February 2007

(Note: skip to the bold section if you don’t have time to absorb the non-bold material.)

First, I love teaching this class, and I appreciate the contribution each of you makes to it.
Nothing has changed my life as a musician (and as a person) than improvising.  Improvising, expressing your genuine emotions, using the musical vocabulary you have right now is so powerful;  it’s being authentically who you are.  And it is definitely not about being or doing what other people want you to be and do.  Introducing other musicians to this kind of music making is one of the most wonderful things in my life;  I know that it changes other people’s lives as it did mine.

Another thing that changed my life was being introduced to the ideals of humanistic education, of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation (in learning as well as the rest of life), and coming to understand how much of our current educational culture is shaped by behavioristic ideas of shaping behavior through rewards and punishments (such as grades).  I’m acutely aware that a lot of what happens in schools and colleges about navigating a system and pleasing authority figures, and I honestly believe, as I’ve told you, that most of what happens in such a system is temporary learning meant to trigger a desired response (figure out what the professor wants, give it to him or her, and get your A).

You can read an excellent overview of humanistic education by clicking here.  And, from that site, here’s a summary of its key features:

According to Gage and Berliner (1991) some basic principles of the humanistic approach that were used to develop the objectives are:

  1. Students will learn best what they want and need to know. That is, when they have developed the skills of analyzing what is important to them and why as well as the skills of directing their behavior towards those wants and needs, they will learn more easily and quickly. Most educators and learning theorists would agree with this statement, although they might disagree on exactly what contributes to student motivation.
  2. Knowing how to learn is more important than acquiring a lot of knowledge. In our present society where knowledge is changing rapidly, this view is shared by many educators, especially those from a cognitive perspective.
  3. Self-evaluation is the only meaningful evaluation of a student’s work. The emphasis here is on internal development and self-regulation. While most educators would likely agree that this is important, they would also advocate a need to develop a student’s ability to meet external expectations. This meeting of external expectations runs counter to most humanistic theories.
  4. Feelings are as important as facts. Much work from the humanistic view seems to validate this point and is one area where humanistically-oriented educators are making significant contributions to our knowledge base.
  5. Students learn best in a non-threatening environment. This is one area where humanistic educators have had an impact on current educational practice. The orientation espoused today is that the environment should by psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically, non-threatening. However, there is some research that suggests that a neutral or even slightly cool environment is best for older, highly motivated students.

There’s a fascinating article in today’s New York Times about a man named Loren Pope.  He champions education at small, liberal arts colleges that are not too selective.  DePauw, he believes, “has become too big, too prosperous and too selective.” “He even argues that B students ask more probing questions than A students, who he thinks are too caught up in trying to curry favor,” says the article.  No offense to you if you are an A students, as I was, but that rings true for me.

Mr. Pope wrote a book about 10 years ago called Colleges That Change Lives.  Isn’t that what college should do?  In talking about our class the other day, I said to one of you that I’m really not interested in how many facts you temporarily learn.  All I really want to do is to change your life, if you are willing to have it changed.

I want to change it by giving you the opportunity to participate in certain kinds of process.  One is the process of creating your own music.  The other is the process of engaging with particular set of subject matter in a way that is genuinely engaging.  In a way that you have a lot of choice over.  In a way that isn’t about jumping through the right hoops the right way (we’re all good at that already) but is about connecting to the material from your own passions and interests and using your own learning style(s).

A colleague in the English department and I were talking with other members of a committee yesterday about good teaching.  He has his students write him a letter every two weeks telling him what is and isn’t working in the class and giving him suggestions.  Based on that feedback, he sometimes completely overhauls the course mid-semester, and he’s constantly making less significant changes.

There’s a good idea, I think, especially in a course where the focus is on process and the experience of the students.

So, keeping in mind the ideals I’ve listed below (and discussed above) for the course, please ADD A COMMENT or EMAIL ME  about how you feel the course is going, how the balance between music-making, history, and philosophical discussion is working, and sharing any suggestions you have for structuring class time, etc.  (And if I’m doing anything you don’t like or think is counterproductive or annoying and ought to stop, tell me that, too.)

