By Spencer Cawein Pate
[This is a paper I wrote for a graduate course on “Action Research in Education.”]
Recently, my friend Ronnie—a doctoral student who teaches undergraduate English—posed an interesting question during one of our lengthy email conversations about education. Ronnie, who is interested in theater, asked me whether I feel as though my classroom teaching is a “performance” of sorts (as he did). After some consideration, I replied that I view teaching as essentially performative, but not in a manner that is fundamentally different from the construction of identity in any other circumstances. In this regard I concur with the seminal work of the social psychologist Erving Goffman, who held that the presentation of oneself to others in social / symbolic interactions is constituted like a theatrical performance—one adapts the presentation of one’s identity to the audience in question (Goffman 1959). In teaching, of course, the specifically theatrical element of performance is more apparent than in other contexts; many of the best teachers are accomplished performers and storytellers (Sawyer 2011 p. 4). While I never felt that my “teacher self” was too different from my core, internal identity, I could definitely see how my presentation as a teacher amplified some elements of my personality (such as my enthusiasm for the subject matter or my patience with children) while downplaying others.
But I went on to tell my friend that I perceive teaching not just as a performance, but above all as an improvisation. I view teaching as an art rather than a science; it has always struck me that a famous quote about art from the Henry James story “The Middle Years” could just as easily apply to education: “We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art” (James 1996 p. 354). Teachers require what the poet John Keats termed “negative capability,” or the ability or capacity to live with contingency, uncertainty, doubt. So for me, the difference between the practice of teaching and the improvised comedy one might view on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improvised vérité cinema of Jean-Luc Godard’s À Bout de Souffle, or the improvised music one might hear when one attends a performance by The Necks, is one of quantity, not one of quality.
This begs the question of what, precisely, improvisation is in the first place. If I had to define it (as broadly as possible, so as to capture the rich diversity of improvisatory practices in all types of art and media), I would say that improvisation is any practice in which one must act and react flexibly, in real time, to contingent and changing material and ideological conditions. I will unpack the separate ideas embedded in this definition later. For now, though, I would like to briefly discuss my personal experience with improvisation in an educational context. My own relationship with improvisation is a somewhat contradictory one. I can’t act or play an instrument, but my appreciation for and admiration of improvised music and comedy is boundless. On the other hand, as a substitute teacher for the past three years, I often felt as though I was doing nothing but improvising. Regardless of the level of detail of the lesson plans I was given, there would always be unexpected situations and unfolding complexities with which I would have to contend. Much like live music, teaching is an ephemeral art, leaving no material trace other than memories, and subbing is an ephemeral form of teaching: every new day is often completely different from the previous. And in these instances, the best one can do is to improvise, to make the best of one’s prior knowledge and the materials one has at hand. If a lesson plan is something like a map, then it follows that we must remember the map is not the territory, no matter how accurate a representation of reality it is.
In truth, as stressful and exhausting as improvising in a classroom situation can be, many of my proudest moments as a teacher can be found during those times. For example, when I had to take over for a seventh grade language arts teacher for a few weeks on very short notice due to illness—three weeks during which I had to lead students through a major service learning project on which they had already fallen behind due to a succession of unprepared substitutes, a project that incorporated not only an act of community service but also a paper, a poster board, and a presentation—all I really had to go on were the instructions and supplies that other language arts teachers could pull together from their own classrooms.
Between creating a schedule for completion, crafting a rubric, motivating students, giving detailed writing feedback, leading students through the process of editing and revising, and grading all of the projects in time for both the end of the quarter and student-led conferences, I don’t think I have ever worked harder and longer in my professional life, but the resulting projects were so impressive as to be totally worth it. I felt a great sense of pride and freedom upon the realization that I could teach almost any subject through the use of the strategies of improvisation. It was at this point I became interested in thinking about the syncretic unity of pedagogy and improvisation.
