, interspersed amongst a great deal of trial and error. Probably my biggest achievement was emotional, in the sense that I was not afraid to improvise: I could enjoy the process of trial and error, and could play around with all different types of musical construction. My biggest problem was that, when it came to a 'product' moment - when I actually had to come up with something coherent, then I didn't know what to do. Playing in church for example was an ordeal, because I had no resources or techniques with which to organise my material. I was left with a very complex mental state, of incoherent goals, and (corresponding) emotional reactions. Note, that the incoherence of my knowledge (by this I mean the procedural knowledge of 'what to do') left me with other problems to confront: I questioned my relationship with the listeners, the context in which I found myself, my attitude towards music, performance, etc.

Working with Jürgen taught me the following:

  • To focus unrelentingly on one aspect of the texture - in this case the harmonisation of a chorale theme.
  • Jürgen told me to decide on a harmonisation of the chorale melody, and to keep this harmonisation for further treatment (variations). 
  • From this harmonisation, came tasks such as putting the melody in the alto, the tenor and the bass.
  • To harmonise with three voices in the right hand, just the bass in the left; to harmonise then with two voices in the left (alto and tenor), with an ornamented melody in the right, and the bass in the pedals; also to harmonise with two voices in each hand.

Deciding on a harmony - i.e., to have a memory of that harmony was something I found I couldn't do as my approach to harmonising was too random. My goal (to this point) when harmonising was to find something that fitted and then to move on. This meant that the harmony I selected had no real function or relation to something which I could define. It was ad hoc, - to hand.. For me, this ad hoc-ness was quite an achievement, as it meant I had progressed from searching for the 'correct', theoretical version, to something improvised, something which allowed for margins of error. I had stopped searching for the version, and was now searching for version; I had emerged from a product state of mind, to a process approach.

Jürgen's advice seemed at first to be a return to the product view: I had to define my harmonisation, and then to write it down. Why do this? To define more clearly what the harmony is? Actually, I think (I write now from the perspective of a week's fairly intensive experience) the process of writing down is to understand more clearly what the role of a harmonisation is - perhaps in terms of its possibilities, or functions. Remember that before I was using a bricolage or ad hoc technique. Anthing could be used so long as it sounded good in that moment. Once I'd played my choice of harmony, it was gone, because that moment had gone - it was not connected to anything else in the improvisation.

Writing down is an iterative technique, as one returns from writing to playing, and repeats this process until a version is arrived at. It is also an elaborative technique, as to write is to see one's harmonisation more objectively, perhaps too to see it with the same mechanisms as one would view a printed score. No longer is the harmonisation a thing of air and fantasy, the possibilities of a moment; it is corporeal, and can be repeated verbatim. After writing, I also see visually some connections within the harmony which I didn't perceive when playing; from this I find that some problems can be viewed graphically and perhaps solved analytically. Writing down the harmony does not produce a solution, as often new 'solutions' arrive through playing, in which case writing takes a form of dictation: writing usually takes its cue from the playing, but it helps to refine and instruct the process of playing.

Learning can be a difficult process, because one's faulty or incomplete knowledge leads one's instincts and capacities for doing astray. It's hard to arrive at a solution and be told that it is not a good solution! But, in this disciplined form of improvising there are clear and practical reasons for doing certain things (i.e., ways of harmonising) in certain ways. But this is the subjetc of another post..

The beginnings of learning to improvise

How do I begin to build a theory of learning to improvise? There are so many elements, so many sides to it, so many different types of experience..!

One thing I notice, even as I write, is that there are distinct stages to the experience. This is confusing and even exasperating in one sense, because, as an individual trying to consciously understand or describe 'the experience of learning to improvise' I realise that I cannot reduce it to a formula. I cannot, for example say, that improvisation is about learning to feel my way forwards (although feeling the next musical steps, instead of thinking about them will, I am sure, be a crucial element in my growing competence); or that, within a tonal structure, my perception and rehearsal of certain connections within the harmony is the key to fluent decision-making. The list goes on, marked by a certain perception or new idea, even inspiration, concerning my performance - how I set about the task - which seems to transform the whole activity; yet, ultimately, these perceptions are strongly linked to a certain context: my perception is strongly linked to a certain musical texture (perhaps fugal, or Baroque concertante, or free atonal, whatever ...) and becomes, after a few days, not the way of improvising, but a way of improvising - a weapon in the growing arsenal with which to tackle this task.

