Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

Your Brain on Jazz

Two researchers at the National Institutes of Health, Charles Limb and Allen Braun, asked six jazz pianists to improvise at the keyboard, while their heads were inside a brain scanner known as a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.  The brain scanner is immense–it fills up an entire room–and to get your brain scanned, you have to be lying down so that the immense donut shaped scanning ring can be moved into place around your head.  So the researchers designed a special keyboard that could be propped up in the pianist’s lap.

Then they had each of the six pianists play four different exercises, two that were not improvised and two that were.  The first exercise was a simple C major scale (not improvised); in the second exercise, they were asked to improvise on the C major scale (using only quarter notes and in time with a metronome); in the third exercise, they played a blues melody that they had all memorized in advance (not improvised); and for the fourth, they were asked to improvise their own tune.

To figure out which areas of the brain are unique to improvisation, you’d want to see which brain areas were active only for the second and fourth exercises.  So the researchers “subtracted” the images while the brain was not improvising, from the brain images during improvisation–leaving only the areas that were different during improvisation.  In both of the improvised activities, there was a particular region that slowed down during improvisation: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.  This area is associated with planned actions and self-censoring.  The researchers hypothesized that lower activity in this area should be associated with lower inhibitions.

And, there was another brain region that showed increased activity: the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with self-expression.

What’s perhaps most important about this research is that these findings aren’t unique to jazz pianists.  The researchers point out that the same brain patterns should be found in any improvised behavior, including everyday activities like telling a story for the first time, or improvising your way through the neighborhoods to get around a traffic jam.  The key is a combination of reduced inhibition and heightened self-expression.

Feb. 27 issue of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.

Professional improvisers

I’ve just returned from presenting a keynote address at a conference at the University of Padua, in Padua, Italy: the title of the conference was “Improvisation: Between Technique and Spontaneity.”  The core idea of the conference was that the tension between technique and spontaneity is found in just about all expert and professional activity.  Professionals are “experts” because they’ve mastered a large set of routines and “cookbook” solutions to problems.  But that, alone, isn’t enough.  To be a master, you have to be able to improvisationally respond to the unexpected, to weave new cloth out of known solutions and routines.

Jazz musicians know this better than just about everyone.  To play jazz at a high level requires years of hard work and practice.  It’s a myth that jazz improvisation means “anything goes”–the technique, the routines, the shared cultural norms and communication practices are what allow the genius of the group to exceed the brilliance of any one individual.  That’s why the Padua conference had a strong jazz emphasis.  And, unusual for an academic conference, it was collaboratively organized by three different departments: education, philosophy, and linguistic, communication, and performing arts (I know, that last department name is a mouthful!)

In my talk, I described how experienced teachers also blend technique and spontaneity in the classroom.  I cited research that has discovered that experienced teachers improvise more than novice teachers; but, paradoxically, they also have mastered more standard routines than novice teachers.  Professional expertise, like jazz improvisation, requires both mastery of standard solutions and routines as well as improvisational ability.

Other highlights of the conference included talks by Andy Hamilton (a philosopher at Durham University), Tord Gustavsen (an internationally known jazz pianist and now a doctoral student at Oslo University), and Frank Barrett (at the business school at the Naval Postgraduate University).  And later that night, the Tord Gustavsen trio performed to a sold-out crowd of 600 people in the beautiful Auditorium Pollini.

Thanks to Marina Santi, the lead organizer, for this wonderful event!

Theater, Jazz, and Business Success

Did you know that Lever Brothers, the consumer products powerhouse, had teams of actors working with employees and managers at all levels? After a series of interviews, the acting company put on a 40-minute performance in front of hundreds of employees, illustrating behavior–both good and bad–within the company. The project was called Catalyst.

Would you believe that dance instruction could help engineers do a better job? Since 1997, the CONNECT program at the Cooper Union Engineering School has drawn on theater techniques and movement, to help teach engineers how to better understand and communicate with their clients. Engineers who had been through this program received substantially higher ratings from job recruiters.

Did you know that Lucent’s world headquarters has brought in a five-man jazz ensemble, to demonstrate to managers how musicians work collaboratively under demanding constraints?

What all of these projects have in common is their connections to a group based in New York City called “Creativity Connection.” Their mission statement: “Powering corporate performance through arts-based learning.” Executive Director Harvey Seifter was director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra for many years–an orchestra that I talked about in my book Group Genius, because they rehearse and perform without a conductor, allowing creativity to emerge from the group’s interactions.

The Lever Brothers, Lucent, and Cooper Union examples all come from a special issue of the Journal of Business Strategy from 2005. Businesses are experiencing great success by sending their staff to special workshops focused on theater, jazz, and even dance.

The reason this works is that these arts are ensemble arts, and these performers are experts at using collaboration to generate creativity. I wouldn’t try this myself–it takes skilled and experienced artists and arts teachers. But I know of an increasing number of artists who are learning the language of business, and can translate their collaborative strengths to organizational contexts.

Kudos to Henry Seifter and Creativity Connection for doing this good work.