II. Literature Review
The literature on improvisation in the arts is vast, but the literature on improvisation as such in education is comparatively small. When papers regarding the relationship between teaching and improvisation are published, they usually focus on whether improvisation can be taught, and not the reverse—whether teaching itself is always-already an improvisation. We might call these two topics “teaching improvisation” vs. “improvised teaching.” One of the most interesting essays I’ve read on the former subject is Philip Clark’s first-hand account of attending the improvisation workshops given in London by the percussionist Eddie Prévost (formerly of the pioneering British “free improv” collective AMM) that he wrote for The Wire magazine, a British journal of experimental and underground music. Clark is careful to delineate how teaching improvisation is as much a process of unlearning as it is one of learning per se—unlearning ingrained and traditional styles of playing instruments so as to develop one’s own unique voice and musical language (perhaps through the use of instrumental extended technique) while simultaneously relearning to truly collaborate with other musicians through the use of close listening and responding (Clark 2012). Conversely, though, there is the risk that any attempt to formally teach improvisation will ossify into mannered ritual, prescribed method, and dull aesthetic and political orthodoxy, a process which many claim has befallen Prévost’s instruction of, and writings on, free improv as a genre (Cowley 2003).
With regard to “improvised teaching,” the work of Elliot Eisner (particularly The Educational Imagination) was invaluable, as this great educational theorist concurs that teaching is more of an performative art than a science (Eisner 2001). Similarly, in the anthology Structure and Improvisation in Creative Teaching, the editor R. Keith Sawyer claims that because “teaching is highly unpredictable,” “routines, scripts, protocols, and the like can act as a straightjacket, restricting reflection and creativity” (Sawyer 2011 p. xiii, xvi). I also ran across a brief discussion of improvisation in Sonya Nieto’s anthology Why We Teach. Nieto avows that although lesson “templates”—which have all but territorialized contemporary education—can be pedagogically useful (because creativity often needs some semblance of basic structure as its foundation), there is a time and place to welcome uncertainty, ignore templates, and “think on your feet” instead (Nieto 2005 p. 212).
Possibly the most useful work on improvisation is the eponymous book—Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music—written by the late guitarist Derek Bailey to accompany his BBC documentary on the subject; it features interviews and quotes from countless musicians in every conceivable genre (Bailey 2003). Bailey is the closest personage that an ostensibly egalitarian and anti-hierarchical genre like “free improv” music (incidentally, a term that Bailey and many other musicians hated) has ever come to a patron saint. Feeling that “free improv” had become a genre unto itself, Bailey championed “non-idiomatic improv” by forging his own musical language instead. He was willing to collaborate with one and all—free jazz artists, tap dancers, televised big band orchestras, avant pop singers, noise rockers, even drum-and-bass DJs—while refusing to compromise on the uniqueness of his approach. Bailey extolled the virtues of unfamiliarity in collaborative improvisation in the following quote from an interview:
There has to be some degree, not just of unfamiliarity, but incompatibility [with a partner]. Otherwise, what are you improvising for? What are you improvising with or around? You’ve got to find somewhere where you can work. If there are no difficulties, it seems to me that there’s pretty much no point in playing. I find that the things that excite me are trying to make something work. And when it does work, it’s the most fantastic thing. Maybe the most obvious analogy would be the grit that produces the pearl in an oyster […]. (Bagatellen 2005).
The virtuosity of his technique is unquestionable, but Bailey relished the spontaneity of performance above all—he infamously claimed that there is no point in listening to any recording more than once, so as to force the audience to focus all of one’s attention onto the sounds and musical interactions between the players (Watson 2013). It is this sense of spontaneity and intuition that Bailey puts center stage in his book on improvisation in all genres and traditions of music, although he never loses the awareness that apparently “spontaneous” intuition and non-idiomatic improv can only be cultivated and advanced by pushing oneself outside of one’s generic comfort zones.
Two other similarly good books on improvisation include Ben Watson’s Derek Bailey biography (Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation), which is based upon interviews with the man himself, and Joe Morris’s Perpetual Horizon: The Properties of Free Music, which is also centered around first person, primary source testimonials from improvising musicians. Amplified Gesture, a fine documentary on free improv produced by David Sylvian as a companion piece to his 2009 album Manafon, features interviews with many of the key improvisers in the genre.
