Moving from the Formal to Informal

| November 30, 2010


Sophie and I met at a course in CCTE at Teachers College. At first I was drawn to Sophie’s story because of her improvisational band, Forma. As I got to know her she told me about her classical piano training. I decided to focus on her evolution as a musician: in particular, I was interested in how someone goes from classical piano to improv performances.

Teaching with the Video

This video could be used in a classroom to initiate a discussion on the relationship between formal training and experimentation. Does someone need a period of formal training before she begins experimenting? Does one’s formal training make one better at improvising? Do the answers to these questions vary across domains: writing, the visual arts, dance, sport? This video can also be used to illustrate the significance of adaptivity, encouraging students to think about how they can take skills that they think only apply in one setting and use them in new settings and in new ways.

Extended Interview

When did you start learning to play music?

When I was really young, my mother signed me up for a music conservatory. From 5-15 I was part of a rigorous classical music-training program. I practiced an hour everyday, lots of scales, arpeggios. I used music books for developing your technique. I’d go to my lesson and before I had my lesson, I would hear my teacher practicing.

How is learning classical piano different from learning to play improv on the piano?

You learn one line at a time, different notes on the keys, then the notation and how it relates to the notes. It’s easy, like learning how to read. First you learn the letters and that’s analogous to a chord. After words, small sentences, that phrase is repeated later. Chords repeated.

It’s like being an athlete. You have to do the boring and dull exercises that actually strengthen your body and hands and give you the facility to actually play a game.

But I wouldn’t have had the language to work in improve had it not been for the classical education.

We think about [improv] in terms of little patterns so the way we play, Mark and I we start with him on keyboards or me on piano and we would start by creating these little repetitive patterns, and then one person would add something harmonic over it, melody over it and from playing these little patterns we formed a vocabulary of patterns.

What sorts of things do you do to prepare for a show?

When Mark plays something, I listen and listening is a huge part of improvisation because a lot of it is responding directly to what one person does. I might play an inversion of that chord, or a relation to that chord. He might play one rhythm punctuate that rhythm. It’s these contrasts, these short small patterns that after a period of time it became easier to produce. It’s patterns. And that’s one form of improvisation because we never know if we’re going to playing a major key. We don’t know where we’re going to start or where we’re going to end.

For improvisation we will practice and practice and practice but we honestly have no idea a lot of times what we’re going to produce. We honestly don’t know until we’re there and so it’s kind of organic.

What have you learned from the improv world?

The tools we use make music accessible, I firmly believe that music should be made accessible. Anyone can play music, and everybody should learn.