Thursday, April 09, 2009

Hivemind: Pedagogy licks and tricks

Nearly a year ago, Darcy posted this questionaire by Mike McGinnis. This was my response at the time:
In general, this is something I've struggled with as I've started teaching more.
I've worked very hard to shed a reliance on licks and move towards a more
holistic, in-the-moment approach to improv, which doesn't make me special but
will hopefully make me "me." As such I'm wary of giving my students licks and
phrases to study, but the other ways of teaching improvisation sound so
convoluted to a beginner. The process, like a snake shedding its skin, seems to
be necessary: studying the vocabulary of past and present masters, and then
finding one's own voice within that.

I've now had students who are at the level of being able and willing to learn some vocabulary, and I find myself being very against teaching all the textbook patterns and licks that I learned myself. It took me as long, if not longer, to realize that those phrases were a means to an end and not the end itself. I remember hitting a wall early on in my jazz studies, realizing that I wasn't truly improvising but merely creating a real-time pastiche of lick A and phrase B.

I'm beginning to think that a better way is to encourage the student to find their own vocabulary. Any student will (or should) have artists that they gravitate towards and identify with - let that be the genesis of their vocabulary, instead of working out of the various compendiums of licks that exist now. Jan Jarczyk once counselled me to take my favourite phrases of a solo, investigate how and why they work, and take them out of the context of the solo and create new permutations: transpose them to other keys, superimpose them on other harmony, etc. Brad Mehldau told me that he would write his own etudes for himself, so that he could practise various technical challenges without having to copy someone else's language. Some of my first lessons with Jeff Johnston were spent writing my own lines over ii-V-I progressions and attempting to arrive at my own sound that way.

I'm not denying the importance of tradition, or of listening to what's come before. In fact, I believe that it's essential to know the history of the music you're playing, and to be able to recall certain stylistic traits of it immediately. But the challenge is to create a relationship with your musical language, and to have that intent behind what you're playing - if I happen to play a Bird or Coltrane lick, it's not done with a wink and a nod, it's done as my genuine musical decision at that given moment.

How have you fellow musicians and educators effectively learned, or taught, improvisation? Is learning licks now a rite of passage for students or is there a better way to do it?

No comments: