Is music an expression of our reality or the creation of our reality? Where does technique meet possibility and where does learning meet technique? How can multiple truths and multiple perspectives exist in the same co-created space, and how can we express these multiple truths and perspectives with and through music? These are a few of the questions that were explored in this year’s Improvisation Class during the Cultures in Harmony-Atlas Music Festival. The festival, held in Tunisia in the small town of Beni Mtir near the mountainous border with Algeria, seeks to implement Track II Diplomacy in the form of cultural diplomacy between Americans and the West, and Tunisians and the MENA region.
The name “Improvisation Class” is merely a label for the class to exist within the structure of a mainly classical music summer camp for Tunisian youth. When exploring and redefining the possibility of musical creation and interaction, no clear title seems to exist. Similar to the lack of label, the way in which the class co-created musically through a dialogical process of learning and sharing is generally unheard of in what is considered classical music education and pedagogy. I believe what we co-created challenges how music education is overwhelming taught and calls to question what could be. In the words of the late education philosopher Maxine Greene, “Imagination has to do with possibilities; never settle with what is!”
I suspect one of the greatest challenges music education faces today (or even yesterday as a violist myself who grew up completely immersed in a classical music education regimen) in our ever globalizing world is exactly what Maxine Greene speaks of: the imagination of possibilities. So often, we musicians are trained rather than taught. Our musical goals focus on digesting, and external benchmarks instead of creating. And so often, the flow of knowledge is merely from teacher to music student without even the consideration of how the music student can and should add to the flow of knowledge and understanding. This translates beyond the space of learning, but even to who is considered a musical creator versus a musical vessel. In the current music education environment in the classical music world, young musicians are often expected to follow this one-way hierarchy of teacher-knows-all and student-knows-none-until-told. This issue is not exclusive to the classical music world; its traces can be found in the teaching of other music genres, such as jazz, and inadvertently, continues to marginalize and undermine music genres, such as hip hop and rap, in music education. 
Now for those musicians and music educators getting ready to run for it after these last sentences, don’t go anywhere just yet! Join me for a moment in questioning not what music education is, but rather what it could be. I believe there are possibilities in which a youth musician achieves musical greatness, and musical creator. And in this process it is not only the responsibility of the musician or music educator, but as well the youth musician. How does a music educator create this type of dialogical space with her or his students? What are the benefits of doing so in the first place? And finally, why question our current system of musical learning by asking what could be? Elements of our Improvisation Class can perhaps shed light on these very questions. Of course, all learning should be contextual to each space of learning, which suggests adopted ideas and concepts from here must be contextualized to their new settings, too.
Our Improvisation Class consisted of around 25 youth musicians from the ages of nine to 19 all with various levels of experience, whether on the violin, piano, guitar, voice, sax, darbuka, and accordion. I sought to provide a certain structure that enabled a few key elements that could lead to the possibilities of musical greatness and musical creator through our dialogical space, where knowledge, understanding, and skills were transferable to outside musical and non-musical spaces. Whereas the process of sharing musical knowledge and understanding should be a two-way street, I believe musician and music educator is responsible for providing the initial structure in which creativity can thrive.
1. All ideas are welcome within our fundamental social agreement of listening, respect, and responsibility to our peers, our creations, and ourselves.
We all have a natural desire to feel appreciated. When we feel appreciated, we are more willing to confront vulnerability positively as moments of growth and self-transformation (see Brené Brown’s TED Talk: The Power of Vulnerability). In providing structure in which creativity can flourish, I wanted to welcome everyone into a setting where youth musicians felt safe or at least safer in sharing their ideas, feelings, and emotions musically and verbally. In our entire group we all agreed, including myself as a facilitator-participant, to listen, respect, and be responsible to each other, our creations, and ourselves.
2. Every youth musician has valid experiences, and has gained understanding and knowledge through these experiences, in which to teach and share with the group.
In harmony with challenging what education philosopher Paulo Freire termed the “banking concept” where students are looked upon as empty vessels awaiting for their teacher to fill their mind with knowledge, our Improvisation Class was a problem-posing (Freire, 2000) space in which peer learning flourished and youth musicians built upon previous musical and social experiences. Progressive education philosopher John Dewey speaks of experiences as a continuum of quality doing and undergoing (Dewey, 2007), which builds knowledge and understanding, ultimately leading to personal growth and openness to further growth through continuous doing and undergoing (Dewey, 2007). The first day of our class began with a spontaneous jam session that morphed from the original beats of my rhythm sticks on the chairs in our circle to saxophone solos flowing on top of violin, viola, percussion, guitar, and piano. In other words, youth musicians’ previous musical knowledge and experiences were acknowledged and respected straight from the beginning.
3. The invitation is there. I am not the absolute teacher; they are not the absolute students. We each have differing responsibilities and roles to play in the space we build together, which contributes in a unique way to the dialogue and music we co-create.
