Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Learning music from collaboration
R. Keith Sawyer
Washington University in St. Louis, Department of Education, Campus Box 1183, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA
Received 1 January 2007; received in revised form 31 October 2007; accepted 5 November 2007

International Journal of Educational Research 47 (2008) 50–59
This is an article that brings up very valuable points as well as some questionable ones. Sawyer has written several articles around the subject of theatre and jazz improvisation as models to implement group interaction in other areas. I have read some of them and they present insightful analogies in theatre and jazz improvisation that he claims, can be applied in the classroom as pedagogical tools and style of delivery, that is an improvised lesson plan as to opposed to a scripted lesson plan.
In this article in particular, he focuses on one improvisational task from each field: theatre and jazz. He breaks down in deep detail the mechanics of the process. His argument for education is that through improvisation students construct their own learning and knowledge. He also shows that improvisation as a creative way to learn happens within structures. In fact, in this paper, he analyses a dialogue of an improvised theatre piece pointing to the constructs and constrictions that each line defines as the material emerges.
Originally, I found great value in Sawyer’s arguments and theories to the point that I was curious to read more about his research. This article focuses on the idea of learning music within the collaborative (his own word) setting of improvisation. For this to happen, the teacher needs to provide the necessary and appropriate scaffold, in the Vygostkian sense. So far so good. Half way into the paper, Sawyers develops the ideas of freedom within structures; in a nutshell, he replicates David Elliott’s theory of creativity: one can only be creative after knowing all the rules, history, conventions, and gestures of a musical style. At this point, the disappointment is such, that I want to go out on the street, sit on the kerb and cry with my head between my knees.
This approach sets teaching back to square one. In a way, it defeats the purpose of working around an alternative set of mechanics. What I find most annoying about Sawyer’s understanding of improvisation, is that all his examples and illustrations are based on the jam session scenario. Jam sessions are, in my opinion, the worst music making situation in all the history of civilization. It is curious that Sawyer chooses such an archaic and uncreative setting to talk about creativity and innovation; as he points, in a jam session players call out tunes that they all know from before, they follow a standard procedure of head-solos-trade choruses-head, and they play established licks and gestures that are well ingrained in the tradition so as to sound within the style. Rather than a collaborative learning setting that propels innovation, I would claim that the jam session is a stale setting that intends to perpetuate and freeze musical traditions.
Another annoying comment of Sawyer’s raises my temperature when he mentions that it is important to know the tradition to innovate as it is the case of jazz players. There are some players who have indeed innovated after learning the language of jazz inside out, but there are many players who innovated not having a jazz background necessarily. For instance Branford Marsalis had a strong schooling in jazz playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before breaking off with his own projects. But I wonder what jazz training Alex Acuna had before joining Weather Report only a few days after arriving in the USA from Peru. Did Jaco Pastorious know all the standards from the “real book”? Pat Metheny for sure, but I doubt if Jaco did...

My point here is that in order to create, an individual needs a creative mind, rather than knowledge of tradition; to know the rules first and then break them, is only one way to create. If improvisation has a place in music education, is in my opinion, the purpose to redefine creative thought.

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