I can say then, that in the sense that my development is marked by certain stages, that these stages happen in a serial fashion. It often occurs to me, that I wish I had more expertise: and almost consecutively I have grown to realise that the length of time in which one elaborates musical elements before committing oneself to fluency is personal, individual. But I think it helps to understand that this personal, individual approach (of processing musical elements for the performance of those elements) is part of a bigger picture: that is, the general adaptive nature of humans to absorbing new knowledge. Why? Because when we encounter new knowledge we recognise that this knowledge has the potential to change our behaviour, what a researcher into human cognitive behaviour - John Anderson - identifies with the growth of automatic productions (i.e., fluency).

... that it is dangerous for a system to directly create productions to embody knowledge (Anderson, 1982, p.389)

Because fluent execution of improvisation can only take place unconsciously, this has several consequences or conditions in terms of human behaviour: one, is that an individual can only commit themselves to an unconscious action if they feel sure of the consequences of that action. (The adaptive value of this security check is I think obvious!) So that, even while people are learning how to perform an action, they are testing the consequences of that action before any fluent performance takes place:

For this reason, and a number of others, it was argued that knowledge should first be encoded declaratively and then interpreted. This declarative knowledge could affect behaviour, but only indirectly, via the intercession of existing procedures for correctly interpreting that knowledge.

Even as expertise develops, and procedures for smaller actions are joined together, :

'The safety in interpretive applications is that a particular piece of knowledge does not impact on behaviour until it has undergone the scrutiny of all the system's procedures (which can, for instance, detect contradiction of facts or goals).

One important conclusion from Anderson's research (if we accept his findings) is that we cannot simply perform something that we know in theoretical form. At least, this type of action is extremely difficult to perform - if we think of an action like bungee jumping which cannot be tested, we can see how difficult it is for subjects to make the first jump, and how this, and other types of actions (even sliding down a slide as a child) become substantially easier after the first time. When I think of the many occasions in which I have planned, even sketched out, an improvisation for a Sunday service, only to confront the sheer impossibility of performing it in the actual context of performance. 

These phenomena of human learning emphasise I think the distinction between theoretical knowledge and the mysterious but essential knowledge that only comes to a person through doing. It is indeed unfortunate that this type of knowledge is so inaccessible to consciousness, as it tends to be overlooked by individuals in learning situations and is often sadly missing from pedagogic approaches in general. Yet, it is this particular strain of knowledge which is essential to human action, and it is the amassing of this type of knowledge that learning to improvise should be consciously and strategically directed.

Once started, the process of learning (in theory) becomes routine for acquiring productions of a similar nature:

Another advantage with interpretive application is that the use of the knowledge is forced to be consistent with existing conventions for passing control among goals. By compiling from actual use of this knowledge, the compiled productions are guaranteed to be likewise consistent with the system's goal structure.

One characteristic of this kind of knowledge (of doing) is that the essential components, the essence of the knowledge cannot be communicated. An individual can only acquire the knowledge themselves through acting upon their own explicit (declarative) knowledge. Only through this action, which Anderson describes as an act of interpretation (of declarative knowledge), can subjects understand how they themselves can improvise. It is a specialised knowledge, with limited (if any) transference to other skills, though the experience of acquiring this knowledge can influence our strategies for acquiring other action or doing skills.

Note, that declarative knowledge itself is an interpretation of our perception or awareness of the task. Although this stage can be easily imagined as a text book, given out in the introductory lesson describing successively the basic skeleton of facts which comprise the knowledge base of the subject, when it comes to the subject of improvisation, the facts of the knowledge base may not be so clear. Anderson, quoting Fitts (1964), describes the initial stage of learning as 'an initial encoding of the skill into a form sufficient to permit the learner to generate the desired behaviour to at least some crude approximation' (p.369). This explanation allows for an individual's perception of the skill, in whatever form that skill has impressed itself upon his perception, yet, at the same time, it is clear that an articulate subject could describe these impressions in a series of statements, for example:

  • "I would love to improvise like that!"
  • "The pianist sits at the piano, and simply makes stuff up."
  • "An improviser expresses themselves in the moment; the music flows through their fingers.. etc. etc"

Already with these phrases, we can see how Anderson's description of declarative knowledge as a 'crude approximation' is correct. Such knowledge is far from the specialised knowledge of doing improvisation, and in fact may lead to many errors and false paths in the process of learning, as I will show in another blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feeling harmony ... how? what?

