Learning to Improvise

From “The Improvisational Brain,” by Amanda Rose Martinez, SeedMagazine, Dec. 14, 2010:

Aaron Berkowitz, a cognitive ethnomusicologist, who took on the task of demystifying improvisation as the focus of his dissertation work at Harvard, has a theory. He likens the process of learning to improvise to that of learning a second language. Initially, he says, it’s all about memorizing vocabulary words, useful phrases and verb conjugation tables. Your first day, you might learn to say: How are you? I’m fine. “These are like the baby steps beginning improvisers take. They learn the structure of the blues. They learn basic chords and get the form down,” said Berkowitz. But they’re still very limited in what they can do.

Credit: Flickr user maistoraA dedicated musician will immerse himself in the recordings of his chosen genre or composer, just as a language student might absorb foreign films or tapes of people speaking. Over time, both musician and student accumulate more phrases and ways to combine them. “But you still can’t really invent anything. [The language learner] can’t talk about politics or the environment,” Berkowitz said. “You’re still thinking: ‘Uh oh, here’s comes a verb. I have to put it in the past tense. I have to put it at the end of the sentence before I can say this whole phrase.”

But eventually, through constant practice, you get to the point where, scientists believe, these processes get pushed down into the subconscious. They don’t need to be consciously worked out anymore. They become a subroutine. Suddenly you realize you’re saying things you haven’t heard or memorized. You’re able to free-associate. Your brain begins exerting control at a higher level, directing bigger chunks of information that can be expressed as whole ideas.

The trajectory of acquiring a language, according to Berkowitz, where you begin with learned phrases, achieve fluency, and are eventually able to create poetry mirrors perfectly the process of learning to improvise. In the same way a language student learns words, phrases and grammatical structure so that later he can recombine them to best communicate his thoughts, a musician collects and commits to memory patterns of notes, chords and progressions, which he can later draw from to express his musical ideas.

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