for classical musicians

Blog Search


There are currently no blog comments.

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.









Go Back