Am taking a trip back in history, today, away from Reger - to Franz Schubert. This is partly because I'm hoping to programme some movements from the Deutsche Messe in a concert soon. The harmony of Schubert is so different to Reger (in whose harmonic language I've been kind of saturated during the last few days) that my first thought was 'why is Schubert satisfied with so little chromaticism?' 

Extract from the opening of the Gloria in Schubert's Deutsche Messe

This is an example of Schubert's very plain, but (somehow) very expressive harmony. I don't think it's necessary to theorise or speculate on why this music works so well. Perhaps you might disagree. Ultimately, I can only say that I find it so.. what I'm interested in, is my assumption that so much depends on 'the harmony'. I'm starting to ask myself more and more, what I mean by this word Harmony - (I may refer to this sometimes as the H-element) - which is so pregnant with meaning for musicians.

I'll restrict myself to a couple of observations here: one, is that Schubert is using a very simple harmonic language to communicate an effective and equally simple march tune, or motif of triumph. Without this motif, we would have very little of interest. So, clearly there is no key or guarantee that, for example, a particular harmonic solution (i.e., a sequence of chords) results in expressivity: the H-element is simply a strong characteristic of Schubert's general expressive intention.

The other observation, is that, perhaps in revolt against the rather loaded concept of the H-element, and the sterile, abstract way in which we often imagine it functions, I have tried to imagine harmony more in contrapuntal terms, perhaps in the way that Ernst Toch proposes: as frozen (contrapuntal) motion. But this doesn't really wash ... If we look again at Schubert's opening, the contrapuntal motion is negligible. I hear and understand this music as chords - elegantly spaced and voiced, true, but certainly as chords. Perhaps an argument could be made that the chords are a kind of recognised shorthand, in which rich contrapuntal motion is implied or encoded, though not explicitly stated. Perhaps.. Certainly, there exists, for me, an expressive power in moving from one chord to the next, a power which I have tried to express as tonal centres. 

What is important is that in realising this, I can start to enjoy the simple power of chords. And with this enjoyment comes a new form of cognition, one that results from a slight, but definite shift in attention. How can I describe this? Through goals and referents perhaps? Before, playing chords was more of a chore, something unavoidable, a technique or skill to be mastered; in a word the goal was external. With this mindset, whenever I play a chordal texture, I become very self-conscious and question each movement against an unspecified referent. The fact that the referent is unspecified makes it no less intensive. In fact, the lack of specificity makes it numerous rather than single, and is presented in my working memory through several assumptions, i.e., J.S.Bach advised his students to write their chorale harmonisations on seperate staves to ensure independence of line, while observing the correct rules of voice-leading. I give this phrase as an example of something I know I have learnt, that in a dim way this phrase or knowledge forms my impression of Harmony as a task. It corresponds to an ideal harmony; it is external, declarative, something that I could write or read about in a book, discuss with colleagues etc., it does not correspond to my personal knowledge of doing things.

Enough for one post ... I'll stop with two conclusions from today's practice:

  • Harmonic (chord) movements are expressive in themselves.
  • That imposing conditions - rules or constraints - can generate frustration. Why?

Back to Reger..

I guess the organ music of Max Reger is a bit of a puzzle for me..

Here I am again with a spot of analysis, this time of the pices Op.59, though I've only just started on the opening bars of the first piece. The fact is, the sound of these pieces is 'something else'.. exotic, bewildering, deeply intriguing - a complex jigsaw of interconnected, blah, blah, .. Cut to the chase, and I want to know how to improvise it! As Lizst, reportedly while giving a masterclass on Chopin's Preludes: "I want to play this!" and took the ninth prelude as the inspiration to a prolonged improvisation. (Note, that this desire has nothing of the jackdaw copycat about it - rather, it springs from a desire for closeness with the music, the kind of closeness we can never experience from simply performing the notes.)