In setting up the space where peer learning could flourish, I chose to implant opportunities of teaching, learning, leadership, and teamwork amongst the youth musicians. I might have overseen the spark of certain conversations and musical ideas, though ultimately, each youth musician had the freedom to take the conversation and musical dialogue where she or he wanted. The most important factor in enabling this location of possibility was each youth musicians’ agreement to enter our social agreement where each person’s freedom was dependent on the other’s. As Alfred Schütz describes in Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationships, “Each of them [musician] has, therefore, to take into account what the other has to execute in simultaneity. He/She has not only to interpret her/his own part, which as such remains necessarily fragmentary, but he/she has also to anticipate the other player’s interpretation of his/her – the other’s – part and, even more, the other’s anticipations of his/her own execution. Either’s freedom of interpreting composer’s thought is restrained by the freedom granted to the other.” (Schütz, 1951, p. 94-95)
These three elements of structure created the possibility for the youth musicians to be:
- Loyal to the local/known; Openness to the new/unknown (see education philosopher David Hansen’s Cosmopolitanism and Education)
- Self-express through multi-modal means, putting youth musicians constructively on-edge from the start
- Co-creating a space equally belonging to each one of us in “withness”
In planting the initial structure of the Improvisation Class, I was able to put our adventure on pathways to discover deeper societal issues, with and through musical co-creation, that were taboo in Tunisian society and across multiple societies. A big element of the class was the focus on certain social/environmental/political issues that were self chosen by each youth musician, and then grouping together youth musicians interested in overlapping issues, such as privilege and war, peace, and justice to work together to explore those topics further musically and with dialogue in their new, micro community. This also presented the opportunity for each community of youth musicians to establish their very own social agreement for their group, describing how they would create and share with each other. The results of each community’s focus on their various topics led to authentic music making with the purpose of learning, both musically and socially, all as equals with various responsibilities. To push this concept even further, each exercise surrounding these topics included elements of individual teaching, learning, leadership, and teamwork, in addition to group teaching, learning, leadership, and teamwork. Here are a few of the exercises that combined all of these elements:
- Musical Sensitivity Line, where youth musicians stood in a line in front of the rest of the class, and first created a number of free-flowing stories verbally as individuals and then as a team, and then musical compositions as individuals and then as a team.
- Human DJ, the co-creation of a human soundtrack where one youth musician is the DJ and determines the sounds and rhythms of each youth musician in the group. Then, the DJ rejoins the circle and a new DJ from the group takes the stage.
- Teaching of a new musical idea by each member in each community, and then the entire community choosing at least two newly learned musical ideas to teach to the other two communities, and vice versa.
- Choosing any two new musical ideas from any community, whether your own or another’s, to create a cumulative composition for the final concert
Some community’s cumulative musical co-creations were a reflection or statement based upon their specific issue, whereas others did not mirror their issue. However, every group nonetheless underwent a spherical, deepening process of building knowledge and understanding based upon past experiences and new experiences through multi-modal means to co-create what did not exist before. This process is on the pathway of musical creator and musical greatness.
In summation, it is crucial that we, musicians and music educators, question whether we are co-creating with our students spaces of learning and teaching that foster the imagination of possibilities. There is so much more to describe about our Improvisation Class’s six sessions together, yet not enough room or enough words. Each day could have it’s entirely own reflection. What is clear is how our Improvisation Class was youth-centered with horizontal learning, and inclusive and participatory practices supporting peer learning, authentic music making and learning, and critical thinking of deeper issues in our societies and the role we, and especially youth, can play in making music that impacts our world. I believe these transferable skills will translate beyond our Improvisation Class’s special space, and into less safe spaces in everyday life.
And finally, is this a negation or replacement of the current classical music structure? No, it’s not. Replacing one ideology with another never solves the root issues at hand. In John Dewey’s Experience and Education, he does not advocate for traditional education to be completed replaced by progressive education without thought and deep investigation of the meaning behind both. “For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism’ becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms’ that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.” (Dewey, 2007, p.6) I invite you all to be the stranger in the development of new educational spaces that constructively question what music education has been and what it could be, and finally, to invite our youth musicians to do the same.
I attempt to cite all of the sources used in my writings and research as correctly as possible, so please adopt the same policy toward the works presented here and as well my own writings by citing this blog’s findings correctly. This blog is meant for sharing, not plagiarism. Thank you for your respect.
1. Brown, B. (TED Talk). (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability. Podcast retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability
2. Dewey, J. (2005). Art as experience (pp.45-55). Penguin.
3. Dewey, J. (2007). Experience and education. Simon and Schuster.
4. Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
5. Greene, Maxine. “Inaugural Maxine Greene Lecture.” 2013 Preemptive Education Conference. Teachers College, New York. 26 Sept. 2013. Speech.
6. Hansen, D. (2010). Cosmopolitanism and education: A view from the ground.The Teachers College Record, 112(1).
7. Schütz, Alfred. “Making music together: A study in social relationship.” Social Research (1951): 76-97.