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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. 


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