The problem then is one that confronts me every time I take a composition as a 'model' for improvisation. It is a problem in which I need to find the rules (or guiding principles) for copying. What must I do to capture the qualities that I like? It is difficult because the principles of performance (and there must be principles or rules of performance) are by no means literal transcriptions of the theoretical rules (rules that generally arise from analysis of the score). In short, when we work with models then we come up against the whole issue of rules in music. In the words of M.A.Sharwood Smith, 'The use of rules as opposed to principles, then, varies greatly with the particular theoretical approach ... that has been adopted. Also, both rules and principles may be couched in very abstract and technical terms such that they do not appear to offer much of immedite benefit to teacher or learner (1994, p.34).

As always with Reger, my first impression is one of impressive harmony, a subject for rules if ever there was one. So, hoping for inspiration I made a harmonic skeleton of the first few bars. The original is below:

Original openingharmonic skeleton

The skeleton, surprisingly, retains quite a bit of the drama of the original, which proved (to me at least) that quite a bit of the character of the opening resides in the harmonic motion. But this information doesn't take me very far unless I decide what it is about the harmonic motion which I like. It also depends on exactly what we mean by harmony, and in this I'm reminded of Ernst Toch's thesis that harmony, rather than being a series of chords should be thought of more contrapuntally - For although harmony may still be defined as the combination of three or more tones, it has to be interpreted beyond this concept as a momentary situation brought about by moving voices; as the cross-section arising at times of arrested motion; or briefly and plainly as arrested motion. Toch, I think is right up to a point. The difficulty for people like myself, who are not really trained to use harmony, but only to respect it from a difference, is that we have a kind of mystical reverence for the phenomenon, without really understanding what harmony might mean... As my student said "I must learn harmony" but do either of us know what it is he must learn? 

A few things I did notice about Reger's strange functions which he gives to chords: (i), they are strange indeed. In fact, what I really like about Reger's prelude style is the dramatic way in which he sets up and evades or manipulates expectations. For example, 7th chords, never function as dominant 7ths, but are resolved in other ways; another related point, is that tonal centres are never what we expect. Perhaps this second point is more characteristic of Reger: precisely because his use of triadic block-chords hints at a chorale-like language in which tonal centres are very carefully established. The result is a kind of expressive delirium, made coherent through Reger's excessively driven voice-leading. 

 

 

Are rules necessary?

A student said to me recently that he felt he "needed to know harmony" in order to improvise.

My first reaction was one of alarm, as my own harmonic knowledge feels somewhat piecemeal, the result of O and A-level work and a few classes at the RAM some years ago. Last year I became the proud owner of a book of a Guide to Practical Harmony by the composer Tchaikovsky, who (unbeknown to me) was professor of harmony at the Moscow Conservatory. It must be said, of course, that any thoughts on harmony by a musician of this standing must be worth something; yet, I have to confess that I struggle with the style in which information is usually communicated in music-theory text books, and this one is no exception. 

The image on the left is an example. I don't mean to overly-criticise Tchaikovsky for a style of pedagogy which I'm starting to recognise is very characteristic of the 19th century, emerging and developing alongside the new institutions - the conservatoires and academies of many principal cities in Europe.( Such institutions were specifically orientated towards tutoring the musically unaware, and in the effort to communicate essentials about 'art music' in contrast to all other folk or everyday types of music, pedagogy frequently takes a hectoring and diactic tone.) Actually Tchaikovsky's tone is quite gentle: for example, in discussing sequences of 7th-chords (see below): "However smoothly we lead the harmonic progressions in these sequences, jumps are unavoidable." or "Now, where so many strongly dissonant chords follow in close succession, it should certainly be our aim so completely to fuse them together, that not a single jump occurs."

The problem for me is the form that Tchaikovsky's (and other harmony treatise writers') knowledge takes. This kind of distillation (of a personal and rich experience in music) into formulas and rules makes the knowledge very difficult to use. How are we to construct imaginative, expressive music with such constructs? Do we start with the rules, and try to add music to them, or do we start with our imagination and check this against the rules?

I was reminded of this problem by something I read today about the presence of rules in language learning: 'Because the particular language in question involves some selection from a set of options on how sentence structure can be built, the verb just cannot go anywhere else. It seems unnecessary to capture this idea in the form of a rule. You do not need a rule to determine where water exits a bathtub. Things (the laws of physics) are set up so it can only go out one of two ways, past the plug and down the drain or by overflowing. In the same way, a verb is prevented from going anywhere but its one position. There is no other place for it to go.'

