Sounds of Hope, Sounds of Change:
Improvisation, Pedagogy, Social Justice
Ajay Heble and Ellen Waterman
What does it mean to practice political resistance, to speak of social justice, and to radicalize public understanding through music education? How can pedagogical musical endeavours, despite the forces that seek to marginalize or contain them, work to activate diverse energies of critique and inspiration? How might such endeavours play a crucial role in building vibrant and sustainable communities, and in fostering hope for a better future? Activist disruptions to mainstream consensual assumptions, indeed, take many trenchant forms in contemporary culture, as artists, educators, and networks of practice continue to find innovative strategies to enlarge our base of valued knowledges. In this editorial, we’d like to suggest that musical improvisation, in particular, offers rich possibilities for developing a robust and alternative pedagogy that reaches across cultural and social divides, and that enables us to imagine what it might mean to achieve social justice and a meaningful sense of participation in community. As a musical practice that accents real-time creative decision-making, risk-taking, and collaboration among its participants, improvisation, as much of the work that has hitherto been profiled in our journal makes clear, has repeatedly insisted on the very force of its out-of-tuneness. It has purposefully confounded familiar frameworks of assumption. If it is the case (as we believe it is) that oppositional politics often takes as one of its most salient manifestations an allegiance to forms of artistic practice that cannot readily be assimilated using dominant structures of understanding, then improvisatory performance practices, we believe, may themselves be understood as activist forms of insurgent knowledge production.
To what extent, and in what ways, then, might improvised creative practice foster a commitment to cultural listening, to a widening of the scope of community, and to new relations of trust and social obligation? If, following Henry Giroux, we understand pedagogy not just in terms of the transmission of knowledge within classrooms, but more broadly as “the complicated processes by which knowledge is produced, skills are learned meaningfully, identities are shaped, desires are mobilized, and critical dialogue becomes a central form of public interaction” (xi), then to what extent (and in what ways) might improvisational musical practices be understood as vital (and publically resonant) pedagogical acts which generate new forms of knowledge, new understandings of identity and community, new imaginative possibilities? How do the kinds of cultural (and pedagogical) institutions that present and promote improvised music shape our understanding of public culture, of memory, of history?
Drawing on the work of Giroux, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and other theorists of critical pedagogy, we’d like to argue that teaching and learning are going on constantly (and not just in formal educational settings). At issue in the context of musical pedagogy, then, is the need to develop a more rigorous understanding of how (and with what impact) alternative pedagogical institutions function in our communities. In this context, Max Wyman makes a convincing case in his book The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters for the pedagogical value of arts and culture, suggesting that "engagement with artistic creativity develops the ability to think creatively in ways that significantly enlarge the educational experience. It encourages the flexible, nuanced thinking that will be an essential requirement of any innovative response to the challenges we face. It makes us see our world in fresh ways, encourages suppleness of mind. Doubt is cast on our most comfortable perceptions. We learn the art of adaptability” (7). These are powerful claims that encourage us to consider how arts-based initiatives might—to borrow again from hooks—help us to re-envision education as always a part of the real world experience in our communities.
In their book Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America, Sara Evans and Harry Boyte ask, “Where are the places in our culture through which people sustain bonds and history? What are the processes through which they may broaden their sense of the possible, make alliances with others, develop the practical skills and knowledge to maintain democratic organization?” (202). We’d like to open up questions about the extent to which a broadly construed pedagogy of improvisation might offer one such place in our culture where aggrieved communities can gain the hope to assert their own rights, to enhance our collective ability to see (and to hear) “life as possibility” (the phrase is Robin Kelley’s), to educate the public on abiding matters of justice and rights, and to advance the struggle for more inclusive frameworks of understanding. And if Wyman is correct in noting that “new art educates us for uncertainty, and it is in uncertainty that we will find the future” (110), then we’d like to suggest that improvised music can (to borrow again from Kelley) not only empower us to hear “life as possibility,” but also enable the sounding of a more inclusive vision of community-building and intellectual stock-taking for the new millennium.
To envision improvisation pedagogy as a tool for social reform is to accept an idea of music education that goes far beyond the transmission of skill sets and information. The papers presented in this special issue on Improvisation and Pedagogy present diverse points of view in an emerging dialogue that carries some urgency.1 Three strands of thought emerge from this collection: calls for a radical pedagogy, narratives of experience, and visions of hope.