Here is what we’re trying to accomplish together: 

  • develop your own abilities as a creative musical artist;
  • use the phenomenon of improvisation as a starting point to think about the nature of music, of musical performance, and what classical musicians do;
  • really “get” that improvisation has always been an intrinsic part of what we call classical music, even though we’ve forgotten that;
  • develop some in-depth knowledge about improvisation in classical music that connects with your musical passions and/or is relevant to what you are preparing to do professionally;
  • participate in a collaborative learning environment in which you feel free to express your ideas and engage and debate with others; and
  • have the opportunity to absolutely be and express yourself.



Monday’s class is fairly easy to describe succinctly. If you missed class, just go ahead and do the following on your own:

We warmed up by singing F drones, and improvising vocally and instrumentally in F Lydian.

Monday, we had done our “reduction” of the four chants (removing the melismas and comparing what was left) to deduce the (hypothetical) original syllabic chant. We played and sang (using the Latin “Domine” text in Ia and Ib) that syllabic chant. We then played and sang the Ia and Ib versions of the chant, section by section–first several people played on their instrument the melismatic version as written, then we sang as a group.

Important in both singing and playing were our opportunities to explore both flow and phrasing in our initial music making.

Finally, we took sections of the syllabic chant and improvised our own melismas.

And looking ahead:

Wednesday 2/28:

1) Discussion re: developing your individual focus (read your email for more details)

2) Group improv, including on the chant rom ex. 1 in the Ferand

3) Play/sing Ferand ex. 2, 3, 4

4) Voice students perform the additional ex. from section II they picked

5) choose 2 or 3 from exs. 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, and 20 to do Friday (so please look through them)


1) Goehr Chapter 5 Sec. IV

2) Ferand exs. as chosen Wed

3) group improv

We started today with some free writing (we did some of this earlier in the semester–you just write whatever comes into your mind; single words, sentence fragments, non sequiters, etc., all welcome) to get the mental jusices going. Then, to prepare for class discussion of the readings, we used a technique in which one draws a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper. On the left side of the line, you write a quote which caught your eye or otherwise stands out. On the right side of the line, you write your own reaction: what thoughts, etc., does this trigger in you? We did this with two quotes from the Ferand and two from the Goehr.

As with free writing, part of the game with this approach is to be spontaneous (improvisatory) and write whatever comes to you, without self-censorship.

After our writing time, various class members read the quotes they found interesting. The Goehr reading focuses on the ways in which music was regarded in both ancient Greece and then in medieval official Christianity, and the Ferand on improvisatory practices among the early Christians and in the evolution of chant until a notation system developed to standardize it .

The conversation took and interesting and, to me, unexpected (though welcome) direction. Ferand discusses the highly emotional spontaneous musical expressions of early Christians, which we likened to the music in the African-American gospel tradition and the larger Pentecostal tradition. Goehr quotes, among others, John Calivin, who insisted that music in church (and he was speaking of singing) “must have ‘weight and majesty’ and not be ‘light and frivolous’, for there is ‘a great difference between the music one makes to entertain men at table and in their homes, and the psalms which are sung in Church in the presence of God.” It seemed that most of us have or have had an active church life at some point in our lives. Class members’ own stories of the uses of music in their different churches, and the tensions they’ve seen arise over changes (proposed or actual) in a congregation’s musical experience, illustrated that ancient distinction between “significant” or “serious” music and what can be regarded as lesser forms is very much alive today.

I pointed out that in my lifetime there’s been a big change in the perspective classical musicians have. When I was growing up, with parents who were classical musicians, there was a strong sense that classical was vastly superior to all other forms, especially jazz and pop/rock. And this was prevalent throughout classical music culture. I didn’t mention this in this class session, although I may have before, but when I was growing up, the most popular (and only) music-appreciation program on the radio was Karl Hass’s “Adventures in Good Music.” And “good” music was most definitely classical music. In the last ten years or so, the extremely popular music-appreciation program has been “Shickele Mix,” which has as its mottoes “all musics are created equal” and the Duke Ellington quote, “if it sounds good, it is good.”

