Ontimpr7. Can Improvisation be taught?
- 1 Orientation and Definitions
- 2 Can a music teacher of jazz improvisation impart knowledge and provide directions to a student on how to improvise?
- 3 Kant on Artistic Talent and Implications for Creating Artistic Jazz Improvisations
- 4 Objections to Kant on Artistic Jazz Improvisation Learning
- 5 NOTES
Orientation and Definitions
If Jazz Improvisation Cannot be Taught It Would Be Surprising to Music Instructors
It should and would come as a surprise to teacher's of jazz improvisation to hear that musical improvisation cannot be taught. Nevertheless, there are theorists who at the very least appear to be arguing that improvisation cannot be taught.
Which philosophers believe that artistic jazz improvisation cannot be taught?
A possible philosopher who may believe improvisation cannot be taught is Immanuel Kant. He believes that the product of art is the result of geniuses producing art that conforms to a rule, but that these sorts of rule generated products cannot be taught to anyone because even the artist herself doesn't know how to explain its production, so cannot teach it to others, or even to oneself.
“artistic skill cannot be communicated; it is imparted to every artist immediately by the hand of nature; and so it dies with him, until nature endows another in the same way . . . ” (bold not in original)
Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment, §47
“Every one is agreed that genius is entirely opposed to the spirit of imitation. Now since learning is Anothing but imitation, it follows that the greatest ability and teachableness (capacity) regarded quâ teachableness, cannot avail for genius. Even if a man thinks or invents for himself, and does not merely take in what others have taught, even if he discovers many things in art and science, this is not the right ground for calling such a (perhaps great) head, a genius . . . For even these things could be learned, they lie in the natural path of him who investigates and reflects according to rules; and they do not differ specifically from what can be acquired by industry through imitation.” (bold not in original)
Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Judgment, §47
If a jazz improvisation is ever the product of genius, then, according to the above quotations, the rule conforming artistic product that results, according to Kant, cannot be teachable. And, who would deny that many great jazz improvisations are exemplary artworks resulting from artistic genius?
What does teachable mean?
Teachable means "capable of being taught or instructed." One teaches when one imparts "knowledge of or skill in" a subject matter. It is giving instruction about the subject matter under question. To give instruction is to provide to the student learner an education by imparting to that person knowledge or information, possible orders or directions, for how to accomplish musical goals. Synonyms include: inform, enlighten, discipline, drill, school, indoctrinate or coach.
What are the goals of an effective jazz improvisation?
Some answers to this last question can be found at Ontimpr1. What is improvisation? and also at Ontpj8. What intentions does a jazz improviser have?.
Can a music teacher of jazz improvisation impart knowledge and provide directions to a student on how to improvise?
The answer is clearly "Yes." There are a lot of musical features and information that a teacher of music can impart to a jazz student improviser, both positively and negatively. For example, a teacher can inform a student that during her improvisation that she should stay in the same musical key as the song she uses to improvise from. This is a positive suggestion. A negative piece of information, or critique, is not to be overly repetitious during the improvisation. Both of these directions are obviously teachable to a student because this information can be transferred from teacher to student.
By the definition of teachable given above that something is teachable if one can impart knowledge or directions in how to master skills and/or improve one's knowledge, then because jazz teachers do just this for their students, it follows that much of improvisational skills can be taught and imparted from one person to another.
Reasons to think that jazz improvisational knowledge and skills CAN be imparted from a teacher to a student
If you can teach yourself jazz improvisational skills, then seeing as how you can be both teacher and student, then jazz improvisational skills are teachable.
Answering this question will depend upon what sort of advice can count as teaching. As a crude example, suppose a teacher tells a student to get better on playing his or her instrument. Does this count as having been taught something? The defensible answer can be that one has been taught a general lesson, which is that facility with one's musical instrument is an important component for playing music well.
Certainly expert and knowledgeable jazz musicians can critique a student's improvisations and make suggestions for improvement. The Jazz Theory Handbook has numerous “points of advice” for how to work on improving one's improvisations:
- But learning licks, like knowing theory, is not really the point, either. The objective of all of this educational preparation, is to enrich your personal resources, so that your creativity has the best possible tools to work with.
- When you perform, all of your theory training should recede to the background. Play from your own sense of expression and continuity. Play by ear. Try to get beyond theory.
- Everything you play should mean something. What are you trying to say in your solo?
- Don't just improvise with notes; don't just improvise with phrases. Use texture, emotion, volume, tone, range, rhythm, consonance and dissonance, to get your ideas across.
- Use space (rests) to frame your musical statement; they will be more effective.
- Learn some double-time (sixteenth note) licks that appeal to you; use them when you need more density, motion, or rhythmic excitement.
- Listen to the band. You are not improvising in a vacuum. Trade ideas back and forth.
- Listen to and watch the audience, and feel the mood of the overall environment.
- Constantly try to play beyond your own technical and conceptual limitations. (bold and bold italic not in original)
Reasons to think that jazz improvisational knowledge and skills CANNOT be imparted from a teacher to a student
On the other hand, can a teacher ever teach a student to be a great improviser on their own? It isn't so clear. Suppose we exclude teaching yourself. Now can another teacher teach someone to improvise? We are not just talking about giving general advice, such as be creative and make your improvisations mean something, but the actual production of quality improvisations is always the responsibility of the improviser herself (or himself). How could this ever be taught to anyone?