Guest commentaries from George E. Lewis and Keith Sawyer articulate a concept of improvisation as radical pedagogy. Drawing on research in learning science, Sawyer calls for nothing less than a “transformation of our music culture” that would put improvisation at the core of music education. Such a move, he argues, would put an end to the binary composer/performer, and bring about a return to the idea of the whole musician. Improvisation pedagogy has the potential to foster musicians who exhibit characteristics that are key to the knowledge economy: deep conceptual understanding, integrated knowledge, and adaptive expertise. Lewis points beyond the academy to autodidactic jazz communities where developing new forms of musicking has historically been linked to political engagement. Given such histories, he asks, how can we foster new ways of creating and nurturing partnerships between artistic communities and institutions? Further, how can improvisation be extended beyond music pedagogy into other fields, as work in organizational studies, for example, suggests?
Guitarist Fred Frith, who developed the graduate program in Improvised Music at Mills College, offers a pragmatics of improvisation pedagogy grounded in his experience both as a working musician and a teacher. In his interview with Charity Chan, he suggests that “in the end, improvising is what we all do. It’s how we get through life, even within the rigid structures where we may have to work.” Working with young musicians in the academy requires the same deep engagement with listening required in all improvised music contexts. For Frith, musical improvisation is not inherently ethical, but his improvisation pedagogy works to model ethical social practices; for example, in his insistence on gender parity in his student ensemble. Our thanks to Fred for providing the image of the Mills Music Improvisation Ensemble (MIE) and music for our splash page. The music is from “For MIE” by Ayako Kataok.
Like Frith, trombonist Scott Thomson regards improvisation as an arena that challenges us to work collectively. He is a founding member of the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto (AIMToronto), and locates his essay across the spheres of local, national, and international improvising communities. Thomson’s musical (and concomitant administrative) life finds meaning in the idea that musical improvisation carries a “pedagogical imperative” as “improvisers’ musical knowledge, aesthetic judgment, negotiation of difference, and sense of play circulate in the process of making collaborative music in real time.” The improviser’s challenge is to abandon authoritarian models of musicking and to embrace the challenges presented when we embrace difference.
Ursel Schlicht and Roger Mantie also offer perspectives on improvisation pedagogy from the field, in college and secondary schools respectively. Schlicht’s description and analysis of her course on improvisation at Ramapo College recounts her personal journey as an artist who wanted to create an inclusive curriculum that welcomed a diversity of experience and musical expression. Student journals reveal both the anxieties and epiphanies encountered in the course. Mantie’s case study of jazz pedagogy in Manitoba high schools reveals the limitations of adherence to the “Big Band” model in which students mostly learn to read notated and heavily standardized scores. His interviews with experts in jazz pedagogy and adjudication show a frustration with students’ lack of opportunity to develop improvisational skills.
Steve Lehman’s historical contribution articulates a vision of hope for the potential force of improvisation pedagogy to have a genuine impact on society. As his former student, Lehman presents a moving account of saxophonist Jackie McLean’s community and institutional pedagogy. McLean (1931-2006) is a great example of a self-taught musician who learned his art by proximity to some of the great African American bebop musicians, including Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. McLean’s extraordinary career bridged political and community activism (from his support for the Black Panthers to his work with street youth) to institutional teaching (at the University of Hartford). Lehman argues that McLean’s activism stemmed directly from his improvisational gifts including “a positive response to change, opportunistic/creative solutions to problems that presented themselves, an orientation to social cooperation, and a careful attention to process.” Echoes of Sawyer’s “knowledge expert” resound.
In our previous editorial, we told you that Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation was entering into an exciting new phase of development. We noted how the journal was a core part of a large, multi-year, multi-institutional research project, Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP), that had just received significant funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s prestigious Major Collaborative Research Initiatives Program. Now, we’re pleased to tell you a little more about the extraordinary momentum and sense of intellectual excitement generated by the ICASP project, and about the significance this momentum carries for the journal.
