EMBRACING THE UNKNOWN
Ambiguity….the sometimes scary realm of the unknown. Everyone wants the certainty of familiar situations, scenarios, and processes. I like predictability and routine in my life as much as the next guy, but honestly how much certainty is there in life? There is always an element of unpredictability in life and that’s what keeps it interesting……..traffic, school, projects, relationships, love. In music education when we embrace ambiguity, we embrace an ever present reality of life and all the possibilities that can come with it.
Improvisation lives in an environment of ambiguity. The more scripted out a performance or composition is, the less ambiguity is present. Of course ambiguity can be one of the most uncomfortable things about improvisation too. Musicians who have been trained all their lives to play the notes on the page can be understandably hesitant to enter the unknown world of improvisation. I was too when I started down this musical road. What do we play? How do we know it will sound good? How do we keep from making “mistakes”? The simple and direct answer is: we don’t know. There are no guarantees in improvisation. “Mistakes” will likely be made. The deeper question might be: are we alright with making “mistakes”? The cool thing is that every “mistake” gets us closer to our ultimate goals of deep comprehension, and genuine self-expression. In fact, I always tell my students that the only mistake I don’t allow is quitting, everything else is helping us know what works and what doesn’t.
WHAT DOES AMBIGUITY LOOK LIKE?
Any kind of musical activity where students are given a choice is an example of ambiguity. The opposite is the ‘play what’s on the page’ approach. To clarify, I’m all for accuracy and honoring the directions of the composers through notation, but that should not be the only or even the predominant approach in music instruction. To be well-rounded students need to have the opportunity to speak the language of music and share their own musical thoughts. Some examples might be:
- Playing by ear
- Playing off of a lead sheet or other non-traditional notation
- Creating original arrangements of familiar songs
- Adding a rhythmic accompaniment
- Creating a vocal or instrumental harmony
Embracing musical ambiguity involves teaching and understanding the larger musical structures which create musical context and meaning, such as: meter, tonality, chords and chord progressions. Additionally, there are some process-related improvisation tips that will help you navigate this road.
CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVERS
We, as music educators, provide an important service that goes way beyond the music classroom when we help students succeed with ambiguity. Every moment of musical ambiguity invites creative problem solving. How much does the world need creative problem solvers? How much does every employer hope and pray to get such a person to add to their team? Many scientists say that music wires the brain for learning, but improvisation, specifically, can orient our mindsets to be more than just accurate players, but to be true innovators and creators. Ambiguity is our friend, because within it’s wide borders lives the space where we all find what we really know, who we really are, and most importantly – what we can become.