How do great jazz improvisers learn or acquire the skills to produce great improvisations?
We know from studying the history of jazz that many great improvisers, such as Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane spent a lot of time by themselves woodshedding on musical materials. Besides all of the assistance they received from other musicians and music teachers they each put in a lot of hard work by themselves.
Can one teach themselves to be a great improviser?
The answer to this question seems to be "Yes." A reason to believe this is that Charlie Parker as a younger musician was not a great improviser, but after he put in a lot of woodshedding practice Parker became a great jazz improviser. How did this happen if he didn't teach himself how to do it?
What does it take to be a great jazz improviser?
Kant on Artistic Talent and Implications for Creating Artistic Jazz Improvisations
Immanuel Kant might answer this question by saying it takes originality and that originality is the opposite of imitation and that originality cannot be taught but is the work of genius resulting from the individual having been endowed by nature to have these capacities for generating original artwork built in.
“For in the fact that the former talent [teachable rule following ability like Isaac Newton's accomplishments in his Principia Mathematica] is directed to the ever-advancing greater perfection of knowledge and every advantage depending on it, and at the same time to the imparting this same knowledge to others—in this it has a great superiority over (the talent of) those who deserve the honour of being called geniuses. For art stands still at a certain point; a boundary is set to it beyond which it cannot go, which presumably has been reached long ago and cannot be extended further. Again, artistic skill cannot be communicated; it is imparted to every artist immediately by the hand of nature; and so it dies with him, until nature endows another in the same way, so that he only needs an example in order to put in operation in a similar fashion the talent of which he is conscious.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Objections to Kant on Artistic Jazz Improvisation Learning
Kant is caught in a dilemma of his own making. Kant maintains the follow claims about art production requiring genius's aesthetic abilities to manifest themselves:
- Only geniuses can produce artwork.
- Geniuses art abilities are innate and cannot be taught to anyone.
- Therefore, No art could be produced by non-genius (art) makers who had acquired their knowledge and skills from teachers of that knowledge and of those skills where these learned skills and knowledge were in part responsible for the artwork product.
If he sticks to his claim that true artistic ability is innate and the only artistic production by geniuses is possible, then this has conflicts with basic beliefs about the artistic merits of outstanding jazz improvisations. Kant argues that Art by geniuses to be great art has to be used by other (artists) as exemplars to follow and imitate. A genius's artistic vision results from unteachable innate skills that can never be taught nor therefore learned either. It follows that great artist jazz improvisers cannot have learned or been taught the very thing that is making their art great because if improvisations could be taught then it would be following a rule teachable system and so would not be art which must transcend rules by providing the rule for the concept behind the art.
Kant's Dilemma: Are jazz improvisations art created by geniuses?
Dilemma: either (HORN 1) JAZZ IS NOT ART because jazz improvisation skills and knowledge can be taught, learned, and are not just innate from nature awaiting a reawakening or (HORN 2) JAZZ CAN BE ART because great artistic jazz improvisations only come from an innate talent inborn from the artist and this artistic skill or ability wasn't taught or learned from anyone.
Objections to Both Horns of Kant's Dilemma
On either branch of the dilemma Kant's position contravenes well known facts.
Why Kant's first horn is false
With respect to (1) many theoreticians, scholars, historians, critics, music lovers, listeners, and fans rightly believe and would exclaim that high level jazz improvisations, that is, the work product of the musicians concerned, the music itself, can be art and was produced by the musician artist. So (1) is false because of its conclusion that jazz is not art.
Why Kant's second horn is false
(2) is wrong equally as much when it holds that a jazz musician's artistic knowledge and skills could only have been all innate and that none of it could have been acquired from teachers. All jazz improvisers report that each has had many teachers who imparted musical knowledge and skills pertinent to mastering artistic jazz improvisations. These teachers many times also helped to contribute other qualities to their students, such as courage, bravery, stubbornness, determination, perserverenace, stability, financial advice, moral support, and so forth.
If these genius capacities are built in then why don't they automatically announce themselves? Why does it take time for them to develop over time and they improve with increased experiences and practice?
Certainly, the author's of many textbooks on teaching music, and especially instructions on how to improvise, would disagree that improvisation is not teachable or that knowledge about how to improvise cannot be transferred from teacher to student. For example, Barry J. Kenny and Martin Gellrich, in their "Ch 8: Improvisation," from The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning, ed. Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 117.
“A feature common to all improvisation, however, is that the creative decisions of its performers are made within the real time restrictions of performance itself. Improvisation is therefore considered to be a performance art par excellence, requiring not only a lifetime of preparation across a broad range of musical and nonmusical formative experiences, but also a sophisticated and eclectic skills base. The chapter reflects on psychological models and their attempts to simulate improvising processes and constraints, the means by which improvisers acquire performance skills, improvisation as part of a larger, co-collaborative creative endeavor, recent studies highlighting the benefits of improvisation in a learning situation, and improvisation as a means of revitalizing Western education. Practical implications and an integrated model for learning to improvise are discussed in the final section.” (bold not in original)
- Jazz Theory Handbook, Peter Spitzer, Pacific, MO: Mel Bay Publications, Inc., 2001, p. 76. Online Audio at www.melbay.com/97845MEB.
- Barry J. Kenny and Martin Gellrich, "Ch 8: Improvisation," from The Science and Psychology of Music Performance: Creative Strategies for Teaching and Learning, ed. Richard Parncutt and Gary E. McPherson, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 117.