I’ve been thinking about…
Why don’t we make up songs anymore?
Why don’t we encourage musical scribbling?
To illustrate my questions, let’s start with a brief history of improvisation in the classical music world. Improvisation simply means no prior preparation! From Italian improvisare "to sing or speak extempore," from Latin improvise, "unforeseen; not studied or prepared beforehand," ablative of improvisus "not foreseen, unexpected." We all improvise every day, taking a new route to work, or inventing an excuse for something we are not quite proud of…
Improvising was part and parcel of Mozart and Beethoven’s daily lives. One frequent practice was that of improvising a set of variations based on a popular melody. Both composers improvised in all of their public performances. In the « cadenza », the moment when the orchestra stops and the solo instrument plays alone at the end of each movement of a concerto, Wolfgang and Ludwig improvised their own cadenzas during performances. How I would have loved to been in the room…
There was a fine line between improvisation and composition at the time. Sometimes improvisations later became compositions. In purely practical terms, there was simply less written music available. I often tell children, that if JS BACH needed a piece of music for his son’s birthday party, he had to write it himself!
By the beginning of the twentieth century, improvisation in classical music had all but disappeared. Some scholars think that there was simply too much music to learn, so classical performers spent their time memorizing existing scores, and slowly stopped creating music themselves.
I believe that the end of improvising in classical music set in motion a regrettable turn of events. Music gradually became something academic, something that began with learning to read music before making music together in families or in communities. Music schools began to spring up all over the world, even in countries with strong oral traditions. Although I think this is wonderful news, I am concerned about the disappearance of both oral traditions, and of a spontaneous amateur musical practice at home.
Music is something we experience with our bodies and our emotions: isn’t it odd that today classical music is learned by reading a silent score and practicing to achieve technical perfection?
I encounter so many parents who begin our conversation with “I never learned to read music, I’m completely unmusical, I can’t sing and I have no sense of rhythm”.
I take a deep breath, and let them know that this is most likely untrue. Sometimes I ask them “what is your favorite song?” Everyone has a favorite song. We are all sensitive to music, which means that we can all make music.
Amusia and Arrhythmia (the inability to distinguish melodic or rhythmic contours) are actually very rare: but musical insecurity seems to be on the rampage!
The availability of recorded music and the multitude of portable devices that we can use to listen to music have replaced some of the spontaneous moments of musical exchange that happened in the past. I fondly remember singing endless songs during long trips in the family car, probably because there were no other options. I also remember that we all loved it.
One of my goals for the book I’m working on is to empower parents to rethink music in their homes. In previous posts we have seen that “parentese” (also known as “motherese”), the lilting repetitive infant directed speech is actually already musical.
What if you gave yourself permission to take it a step further?
Silly Song Time!
Even one little sentence such as: “My beautiful Isabella loves her teddy bear” can become a song. If you are not comfortable inventing a new melody, take an old one such as “Twinkle Twinkle” or “The Wheels on the Bus” You can fit your words to it. You can also ask Isabella to contribute her ideas. Remember that one of the things that we all love about songs is the refrain! In music for children, the refrain needs to occur quite frequently. The younger the child, the more repetition is necessary.
What if it went something like this?
"My beautiful Isabella
My beautiful Isabella
Loves her teddy bear."
Think of how this could become a family epic in only a few weeks.
“The adventures of Isabella”: Isabella loves her leafy greens, her baby brother, flying to the moon, Isabella loves to make up songs…
I can guarantee you that this will be her favorite song. The emotional factor is very important in music. The fact that you are creating this for her, with her, perhaps struggling, but putting all of your attention into it and towards her, is very different from pushing the play button on a machine.
How many times a day do you actually fully concentrate on creating something with your child? No outside props: just you, your imagination and your baby.
She feels this: she will benefit from it in so many different ways, and so will you.