Finally, I tried to acquaint myself with some of the political dimensions of improvisation. As usual, Karl Marx said it best in his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” (Marx 2010 p. 146). Just as the most successful political revolutionaries have always balanced transitional demands (which are pragmatic measures one can accomplish by working within the status quo) with transformational demands (which are impossible to achieve within the status quo and are thus only made possible through revolutionary change thereof), it seems to me that improvisation in teaching is always going to be constrained by “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”—political economy, rules and regulations, hierarchies and power, community standards and sociocultural norms, etc. Educators are never purely free to make their own pedagogy “as they please…under self-selected circumstances” either individually or collectively. But although they may lack the “negative freedom” from externally imposed demands, their “positive freedom” to improvise can never truly be revoked—unless, of course, teachers as a profession end up being replaced by computers (Curtis 2007). The subtlety of improvisation emerges from this productive tension between accommodation and innovation, pragmatism and idealism, negative freedom and positive freedom.
III. Statement of Problem
The intent of this paper is to explore the extent to which teaching can be considered improvisation according to the definition I proposed above. The specific question I would like to answer is as follows: Is improvisation an accurate and useful conceptual framework for educational practice?
Before I delve into the problem, I must first analyze the parts of my personal definition of improvisation: improvisation is any practice in which one must act and react flexibly, in real time, to contingent and changing material and ideological conditions:
any practice: Improvisation is fundamentally about contextual / situated praxis, and not about the consistency of theory. In this regard, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s maxim that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is something of a romantic credo in favor of the primacy of improvisation over composition.
in which one must act and react flexibly: Improvisation involves a dialectic between being proactive and being reactive; one might say that it is inherently a form of inquiry (in its spirals of thinking and acting) or perhaps even of action research. Of course, the nature and course of one’s actions must be flexible in response to shifting situations; in fact, the idea of flexibility dictates that sometimes inaction or silence might be preferable to unnecessary or counterproductive action.
in real time: Improvisation cannot be planned in advance or carried out after the fact, or else it is by definition no longer improvisation—rather, it would become a form of composition. Thus, while improvisers must be flexible with regard to their use of time or duration, improvisation as a practice will always be temporally bounded by the practicalities of performance or, more prosaically, scheduling.
to contingent and changing: Improvisation means that the composition of our world is not fixed in space and time; it is fluid and mutable, often surprising and frequently challenging. Therefore, improvisation places a high value on the subjectivity and free will—the human agency—of the individual.
material and ideological conditions: Improvisation in music will be conditioned by the material realities of one’s instrument, acoustic space, collaborators, audience, genre, etc.; improvisation in education will similarly be conditioned by the political economy of what is available to us as teachers. When I taught seventh grade science for the first quarter of a school year, I did not have a functional SmartBoard or even computer projection system (I had to rely on an oldfashioned overhead projector instead), and our textbooks were the same ones I used ten years earlier when I was in seventh grade. And yet somehow—through improvisation, I suppose—I mostly managed to make it work. Ideological conditions, though, are more subtle. This concept refers to “sociocultural norms and community standards”—the mental and emotional aspects of education that affect the form and content of one’s instruction. The delivery of one’s lessons, whether consciously or not, will always be shaped by the expectations of students, other teachers, administrators, and parents (Goffman 1959).
For the purposes of this study, I read basically everything I could get my hands on regarding the nature of improvisation in the arts. I then tried to reduce this discourse to the key elements and precepts with which nearly all critics and artists agree or share in common. I will examine every tenet of improvisation in turn, comparing or contrasting each one to improvisation in the classroom setting in order to see how they match up. And when I discuss improvisation in the classroom setting, I will draw on and engage with my own experiences in an autoethnographic narrative.
