Improv Quote: Obsession with notation

In the West… aural tradition has essentially died out in relation to classical music. This great loss has been the result of what can only be described as our obsession with written notation, a clear symptom of our imprudent vulnerability to the power of all visual media from the printing press to the television screen.

—Bill Dobbins



Improv Quote of the Day: Some Things Don’t Translate

Music notation

(Photo credit: Marc Wathieu)

Western notation, when used to convey aspects of jazz and improvised music, tends to place undue emphasis on notes, chords, and harmonic progressions since these are most easily represented. The rhythmic, timbral, expressive, and interactive nuances of the music do not translate as easily to paper.

–David Borgo


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Improv Quote of the Day: Strange Inversion

English: Musical score of Sonata for flute and...

Music represented symbolically is regarded as more acceptable than music which happens in real time as sound. We have fallen under the sway of a strange inversion in which symbols are regarded as more real than the realities they represent. Music (or art, literature, science, technology) is often treated as a collection of works arranged in a historical timeline. The scores are regarded as having not only an independent existence, but a higher existence than a performance.

–Stephen Nachmanovitch

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Improv Quote of the Day: How Did the Dots Get There?

Example of game

Many musicians are fabulously skilled at playing the black dots on the printed page, but mystified by how the dots got there in the first place and apprehensive of playing without dots. Music theory does not help here; it teaches rules of the grammar, but not what to say. When people ask me how to improvise, only a little of what I can say is about music. The real story is about spontaneous expression, and it is therefore a spiritual and a psychological story rather than a story about the technique of one art form or another.

–Stephen Nachmanovitch


Improv Quote of the Day: Begin By Learning to Play

Unfortunately, a too-early emphasis on reading has kept many music students from developing this vital skill. But there’s another good reason to begin independently of notation. This approach enables you to concentrate on the physical aspects of playing. Good technique requires a relaxed body, and it’s a lot easier to be relaxed when focusing on one thing at a time. If you’re not familiar with the symbols of music, learning to play through notation is like rehearsing a new dance step while trying to read a description of it—in a language you don’t know. Reading is a valuable skill. It’s simply out of place in the earliest stages of learning. … Begin by making music from the heart, and by building the connection between ear and hand. Begin by learning to play.

– Bruce Siegel, “Learning to Play is Learning to Speak”


Improv Quote of the Day: Play First, Notation Later

François CouperinOne should begin to teach children notation only after they have a number of pieces in their fingers. It is nearly impossible that, while they are looking at their notes, their fingers should not get out of position, fumble, or that the ornaments themselves should not be changed. Besides, memory is developed in learning things by heart. –François Couperin (1668-1733)

By the age of four, apparently, [Bartok] could play forty folk songs with one finger at the piano. – Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise, p. 81