I am not alone in finding theoretical knowledge about music difficult to digest and to use, and the fact that it tends to bypass the existing intuitive musical knowledge and awareness of the student. What is the solution? One option of course is to throw away the rules, and much experimental and valuable work is done by adopting this approach. However, the fact remains, that if we want to improvise a certain style or genre of music, there are ways of making this music recognisable - as a genre or style; ways of doing things that could be called rules or principles. Difficulties arise then, for me, in a didactic, moral ('woe to you if you break the RULE') approach to teaching music. After all, rules or principles could easily be understood more simply as 'ways of doing' - an approach typified in the 18th century partimenti school of musical construction over figured bass, (see Robert Gjerdigen's resouceful website for everything about partimenti). This school of keyboard instruction, celebrated in Naples, taught harmony and counterpoint with as little theory as possible, in a hands on, practical approach - everything shown by a more experienced tutor or master and copied by a less experienced student. Such an approach has resonance throughout music history - think of J.S.Bach, surrounded by family members as tutors in a musically-saturated environment - until the 19th century, when attitudes about the elevated status of music began to supercede musical practice. 

Of course, some of the problems lie in codifying knowledge into book form, rather than in person to person communication. But still, many of our problems I believe, lie in treating subjects such as harmony and counterpoint as starting with rules rather than intuition, rather than the converse. This issue arises particularly acutely when learning to improvise. I have found with my own development that I often begin with the satisfying of (dimly understood) rules, before engaging my intuition - a process I am determined to reverse!

Perhaps one solution is to adopt a 'fuzzy' approach to rules as explained by the same author (M.A. Sharwood-Smith) as I quoted earlier: 'Some rules are categorical ... Others are expressed in terms of tendency - these may be termed fuzzy rules: 'P tends to include Q', or 'in situation X it is most usual to do Y'. Such an approach is much more suitable to musical 'rules' or procedures, as it's actually very difficult to imagine a single rule in music that can't regularly be broken. To express, search for and learn musical connections and constructs in terms of tendencies, or situations where it is most usual to do, clearly exist in abundance and almost serves as a useful definition of 'rules' in music. I'm also reminded by these terms of the kind of spoken language used by teachers when they are being helpful rather domineering ;-).

M.A.Sharwood-Smith (1994). The Unruly World of Language. In Nick Ellis (Ed.) Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages pp 33-43. GB: Academic Press Ltd.

Composition vs. Improvisation

This is an age-old debate, under which improvisation usually has some explaining to do.. at least a bit of defensive ground to make up.

The fact seems to be that improvisers often feel at a disadvantage when it comes to the output of their art. After all, how can an improvised piece of music match the long process of creative decision-making that composers invest in their art? This came to my mind recently as I read an article by Andrew Goldman (2013): Towards a cognitive-scientific research programme for improvisation. In this article, Goldman puts his finger on the false premises under which this debate is run - that of conceptualising music as a product rather than a process. As Goldman suggests, the question of real-time creativity and the implied value judgments in this conceptualisation disappear when we look at the processes of music-making: 'Without considering a musical product, however, the consideration of time becomes less important - composing, improvising, and playing from memory, at least in cognitive terms, are all "in real time".

The question is, are they so similar? I think the answer to this question depends very much on the musical style, and goals of the creator. In one sense, (for example, the Baroque sense epitomised by J.S.Bach) improvising, composing, performing, memorising, can be so similar or inter-related as cognitive activities - all means to a common end as it were - that it becomes senseless to try and find a dividing line between the actions themselves. When we see how precious the compositional process is, or has become during the last 200 years, however, certain distinctions begin to emerge. Whether we like it or not, romantic ideals, born of the late 18th century and crystallised into the practice and pedagogy of music during the 19th, remain a significant part of our attitude towards music-making in the 21st century. The ideals of romanticisim, beginning with a desire to capture something of the natural world, and then to define something of human existence in, or perception of, the same natural world, has led to composers investing huge amounts of effort in the descriptive and communicative potential of music. In particular, composers think a great deal about form - the proportions and structure of musical contruction. The aim - I believe of these efforts - is to successfully communicate a series of psychological states, perhaps in the form of a narrative, perhaps as a series of tableaux or glimpses from different angles of a significant scene or event. Either way, this style or approach to composing is generally the result of intensive reflection, and is usually discussed in terms of (the product of) unconscious processes taking place over a period of time.

In what way can improvisation compare to these processes?

 

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