Improvisation thrives on the tension between structure and freedom, between constraint and invention. Structure should not be seen as negative or otherwise antithetical to improvisation; rather, structure provides form to formlessness and opens up a space in which freedom can meaningfully occur (Morris 2000). (Think of all the great jazz music that arises from improvising upon classic pop songs.) In education, structure is unavoidable, from the macro—academic content standards—to the micro—the form and content of a particular lesson. Standards are object-oriented and linear, whereas educational improvisation is about an unfolding, contingent, and holistic process of discovery. There does not even have to be a goal or destination in mind—the only requirement is that the journey itself is interesting and meaningful. As Eisner says in his The Educational Imagination, “ends need not precede means” in education (Eisner 2001). But since teachers have no choice but to follow the conceptual structure of the standards and the curriculum map, the best they can do is to improvise on them in the same manner as a jazz artist upon a standard tune. The most successful plans, then, strike a balance between structure and freedom and allow in advance room for improvisation and differentiation. For the most part, the ordinary, day-to-day lessons contained in textbooks and the accompanying teacher’s manuals (even the lesson plans for ostensibly inquiry / discovery oriented books like the Investigations or Connected Math series—there is great irony in trying to forcibly dictate progressivism a la lettre) tend to be too prescribed and limiting for the teacher to truly improvise. Even the manner in which one is supposed to ask questions and differentiate is already provided for the teacher. But whenever I had to create, assign, and grade a project of my own, a project that was an exception from the classroom norm—such as the aforementioned service learning project, or a “great scientist” poster / presentation project in seventh grade science—I felt free to go off script. I could make the basic form of the project more open-ended, and I could substantially alter the content (and to my view, often for the better—for example, I tried to make the “great scientist” project more relevant and inclusive by updating the list of scientists so that it was both more contemporary and more diverse, and by allowing the presentation portion to be more fun and creative). I think both my students and I enjoyed school much more than usual during these all-too-brief moments when we were free to be self-directed as to how we met the standards.
Improvisation is a form of embodied mind and situated cognition. The phrases “embodied mind” and “situated cognition” are likely to be unfamiliar to many, but the concept behind them is actually rather simple and elegant. They mean that consciousness is not something we possess—instead, consciousness is something we do. Rather than being located entirely within the mind, the locus of consciousness is found in the interactions between self and the physical world. In other words, the subjectivity of consciousness is embedded within the materiality of the body. The figure most associated with the connections between embodied mind / situated cognition and improvisation in music is the brilliant jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, who wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic. Because of the mind-body dualism implicit in so much Western philosopher, Iyer notes that theorists often focus on classical / art music, because of its privileging of the written score over the enacted performance, to the exclusion of other traditions—such as non-Western musics (Iyer’s own discussion centers on the music of West Africa) in which improvisation is seen as inherently material, and consciousness as embedded in instrumental practice (Iyer 2008). What does this imply for education? If anything, it’s a further refutation of the banking metaphor of education that Paulo Freire so harshly criticized in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As Freire would have it, learning is not a purely objective mental process; knowledge cannot be withdrawn and deposited in the brain without internalizing and accommodating the knowledge and adjusting and transforming one’s conceptual schema. True education cannot be reduced to purely abstract mental processes because it is emergent from concrete inquiry and material interaction with the natural world (Freire 1968). Nowhere has this been more apparent to me than from my three years of experience as a Camp Invention instructor, in which I led a class where students took apart old, broken electronic devices and combined the parts with recycled materials in order to build new inventions that solve problems (such as constructing a Rube Goldberg machine to burst a water balloon, a rubber duck launching device, or an insect-themed pinball game). This kind of reverse engineering and upcycling is improvisatory because every student’s individual, creative inquiry leads them to “divergent thinking” and varying results; the teacher becomes more of a facilitator, ceding control of the pedagogical stage to students and assisting them as they handle both manual labor and conceptual design, improving on their invention through trial and error. The discovery learning process we strive to facilitate at Camp Invention requires immersion in the qualia, the haecceity, of the world.
Improvisation takes practice. While amateurism or primitivism can make for raw and compelling art—punk, garage rock, outsider music—it’s not always sustainable in the long-run. The ability to effectively think on one’s feet can only be learned from practice with thinking on one’s feet. Intuition and spontaneity are not marked the absence of careful thought; rather, they result from the unconscious internalization of it (Bailey 1993). In this sense, veteran teachers are more likely to improvise successfully than novice teachers: veteran teachers know to grasp and seize a teachable moment when they sense one (Nieto 2005). The musical chemistry and instantaneous improvisation of, say, Miles Davis’s tight groupings of his electric era, the free jazz of Sun Ra, the psychedelic funk of the eternally great German band Can, the art-punk of Fugazi, or the minimal techno of Factory Floor, resulted from their relentless hard work (all five groups were known to jam for hours on end) at developing virtuosity on their instruments and establishing a nearly psychic rapport at playing them collectively. Likewise, I strongly believe that the ability to teach is not predominantly an innate talent. Reading books on theory and talking to other educators can help, but teaching skill can only be honed through practice and repetition in real-world environments. One learns to teach by engaging in, and then reflecting on, the act of teaching—the same process that is central to inquiry and action research. All of the classroom management books and lectures in the world could not have prepared me for actually setting foot in a seventh-grade classroom on the first day of school. I made many mistakes, but I learned from them, and that practice is what has led me to become a better and more effective classroom manager today. When one is forced into a contingent situation in which one must act and react in real time, one quickly learns to improvise, to build one’s own repertoire of methods, techniques, strategies, and activities. (This in turn has tremendous implications for preservice teacher education and mentorship, in that we so often tend to privilege theory over practice, planning over acting, data over narrative observation, justification over experimentation, and the abstract over the concrete, local, and specific—which is precisely the opposite from how it should be, if learning to improvise is the goal. Instead, we need a phenomenology of teaching that grasps the immanent unfolding of a process rather than freezing it into a series of static tableaux.)