The questions we've been broaching in our editorial for this special issue on Improvisation and Pedagogy reflect the core hypothesis of the ICASP project: that musical improvisation needs to be understood as a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action. Taking as a point of departure performance practices that cannot readily be scripted, predicted, or compelled into orthodoxy, our researchers argue that the innovative working models of improvisation developed by creative practitioners have helped to promote a dynamic exchange of cultural forms, and to encourage new, socially responsive forms of community building across national, cultural, and artistic boundaries. Improvisation, in short, has much to tell us about the ways in which communities based on such forms are politically and materially pertinent to envisioning and sounding alternative ways of knowing and being in the world. Improvisation demands shared responsibility for participation in community, an ability to negotiate differences, and a willingness to accept the challenges of risk and contingency. Furthermore, in an era when diverse peoples and communities of interest struggle to forge historically new forms of affiliation across cultural divides, the participatory and civic virtues of engagement, dialogue, respect, and community-building inculcated through improvisatory practices take on a particular urgency.
It’s our contention, indeed, that scholars in the humanities and social sciences have much to learn from performance practices that accent dialogue, collaboration, inventive flexibility, and creative risk-taking, from art forms that disrupt orthodox standards of coherence, judgement, and value with a spirit of experimentation and innovation. If humanities research and teaching have for too long operated on the flawed assumption that knowledge is a fixed and permanent commodity, then the most absorbing testimony of improvisation’s power and potential may well reside in the spirit of movement, mobility, and momentum that it articulates and exemplifies. From the social relationships envisioned and activated through improvisational music-making, we learn that in the ongoing search for new categories of momentum resides the hope that will sustain and empower us in our efforts to work towards a more inclusive vision of community-building and intellectual stock-taking for the new millennium.
Our broadly based team of researchers and community partners is particularly well-positioned to take on this work. With expertise in critical, literary, historical, musical, sociological, anthropological, technological, and philosophical inquiry, policy-oriented social research, law, and creative response, the ICASP team will address pressing issues of social and cultural transformation: human rights, transculturalism, pedagogy, intellectual property rights, the civic participation of aggrieved populations, the role of creativity in powering economic growth, issues central to the challenges of diversity and social cooperation.
What does all this mean for the journal? For one thing, we’ll be highlighting the seven research areas of the project by devoting a special topic issue to each. Starting with the current pedagogy issue, we’ll also provide an opportunity for leading theorists in the field to reflect on the current state of research in their specific research areas, and to outline key questions and areas of emphasis that are likely to shape the research agenda in the years ahead. It is, of course, our hope that these commentaries will inspire ongoing inquiry and dialogue. Vol 4.1 (June 2008) is a “general” issue with a mini-focus on the inspiring music and thought of Anthony Braxton. Vol 4.2 (Dec 2008) will be a special issue, Comin’ Out Swingin: Improvisation and Sexualities, with guest editors Kevin McNeilly and Julie Dawn Smith. As always, we invite ongoing submissions of articles, interviews, book reviews, and commentaries. Finally, a word of heartfelt thanks to our dedicated and efficient team: Greg Fenton, Managing Editor; Natalie Onuška, Copy Editor; and Wayne Johnston, Technical Support.
1 The issues raised here were also at the centre of the Second Annual International Society for Improvised Music conference at Northwestern University, December 2007. The conference theme was Building Bridges: improvisation as a unifying agent in education, arts, and society. At a roundtable on curriculum reform, musicians and music teachers alike called for a concerted lobbying effort on behalf of improvised music in schools. Another recent conference Musica Ficta / Lived Realities: exclusions and engagements in music, education and the arts, at the University of Toronto in January 2008, revealed the broad range of exciting visions, and deeply felt need, for a creative music pedagogy that reaches out of the classroom to aggrieved communities. See <http://isim.edsarath.com/index.htm>, and <http://www.music.utoronto.ca/events/conferences/musicaficta.htm>. A number of the essays published in this issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation were first presented at the Guelph Jazz Festival Colloquium in September 2006 and September 2007.
Evans, Sara, and Harry Boyte. Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.
Giroux, Henry A. “Foreword” Contending Zones and Public Spaces.” Carol Becker. Zones of Contention: Essays on Art, Institutions, Gender, and Anxiety. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996. ix-xii.
Wyman, Max. The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 2004.