So we humans in the West have been arguing for millenia over what is “good” music, and the role of music in society and worship. The worship-music issue is a very present and ongoing one for many in the class. And this brings up an important observation which Goehr stresses over and over. Until the development of the Romantic ideaology of art, the dominat understandings of music all had in common ideas about music’s extra-musical (in contemporary terms) function.

While today we readily experience music as music, in earlier eras music was a means to an end. The primary one, among those with power, anyway, was as a means of worship, and a host of attendant issues (i.e., standardizing music to standardize worship services and reinforce the church/government’s control and authority). The current differences of opinion and tradition over the type of music done in the places of worship many of you attend come down to these extra-musical considerations. Some believe sacred music should be special and done by experts as an offering; others that music should be the ecstatic, spontaneous expression of members of the congregation. Is the music meant as a beautifully crafted presentation to a diety (and also inspires and edifies/uplifts the worshippers), or personal expression of praise for the diety? But the argument isn’t really over the music itself, as music. It’s about what type of music is appropriate to the non-musical function of the music.

What I find interesting about this discussion is that it reinforces to me something very important. Our study of historical practices is not a purely academic, intellectual matter. We are all musicians. We have all made a decision to commit at least some portion of our lives to music. And I’m sure that is because each of us experiences music as central to our experience as human beings, to how we make sense of the world, to how we experience and process emotions, to how we interract with others, and certainly to what most of us would call our spiritual, and many of us would also call our religious lives.

When we improvise, when we create, it’s an expression of the totality of who we are, including our spirituality, however understood (which can be totally nontheistic). We we improvise together, there’s that collective energy, that synergy that makes for something very different than a solo improvisation done with no one else present. So as we go through the course, I have a very strong sense of us as not only a teacher and a group of students, but more importantly as a community of musicians for whom much of the relevance of our historical work is how it helps us deepen our experience of who we are as musicians and human beings.

That was quite a tangent, wasn’t it?

Back to our discussion, we hit on a number of key points:

  • music was almost universally understood, at least among intellectuals, in terms of its non-musical function, until 1800 or so;
  • as far back as Plato and Aristotle, there was thought and debate about the appropriate role of music in society and how it should be controlled;
  • in the early, underground Christian church, there was evidently much spontaneous, individual expression;
  • after Constantine converted to Christianity, and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, the church and the government merged and worship practices including began to be increasingly regulated by a central authority;
  • the history of medieval music, and particularly the development of plainchant practices and repertoire, illustrates the tension between improvisation and a desire for standardization; improvisation quite obviously played a role in the development and evolution of chants;
  • the debate over the significance of music, and what kind of music is appropriate in religious services, has never been (and certainly never will be) resolved, and is one that is currently affecting many in our class.

We then turned to the set of four related chants which make up the Ferand example 1. Ferand explains that these four Graduals have at their core the same basic outline; they are clearly derived from the same original basic chant, and then were modified with (initially) improvised melismas. The written melismas represent the standardized form of a long process of evolution. They also illustrate the sorts of melismas that would be improvised in an early period.

So what is the original, underlying melodic skeleton? What is the original chant which the neumes and melismas embellish? We circled the first note of each syllable of each chant, and wrote them on the board to begin a deductive process (Ferand does not supply us with the original chant). And then we ran out of time.

Two important concepts here. In a melody, there are:

  • principal, or main, notes
  • embellishing notes

We are trying to figure out what those main, underlying notes are. The first notes of each syllable don’t exactly line up. In come cases, the first note of a syllable, or the note use for a syllable, is an embellishing note, often functioning in a manner we would now describe as a suspension or an appogiatura. By comparing the four melodies, in a fashion reminiscent of Soduko, we will construct a possible version of the underlying original chant.

So, for Friday, make sure you have your own photocopy of example 1. Circle the first note of the syllable. Compare them, and see if you can work out an underlying chant melody. And take into account the fact that the lower two lines are of a chant that is longer than that of the upper two lines: material has been added to the beginning.