Improvisation and composition are not discrete categories but rather points on a spectrum of possibilities. Contrary to the hyperbolic claims of the most fervent adherents and advocates of composition vs. improvisation, neither method of artistic creation is morally or aesthetically superior to the other. Composition is perhaps best understood as a subset or foreclosure of improvisation. The masterpieces of classical music, no matter how seemingly intricate and overdetermined, do not emerge fully formed from composers’ minds like Athena bursting from the brow of Zeus. Frequently, compositions are back-transcribed and edited from extensive improvisation—in other words, trial and error (Bailey 1993). On the other hand, many of the best jazz improvisers, such as Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk, have chosen to put their own distinct spin on the compositions of both others and themselves by improvising on their melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. In education, we might equate composition to the planned curriculum and improvisation to the actually-existing enacted curriculum. The best planned curricula are the results of the evolutionary processes of improvisation, editing, and revision inherent to enacted curricula—one holds on to what is successful and discards that which is not—and they purposely leave room for further improvisation in the future, because school circumstances and contexts will always be changing over time. Planned and enacted curricula, precisely in the same manner as composition and improvisation, are not a binary, but rather two stages in a dialectic—or a “spiral,” as many educational theorists would have it. Improvisation becomes composition becomes improvisation again. I’ve seen this process at work when I’ve taught science lessons on the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle using simulation—in essence, students take on the roles of molecules and make random choices in a manner not too different than a choose-own-adventure game, sending them down different geophysical and chemical pathways until they have mapped out the entire cycle in all its complexity and contingency. When I first taught a lesson on this subject in a fifth grade classroom, I learned that the rules / instructions I set out and the language I used were too confusing for some students, so I had to simplify them and make them more explicit for the next instance I taught the lesson, this time in seventh grade. However, I felt that some of my conceptual understandings I hoped students would assimilate were lost in the realization of my plans mark two. The last time I taught it, in a graduate course on curriculum design and innovation, I finally felt that I had struck a perfect balance between student inquiry and guided instruction, open-endedness and planned objectives. Each iteration of the lesson plan, then, was a new and improved version of the same composition, altered through the improvisation that is inevitable when we are forced to accommodate our ideas to the real world.
Improvisation is a form of bricolage. The anthropologist and philosopher Claude Lévi-Strauss defined bricolage as the art of making do with what’s around—like MacGyver, one works only with the materials the bricoleur has direct and immediate access to (Lévi-Strauss 1966; Deleuze & Guattari 1972). (Lévi-Strauss counterposed this notion to the figure of the “engineer” in which rationality and planning trumps real time improvisation.) Great music has often come from limited materials, whether it’s the plastic instruments of free jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry; the “three chords and a tune” mentality of punk rock; or the cracked electronics of noise, glitch electronica, and Japanese onkyo, because limitation can force the artist to use prosaic, conventional items in surprising and creative ways. The film critic Manny Farber’s distinction between “white elephant art” and “termite art” might prove useful here; improvisation is clearly a form of the latter:
Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators […] seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite- tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.
