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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.


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.


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