Asking the wrong question

Can you teach improvisation?”

We’ve spent a century in classical music squelching the ability, and now we’re asking whether it can be “taught?” It would be like going to China back in the day and finding a bunch of footbound matrons, and saying, “We’ll teach them to run!”

You probably wouldn’t be successful.

And yet, you’d be wrong to conclude that running can’t be taught. Or … you’d be right to conclude that it can’t be taught, and wrong to conclude that it can’t be done.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to teach someone to run, because they wouldn’t have had that natural instinct repressed in the first place. Some people would run better than others; we’re not all Jesse Owens. But we can all run, certainly. Even people without legs find ways to move themselves and even climb mountains should the mood strike them. (And many people with two good legs simply don’t find it diverting to do so and don’t bother.)

We’re just looking at this wrong. It’s not a matter of teaching people how to improvise. It’s a matter of getting out of the way of the natural instinct to do so. The issue arises when the virtuoso manipulation of instruments becomes so challenging that kids have to devote all of their time to learning how to manipulate them … to the point where they are told that they shouldn’t “waste time” on improvising and instead have to practice Hanon over and over.

I guess it’s another way of looking at the question of whether one can be creative and also master thumb position. Maybe if there were 42 hours in a day (and maybe if the virtuoso demands on classical musicians wouldn’t predictably expand to fill all 42 hours), one could do both. But with the demands of virtuoso recitation swallowing all available time, and with competitions being the gold standard for classically trained musicians, any child who wishes to flex that muscle has to do so against an astonishing headwind. By the time that student reaches middle age, any innate ability has atrophied, and reanimating it becomes a serious challenge — especially if they listen to the many people more than willing to proclaim that it Can’t Be Done. Even Montero’s ability only survived many long years of repression only because she had acquired it so very, very young that it had taken root far too deeply.

There are people around today who have never acquired language, most of them deaf and born in areas of the world where there was no healthy signing Deaf culture to which they could be exposed. Many such people simply do not know what language even is, nor can they conceive of it. Some very few of them can acquire language. Most get a few pantomime signs down. Others never manage it, and go to their graves without acquiring that most basic of human abilities and all of the sharing that accompanies it. Can you imagine dying in old age without even having had one of your questions answered, even something so basic as, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do tree leaves change color?”

Would you conclude from these people that the ability to speak is something that cannot be taught? That is unnatural for the human mind, with the exception of a very lucky and very few gifted individuals? Of course not. The human brain is in fact wired to acquire speech of some kind, be it signed or spoken. The proper conclusion to reach is that, when people are free and properly nurtured, such things don’t need to be taught.

So the question becomes not whether you can teach improvisation, but how did we get into a situation where we think we need to? Sure, not everyone would be Gabriela Montero or would want to be; lots of people would be much happier chasing Owens down the track, dancing, painting, or otherwise following their own natural appetites. But out of the many people who like music and play instruments, more of us could than couldn’t. If only we’d get out of our own way.