The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement. (Farber 2009 p. 535)
In improvisational comedy, the lack of stage sets, props, and scripts other than prompts from the audience is an advantage, not a hindrance. In the interactions that result, both performers and spectators must fill in the blanks with nothing but their imaginations, making improv a more active, participatory form of theater. When I was a seventh grade science teacher during the aforementioned long-term assignment, the lack of useable textbooks (not only were they outdated, they were also in terrible physical condition) might have been a good thing! Had I actually had access to modern textbooks, I might have relied on them as a crutch far more than I did otherwise—in reality, I was forced to draw upon a variety of other, superior and more current texts and media and to facilitate more demonstrations and experiments for the class. My enacted curriculum became a bricolage instead of a work of rationalist planning in which all of the life, improvisation, and inquiry had been engineered out of it. A pedagogical bricoleur can act and react in real time to changing circumstances far better than an engineer.
Collaboration is at the heart of improvisation. The best improvised music, both on record and live, usually involves two or more musicians. Solos can be fascinating, but they rarely push the artist into new realms of innovation. When multiple artists play together, though, they are forced to engage in a dialogue, bouncing ideas back and forth and changing their form and content in the process (Bagatellen 2005; Sylvian 2009). Humor, surprise, and invention can emerge from the unexpected collisions between differing mindsets and styles, meaning that the best collaborative improvisations are greater than the sum of their individual parts. Many improvisers even go so far as to consider their practices, which place value on pragmatism and compromise, as a model of egalitarian dialogue or as a model of democracy as such; improvisation can reflect collective dreams of utopian spaces and societies. Improvisation in the classroom is not located solely within the reflective minds of teachers, but rather in the collaborative give-and-take between teachers and students (or in the collaboration between co-teachers with complimentary approaches, who can produce superior results together compared to that which one teacher can accomplish alone). In terms of educational philosophy, improvisation is most closely aligned to the pragmatic progressivism of John Dewey. I know that I’m often at my best when I teach lessons that are neither entirely teacher-centered nor purely student-centered—the grey area in between in which there is freedom within structure is what allows for a truly equitable transference, sharing, and celebration of knowledge. Indeed, it is in these times when we most effectively teach students to improvise–for example, teaching how to use mental math and problem solving skills to estimate the answer to math problems that cannot be solved precisely.
The meaning of aesthetic success vs. failure must be rethought with reference to improvisation. I’m reminded of a quote from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery” (Joyce 1922 p. 190). In improvisation, “success” and “failure” no longer refer to relative states of (im)perfection. Instead, greater importance is accorded to how one responds to mistakes—ideally, one treats them as productive opportunities, as “portals of discovery” as in the Joyce quote. In philosophy, one might identify this perspective with the Hegelian dialectic, in which truth emerges through an evolutionary process of error (Roberts 2011). One of the major influences on contemporary improvisation is the composer and conceptual artist John Cage (who, ironically, distrusted improvisation), and his emphasis on trusting to aleatoric / chance / non-deterministic processes can expand our definition not only of aesthetic quality, but also of educational ability. The desire for perfection / perfectibility in teaching is as counterproductive as it is foolish. Instead of evaluating teachers based on how their students match up with object-oriented standards assessments, perhaps we might try to evaluate them on how they respond—how they improvise—to novel situations. Success is something one can only approach asymptotically, so we must accept and even invite the possibility of failure along the way. Here I’m thinking of another powerful quote, this time from Samuel Beckett’s late novel Nohow On: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (Beckett 1995 p. 89).
If there is any particular talent that I have as the educator, it is articulacy—the ability to speak publically and extemporaneously on almost any topic. It’s not surprising that so many writers begin their careers as teachers (well, aside from the political-economic reason that few other jobs would be open to English majors), because teaching forces one to improvise linguistically. A teacher must be able to vary his or her use of language (particularly one’s vocabulary, imagery, and figurative language) while always keeping it as clear, concise, and concrete as possible. The idea of scripting a lesson in advance, down to every sentence that one plans to speak, has always struck as bizarre, not to mention unfeasible, for this exact reason. One way we might define genuine teaching and learning is to say that it’s what occurs in a classroom when a teacher feels free to go off script! A teacher needs the same abilities that define any talented improviser—namely, the skills of close listening and instantaneous communication.
If there is an equivalent to this in the improvisation arts, it would surely be graphical notation. It is a discussion of this specific topic with which I would like to close the paper, as graphic scores neatly encapsulate all of the themes that have been enumerated above.