In Firday’s class, we’ll compare and work together to come up with an underlying melody. Then we’ll sing/play the core melody and the embellished versions, and also improvise on it/them. And we’ll play/sing the organum and counterpoint examples which go with Ferand section II, as much as we can, and then continue that on Monday.

The Grove reading on ensemble improvisation before 1600 is fairly short, so read through it as well by Friday. It complements the Ferand Section II, which is more of our main text for this subject.

Post comments on what you found most interesting in this reading.  A quote of a line or two plus the thoughts, insights, or realizations it inspired would be great.

Add your comments on what you found most interesting in Ferand Section I.

In class today:

1) “Release” and slow Tai-chi style movement as transition into class, to reinforce use of the body, and to set up the next exercise.

2) Mirroring. Two people face each other, and, keeping eye contact, mirror the slow movements. One person leads, then the other, then do it with neither/both leading. It’s a way to explore communication, awareness, trust, and (eventually) entering into a common energy in which there’s a temporary joint sense of self in which the common movement appears to happen on its own without conscious control of the other. There’s got to be something about brain-wave patterns, parts of the brain, etc., that happens with this.

3) Discussion of the above and the readings for today, with Ambrosian chant playing softly in the background. In addition to comments about the experience of the mirroring exercise, one person pointed out how interesting it was to read in the Ferand about the universality of improvisational practices in various musical cultures. The conversation came to focus on the question of what did we improvise on Friday? Was it a work, a piece?

We looked at it in terms of Christopher Small’s idea of “musicking” as an action, rather that works of music as “things.” I eventually suggested that we ask ourselves if an unnotated, unrecorded improvisation should be thought of as any sort of a “thing.” Perhaps the musicking we did is better described as an activity than as a product that was produced.

We also discussed the fact that playing plain chant as background music is an example of how in the 19th and 20th centuries we’ve came to think of music as things. The various forms of chant were forms of prayer meant for specific occasions and places. Because we can take a recording of a choir chanting and play it as background music, we have a different relationship to it than was possible in the Medieval period.

4) Improvising in Dorian and Hypodorian

We did a good bit of call and response singing in the Dorian and Hypodorian modes (follow those links in the previous posts). Important points:

  • The name of a mode is determined by its final (the final note used in the chant)
  • Chants in a particular mode do not necessarily start on the final, but they do end on the final.
  • Authentic modes have an ambitus (range/tessitura) from the final to a note one octave above the final. The “authentic” version of Dorian, therefore, has a range from D-D (or re-re)
  • Plagal modes have an ambitus from a fourth below to a fith above the final. Hypodorian is the plagal version of Dorian, and has a range from A-A (la to la).
  • Each mode has a reciting tone, also known as the tenor.  This is the note that would be used for a series of repeated notes.
  • The reciting tone in Dorian is A, in Hypodorian F.
  • Chanting one note per syllable is called syllabic.
  • Chanting two or three notes per syllable is neumatic.
  • Chanting with many notes on one syllable is melismatic.

5) Improvising both vocally and using instruments, one can take a particular mode, be aware of the ambitus and the reciting tone, and experiment with syllabic (separate bows or clearly tongued), neumatic (short slurs) and melismatic (long slurs) gestures, while keeping in mind the sense of flow and phrasing characteristic of chant recordings.  This can be an experience of improvising to learn (about the musical language of chant), of self-expressive improvisation and even of quasi-idiomatic performance improvisation.  Perhaps the latter point is better put as idiomatically-inspired improvisation.

In addition to the scheduled readings in the Ferand and Goehr, you’ll find it helpful to listen to the “Ambrosian Chant” album on Naxos.  Just to get a feel for the rhythm and phrasng, you could even listen to it as background music.  Please listen carefully, though, to the Alleluia and the wonderful melismatic singing.

And we will sing/play the different versions of the chant used in Fernad Ex. 1.

Please add any comments on today’s class discussion, other thoughts regarding improvisation, etc.

During our time of exploring medieval music, including chant, organum, etc., it will be helpful to refresh our memories about a number of aspects of medieval music.

Here are some good resources:

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