This blog is in response to the second challenge set by http://www.serenade-designs.com/blog/
An essential part of any improvising musicians tools is their ‘Bag of Tricks’. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, the nature of improvisation is rather like a kaleidoscope, lots of pieces of coloured glass and mirrors, when you move the kaleidoscope into a new position you get a different image each time. With improvised music, what often happens is the musician has a collection of musical objects such as riffs, melodies, and harmonic progressions, and they are constantly re-arranging this to get new music.
The idea of improvising musicians collecting musical objects has been documented by many authors, Berkowitz (2010) writes about musicians learning musical formulas; Berliner (1994) describes the various terms used by jazz musicians, ‘licks, tricks, pet patterns, crips and cliches’ and Pressing (2000) explores a cognitive model of improvisation and the musical referent. This process of collecting musical objects is essential to any improvising musicians or music therapists work. It can be done (to name a few) through a continual listening and learning, listening to recordings, going to performances, learning songs, learning harmonic progressions and learning rhythmic motives.
In clinical improvisation it is important to be as flexible as possible and have as much ‘in the bag’ as you can. When working with people it’s often best to use the assessment period to think about what music you might use. Then to go away and learn new material or even new instruments if you need to. I recall working with a child with profound and multiple learning disabilities, she was very particular about timbre, through facial expressions she showed that she disliked the accordion, piano and trombone. So I went away and learnt the tenor recorder, she demonstrated through a big smile that she liked it. In this way, I added the skill of playing the tenor recorded to my ‘bag of musical tricks’.
In performance, Jazz musicians demonstrate that they have a repertoire of musical motifs they constantly draw on. Berliner (2010) writes extensively about this process, how the jazz musician is always working on improving their recall and ability to put together the various phrases they have learnt. Through the combination of pre-learnt phrases they go through a process of creating new material (recombination). This putting together of old material and creating new, seems to be a key part of the nature of improvisation, and applies across modalities. For example in ‘The Singer of Tales’ Lord (1960) writes how in slavic oral poetry the poet constantly uses formulas and systems to create new compositions. The learning of new material can be implicit or explicit. In implicit learning, we can find that some music we were playing the previous night in a wind band, creeps into our improvisation with our client the next day, or we start playing music that sounds like the cd we have on in the car. In explicit learning we consciously work on our repertoire, going to a music workshop or playing along with a cd.
As music therapists and improvising musicians we need to bear in mind the importance of continually working on building up our ‘back of tricks’, drawing on older material we have learnt and also fishing for new material. That is why it’s so important to keep up our musical lives, going to concerts, listening to recordings and practicing at home.
Berkowitz, A.L. (2010) The Improvising Mind, Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Berliner, P.F. (1994) Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago, London: The University of Chicago Press.
Lord, A.B. (1960) The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Havard University Press.
Pressing, J. (2000) Improvisation: methods and models. In: Sloboda, J., ed. (2000) Generative Processes in Music. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, pp. 129-178.