Graphic notation refers to the practice of using symbols, pictures, graphic images, geometrical diagrams, and written descriptions (of musical elements like dynamics, pitch, duration, etc.) in place of notes on a staff in order to represent a musical score (Cage 1969; Sauer 2009). (Famous creators of graphic scores include Anthony Braxton, Earle Brown, John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, Mauricio Kagel, Gyorgi Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, David Tudor, Jakob Ullmann, Christian Wolff, Iannis Xenakis, and John Zorn.) Their purpose is to deconstruct the authorial authority of the composer and to share creative power with the musicians, affirming the composer’s trust in their artistic responsibility and ability to improvise. While they can vary wildly in the level of detail given to the improvisers, graphic scores can be thought of like blank spaces on a map, waiting to be colored in by explorers into unknown territory. (And as alluded to earlier, the map is not the territory.) The concept is similar to the philosopher Walter Benjamin’s idea of “spielraum”—literally, room for thinking (Benjamin 2008).
I would like to suggest that lesson plans should be thought of as graphic scores rather than as traditional scored compositions.
There is a paradox embedded in the heart of lesson planning: the more detailed and exhaustive they are, they less utility they are likely to possess for the interpreter—in this case, the teacher. (Although writing detailed and exhaustive lesson plans—learning to compose, as it were—can be an important exercise for the novice / pre-service educator, before they have had the time and practice to unconsciously internalize all of the elements that go into lesson planning.) Such plans can never hope to succinctly cover all of the possible contingencies that will arise in even an ordinary day in a typical classroom setting, because then they would become too long, unwieldly, and rigid to read and properly interpret in the limited time available to the average teacher. By contrast, graphic scores privilege relativity and subjectivity over the absolute and objective, so a space for improvisation and inquiry is built in already. When I was a substitute teacher, the lesson plans I appreciated most were ones that were specific, clear, and realistic enough to provide me with a framework for acting, but also flexible enough to allow me to exercise my professional judgment with regard to pedagogy and temporal duration. As in all things, a balance is desirable.
What would a lesson plan look like if it were conceptualized as a graphic score? I would argue that it would be centered on questions and the process of discovery rather than on answers and procedures. This would give the plan the greatest relevance and applicability to educators in diverse situations. Privileging improvisation over composition does not mean vagueness, of course, and a few objectives and a list of materials, activities, and methods would still be necessary, but student inquiry and hands-on participation should be the driving forces behind the instruction. Questions to ask students and possible avenues for further exploration and research (as well as a list of suggested resources and references) would be the most useful for educators unfamiliar with the content. The suggested length of time for the lesson should be left up to the discretion of the teacher, and the method of evaluation or assessment should be open-ended—perhaps in the form of a portfolio or project.
And when lessons are strung together to comprise a linear curriculum map, perhaps we could consider applying the term “periplum” (which the poet Ezra Pound cobbled together from ancient Greek and Latin) instead of “map.” In the days before maps were commonplace, Greek explorers would write detailed descriptions of the coastlines—their geography, climates, flora, fauna, habitations, markets, harbors, institutions, and inhabitants—they skirted in order to aid the navigation of future sailors (Delany 2001 p. xvi). Any one of these textual descriptions, called a periplum, is rhizomatic, holistic, and nonlinear instead of arborescent (to borrow terms from the work of Gilles Deleuze), allowing the interpreter to improvise, to chart his or her own idiosyncratic paths through the unknown (Deleuze & Guattari 1980). Instead of traveling along a single temporal-spatial axis, a curriculum should be free to expand and build collaborative relationships in multiple directions, to find its own lines of flight.
To close, I would like to consider a quote from the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’ great long poem, “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” Stevens writes the following:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.” (Stevens 1997)
Composition, especially in education, will always remain a way of playing things as they are; it takes place within the status quo without altering the boundaries of the possible. It seems to me that improvisation, then, is like the blue guitar in Stevens’ poem: to many, it will seem unusual and threatening precisely because of its transformational nature: when played, it confronts, challenges, and changes things as they are. Improvisation invites, delights in, and dances with the unexpected.
Thank you to Ronnie G. for inspiring the initial idea behind this paper; to Vanessa W. for passing along the Sonia Nieto book; and to Dr. Ann Mackenzie for her thoughtful feedback and recommendations for further exploration and improvement.
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