PRINCIPLE 5: FACILITATE
THE REGULAR SCHOOL DAY IS OVER, and most kids have cleared out of the building. I stay after school to help a few of my music production students with some tracking sessions for a class project. I walk into the music technology lab to find a student seated at one of our keyboard synths, apparently lost in creative reverie. The music he is playing is simple, yet intriguing. I do not recognize it. “Hey, what are you up to?” I ask. “Nothing,” the student replies, “just fooling around.” He’s improvising. “Fooling around” seems apropos for several reasons. I can hear the stop and start of an experimenter; he is not playing an existing piece of music. Instead, he’s auditioning various notes and chords and keyboard figurations in search of music that is slowly forming in his imagination. The process, what Michele Kaschub and Janice Smith call “thinking in music,” as opposed to “thinking about music,”1 is a little ambiguous, but it can be very satisfying.
Many composers turn to improvisation like this as a starting point, the creative spark, for generating material for a piece. When a composer feels a certain gesture, phrase, or passage improvised is worth preserving, he or she documents it for use later. Even experienced composers with strong aural skills enjoy the tactile interaction with an instrument as they play and “feel” for ideas that inspire. There are times when improvising at the keyboard that I unintentionally hit certain keys but yet find the sound to be very interesting and possibly useful for a future piece. I call these occurrences “musical penicillin” after the legendary accidental discovery in 1928 of the life-saving antibiotic by Scottish research scientist Alexander Fleming. Once “discovered,” these ideas can be recorded in a sketchbook or developed immediately as part of a composition. Improvisation opens the door for musical discovery.
Employing rhythmic or melodic improvisation might be useful for developing an initial theme for a melodic composition. Instrumental music students
1. Kaschub and Smith, Minds on Music, 21. Kaschub and Smith consider this sort of “fooling around” to be part of a precomposition process they call “exploration.” As a composer, I view improvisation broadly to include this very informal tinkering.