Friday, March 8, 2013


From the facebook status of Mark O'Connor, one of my favorite violinists:

I have gotten a lot of messages in the inbox and I am going to share this one: 

"I am an adult, advanced cellist. I am a cello performance major at Cal. State U. Northridge, classically trained. I love what you do. My problem is that I have not "fiddled" around enough on my cello. I am wedded to the written page. I have been working at improvising, using my ear, trying to break out of my classical box for about three years already and am making slow progress. Can you help me?"

Let me say, you have a LOT of company. Firstly... the ear training that string players "thought" they got as a child, is not ear training. Suzuki promised this to the student, and even traditional training has adopted this belief over the last couple generations now because of Suzuki's influence. If you ever learned something by ear as a young student, and you were in the current classical system of the last 50 years, it wasn't learning by ear, it was simply visual mimicking of either your teacher's fingering through repetition, or following your teacher's hand signals, or written symbols marking what finger to use. This is not ear training, it is learning music by a visual stimulus. Secondly, memorization for children is problematic. That is one of the biggest problems in our last couple generations of students, is that they are memorizing to the test. Memorization, the kind that Suzuki uses and other studios were influenced by consequently, is not ear training. Memorization utilizes sequential information and is related to remembering fingerings, patterns and finger sequences. It is a different brain path. In my own playing, when I use my auditory skills as a creative musician for playing or memorization, I imagine melody, harmony and rhythm and whatever I am supposed to play at once -whether it is worked out or not. It is why I can play my written concerto, have a memory lapse and make up some new notes instantaneously because I already knew what the harmonic and rhythmic context of it was. It is thinking through a different pathway. These problems in classical music learning have been accentuated by such early starts on the instruments over the last 50 years to where this particular "wiring" has been introduced so early in the child's brain development, that it is nearly impossible for an accomplished string player (such as yourself it sounds like) to undo.

What to do. There is no teacher that is going to undo this for you at this point, you will need what I call a cultural intervention. That could include learning an entirely different instrument creatively. For you I would actually suggest the fiddle since you are a cellist! Or the guitar, or mandolin. The other thing I would do, is to either go to weekly jam sessions with welcoming amateur players or actually join a rock or pop band or acoustic jamming ensemble and just make up everything you play and let the guitar, bass and keyboard player give you tips gradually over time. That is the best bet for an advanced classical musician at this point. It can work. Academic lessons in jazz, altered scales or theory will just waste your time as an adult, advanced player because academically you will approach it just like your classical wiring will allow you, and it won't be applicable. It is better for you to find the culture through the things I have mentioned! And please visit me at one of my seminars or camps one day soon!
I really like this. Honestly, it's far, far easier to teach music reading than improv ability. You can learn a degree of basic improv through theory, chord recognition, memorized patterns that can be played over a variety of meters, etc. This is how I've always taught music-dependent adult pianists to ”jam.” This is accessible to anyone, regardless of innate musical ability, because it is at its core the memorization and implementation of patterns and mnemonics. With some students, we go a step further- they will learn to hear, not just a note, but other notes that harmonize with it, or hear a melody and harmonize it logically/creatively in their head. Those that "have the ear" will take things, put their creative spin on them, and make something beautifully their own. Others will become competent enough to, say, play for a worship band, but they are more implementing patterns and harmonic habits than creating something clever and delightful.

All of my students learn to read music, and all of them are required to "practice" improvisation regularly. We practice, teach, and learn, but I must say I don't think the sort of creative thinking that allows us to improvise notes in a concerto based on harmonic and rhythmic context is taught that way- I've always believed it was more innate than learned. Therefore, I find Mr. O'Connor's perspective very interesting. Is this ability innate, or are we simply teaching it incorrectly? I think my experience affirms the former, but I wonder sometimes. Nature, or nurture? Either way, I like it. Improvising/composing have been natural to me since I was very small, and I don't think anyone ever "taught" me how, so it's been a fun journey as a teacher learning how to teach those for whom it does not come as naturally to "speak" that musical dialect.

In my opinion, there are too few musicians who can operate from sheet music, a chord sheet, or their own head with equal fluency. My goal is to foster this fluency in all my students, but I must say, some adapt to/become fluent in all the above with much greater ease than others. That nature is at least somewhat the culprit is clear; but if there is a way to narrow the gap I'd very much like to find it. 

1 comment:

  1. I noticed that I was getting referrals to my blog from yours, so I poked around a bit. Thanks for listing my blog!

    Great stuff here from Mark O'Connor - I'm also a fan. Improvisation certainly is a different set of skills from either Suzuki or traditional note reading. (I started Suzuki and transitioned to a more traditional approach in high school.)

    I had to learn to improvise pretty early on when I started playing along at church, particularly with groups that used chord sheets instead of full music. I know I dropped a few clams at first, but I did start to think in terms of the chords and the progressions. Now, it feels automatic.

    Anyway, I'll add your blog to my reading list.