Peter Miksza: On the Overlooked Value of Improvisation in Musical Training

How would you react if someone encouraged you to include some improvisation in your daily practice routine? Would you react with curiosity, and perhaps be a little excited to see what this could add to your musical and technical development? Or would you wonder about improvisation’s relevance in your daily practice, given that you don’t have unlimited time, and it’s not like you can improv your way through Schumann’s Scherzo? Or run away, because…eek! Improv?! Where would I even start? If I could go back in time, I’d hold younger me by the shoulders and tell that cocky little scalawag to make a concerted effort to develop some improv, composition, and transcription chops. Not just so I could do fun stuff like this or even this bit of awesomeness (btw, you can learn more about Ken and the interesting backstory of the project here), but so that I’d have a more complete understanding of what makes music work. So to get a bit more insight on this subject, I caught up with Indiana University music ed researcher and professor Peter Miksza, whose work has come up on the blog before (re: learning faster and memorizing more effectively). In this 30-minute chat, we’ll explore:
  • why improvisation may be a more valuable part of musicians’ training than we realize
  • the importance of “informal” practice in addition to deliberate practice
  • how “micro-improvisation” could be used even in (or perhaps especially in) ensemble settings
  • four things skilled improvisers do to get better at improvising, that all of us could incorporate into practice sessions
  • and more!
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Useful apps

Below are some improv-related apps Dr. Miksza recommended. Because, you know, apps are awesome.

iReal Pro

Make and play over background tracks.

Check it out

Jazz Tube

A research-driven website that has transcriptions for various jazz artists’ solos coordinated with youtube videos. It also features data from analyses of the improvisations.

Check it out

Tutti MusicPlayer

Download performances and lessons.

Check it out

Amazing Slow Downer

Set tempo of music recordings for transcribing or playing along.

iOS | Android

References

And here are references to some of the studies that came up in our chat (in order of when they were mentioned):

Deliberate practice

Lehmann, A. C., & Ericsson, K. A. (1997). Research on expert performance and deliberate practice: Implications for the education of amateur musicians and music students. Psychomusicology: A Journal of Research in Music Cognition, 16(1-2), 40-58. DOI: 10.1037/h0094068

Self-regulation

McPherson, G. E., Miksza, P., & Evans, P. (2018). Self-regulated music learning. In D. Schunk and J. Greene (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (2nd Ed.) (p. 181-193). New York, NY: Routledge.

Improv

Watson, K. E. (2015) Relationships among selected practice behaviours and achievement in jazz improvisation. Music Education Research, 17(1), 57-70, DOI: 10.1080/14613808.2014.986080

Tarr, C. T. (2016). Practising jazz performance: An investigation into the process that underpins optimal instrumental practice in the jazz idiom. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Edith Cowan University, Australia. Retrieved from http://ro.ecu.edu.au/theses/1921

Miksza, P., Watson, K., & Calhoun, I. (in press). The effect of mental practice on jazz improvisation achievement. Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain.

Norgaard, M. (2011). Descriptions of improvisational thinking by artist-level jazz musicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(2), 109-127. DOI: 10.1177/0022429411405669

Berliner, P. F. (1994). Thinking in jazz: The infinite art of improvisation. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226044521.001.0001

Where to find Dr. Miksza

When not breaking out some old-school dance moves, he can be found hanging out:

@ Dr. Miksza’s website

@ Dr. Miksza’s Music and Mind Lab

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Comments

5 Responses

  1. This has been interesting to me since I got back into music 8 years ago. I’m 52 and started piano lessons at age 11. I had always thought that I couldn’t write music. It was something fundamental that I knew about myself. And I had a one-time realization that enabled me to do it: I’ve always been the sort of person who could learn languages quickly and easily, and with a near-native accent. I had a very sudden realization while watching a movie about music that made the explicit comparison between it and language: “Well, if music is like a language, and I’m better at learning that than anyone else I know, then why don’t I just approach music the same way?” I literally walked downstairs, sat at my piano, and stuff started coming out. Slowly, but it started happening, like a light switch flipping. Very few things in my life have been a one-time epiphany, and this is one of them.

    The thing is, the way I learn languages is to take everything apart in my head while reading and speaking. If for example, I learn how to say, “The car is red,” in another language, it’s a natural instinct for me to start fiddling with the knobs by asking to myself, “What if the carS-plural are red? What if the car isn’t red? What if the car is blue? What if the book is red? What if the car WAS red? What is my car is red, your car is red?” With languages, that ravenous hunger to twiddle the dials is a natural thing for me; no one had to teach me to reach into sentences like little machines and start poking at them to find out how they worked as mechanisms.

    But with my classical piano lessons, I was told that playing by ear is bad, and that improvisers were like Mozart, magical space-alien deities that mere mortals could never possibly understand anyway, so why even bother?

    So there I was at the age of 42, sitting in my loft, and having to have the explicit realization that I could just take the music apart like I do with sentences in foreign languages. Just do that. It works there, why wouldn’t it work in music? And it works like a charm, just because I turned this new, unfamiliar skill around in my hand until it resembled something I’d already done, and I just approached it like that.

    Anyhow, maybe the Dr. Miksza could talk to the people at his institution who study language acquisition. I really do think that they are IDENTICAL skills. Certainly, treating them as if they were the same is what’s enabled me to compose — although I only improvise on the flute. Piano for me is like a typewriter, too big and complex to improvise on. Flute is just one note at a time. (I did it on viola as well, before I just realized that my shoulders and neck did not work with that device.)

    But either way: language acquisition.

    Thanks for the interview — this was really neat.

    1. I love your use of the phrase “twiddle the dials.” When I practice improv, usually I start off with one musical idea and then the practice session revolves around tweaking it more and more to come up with new stuff.

  2. When I first tried piano improv, nothing came out. I kept trying for days — paralysis. Then one day, I walked into the practice room and discovered that I could improvise freely over the blues scale. It seemed as if I’d flipped a switch in my brain, but I believe that all the time my conscious mind was paralyzed, my unconscious was working the problem and once it had something to show, it uploaded to my conscious mind, so that the paralysis only appeared to have vanished overnight. Ever since that day, I could never be speechless on my instrument again.

    It would be interesting if Charles Limb did an fMRI study of an ‘improv naive’ musician during this initial paralysis to capture the moment when the ‘improv switch’ flips in the brain.

    Whether interpretation in musical performance = creativity: I think it does, of course. Otherwise, we’d say that cinematographers, photographers and actors are also not ‘creators’ because their subjects don’t originate with them. My gut reaction is that attitude equates creativity with masturbation — the artist as ‘me.’ Me, me, me. I alone. No.

    I’m a novelist and for me, interpretation is a key part of my creative process: I start with a germ of an idea for a scene, then I step back and observe that idea to discover its potential. In writing a theme & variations, the composer interprets the theme by observing it, like a photographer I’d think, from different angles to discover its potential. As Castaneda wrote, a good musician can’t just ‘look’ at the score, but has to ‘see’ it. A photographer ‘sees’ his subject. Brahms ‘sees’ his theme. I have to ‘see’ the germ to build on it — that is how I wrote my books. I don’t see how seeing what I originated is so different from seeing what someone else originated.

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