The thoughts first emerged through a conversation with a friend who believes that teaching piano should pay as much attention to improvisation as it does to reading from the score page. This struck a particularly resonant cord in my own consciousness, because, while I spent a lot of time improvising as a kid, I was not particularly good at it then; and I am even worse at it now. As a result, I have developed a real interest in the extent to which Johann Sebastian Bach’s approach to pedagogy seems to be grounded in the assumption of a tight coupling (not that Bach would ever have used such a phrase) between proficiency in execution and proficiency in invention.
Since I still tend to be as interested in “wet brains” as I am in “abstract ideas” and since last year I was put off by what I felt was some really bad experiment design in an effort to identify, through brain scanning, areas of brain activity associated with both memorization of music and improvisation, I tried to relate this inadequate attempt to a firmer foundation of hypothesis generation. It occurred to me that questions concerned with both memorization and improvisation could only be framed in the context of some more general model of time-consciousness. This continues to be one of the most problematic concepts for those trying to get a handle on time-based thinking. Edmund Husserl wrote a whole book about it, but the problem has been nagging great minds going back at least to Augustine, not to mention Aristotle’s efforts to get a handle on memory.
In his book The Remembered Present, Gerald Edelman tries to approach time-consciousness through areas of the brain that he calls “organs of succession.” (For those wanting me to be more specific, these are the cerebellum, the hippocampus, and the basal ganglia.) In his model time-consciousness has much more to do with the ability of the mind to work with the concepts of “before” and “after” than with the more specific matters of duration, whether in the specific domain of clock time or in those of Henri Bergson’s more subjective model of subjectively “felt” time. (This actually suggests that Edelman and Augustine might have easily found a common ground for conversation.)
I would like to suggest that those who are good at improvisation depend very heavily on such organs of succession. In more simplistic language improvisation comes down to continually dealing with two questions:
- What have I done?
- What do I do next?
Now, while these questions are good to bear in mind when one is reading from a score page, from a strictly logical point of view, neither is absolutely necessary. Reading music can take place entirely “in the moment,” with no regard to either past or future. The eye is simply providing a stream of answers to only one question:
What do I do now?This then suggests why Bach felt it was important for the student to acquire both sides of the coin, so to speak. One masters execution because, once you know the answer to the what-do-I-do-now question, you have to have the physical capacity to actually do it. On the other hand Bach’s approach to invention addresses the capacity for improvisation. That requires those before/after questions; and they cannot be satisfied unless your organs of succession have been “primed” to deal with them.
As I said at the beginning, these are admittedly “unkempt thoughts.” However, I figure that a “rehearsal studio” can double as a “laboratory notebook;” and such a notebook is more than a record of hypotheses, data, and analyses. It can also be a diary in which one lays out the “tracks for trains of thought,” so to speak, that direct one to those hypotheses that need to be further investigated.