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Natasha Mitchell, science journalist
and presenter of All In The Mind,
a wonderful weekly program
on ABC Radio National every Saturday.
The episode presented on 16 July 2011,
The precipice of creativity: the improvising mind
asks this question...

Natasha Mitchell

August 2011

The Question:
What's going on in the minds of musical improvisers?

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Over the years the program "All in the Mind" broadcast on ABC Radio National every Saturday has been a treasure trove of intriguing stories involving countless aspects of the human mind's functions, malfunctions and seemingly limitless capacities in the realm of human experience. 

The episode: "The precipice of creativity: the improvising mind" which was broadcast on ABC Radio National on 16 July 2011 would be of particular interest to musicians. It discusses not only the human mind's capacity to improvise in situations almost every moment of the day, but in particular how the minds of musicians manage to make split second decisions when creating spontaneous improvised passages of music.

Most of the great composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Chopin were all great improvisers but by about the turn of the 20th Century
classical performers became more interested in playing a repertoire written by other composers instead of improvising their own music.

Improvised music lives on in jazz, Indian classical music and in the traditional music of many countries where to play music means to be able to improvise.

What's going on in the minds of musical improvisers?

According to Dr Aaron Berkowitz, people from many cultures describe a similar scenario: People aren't taught to improvise; they are taught a musical system, they listen, practice, and play a lot. Eventually they internalise the system to a point where they can move within it spontaneously, just as children are not taught to speak but when their native language is internalised they just start to speak spontaneously.

In this episode we hear the improvised music and the opinions of two phenomenal Australian teachers and performers of improvisation, Tony Gould and Ros Bandt, and also interviewed is Harvard University neuroscientist and concert pianist Dr Aaron Berkowitz.

Just in case you didn't tune in on 16 July 2011, you may listen to the
complete audio of this
All In The Mind episode by clicking here........

The complete transcript and audio download may be found here

Other information..

Tony Gould
Australian musician and educator

Dr Ros Bandt
Australian musician and educator

Gabriela Montero
a Venezuelan-American pianist specialising in improvisation.

Dr Aaron Berkowitz
a Harvard University neuroscientist and concert pianist

TED Talk by Dr Charles Limb
Your brain on improv.

2011 All In The Mind, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio National
(linked here with permission)

Have Your Say
Scroll down the page to post your comments.

I find that improvising for me now is more a case of just tuning in to the right "signal" and just letting it be fed to me rather than it requiring too much cognitive thought. When I first started improvising jazz music (about age 7), it was purely based on what I'd been listening to and my instinct and gut feelings. By 14 I knew some theory behind what I was doing and started using the great jazz players on my record as models for my ideas, by 17 I knew the changes and was starting to be able to at least just sense "my frequency to tune in to". Now, after 40 years of listening and playing and composing jazz & classical music, it's just a case of locking into the "waves" and enjoying the ride. From time to time an image of the chord changes or a harmonic structure flickers in my mind for a nano second but improvisation has become like speaking now. In fact I have to think more when I speak to someone than I do when I improvise. Composing however is similar but definitely requires more cognitive thought and decision making processes. Although even this is becoming more and more a case of the music I compose is already there, complete in every detail and all I'm doing is uncovering it bit by bit to reveal it. When I've finished composing a work, I can rarely see it in any other way than what I finally wrote. It's funny because when I hear one of my solos back I can see and hear a myriad of other options or paths I could have chosen to make it a better one. More than this, it makes me want to re-create it and record it again to make it better. Either way, I believe that the ability to create music and the desire to compose and improvise is proof for me that I was created by a superior intellect with a definitive purpose in mind for my existence. I am grateful for for the honour of being able to become a musician that can improvise and compose and I wouldn't trade my chosen path for any other-this I do know.

Posted by Andy Firth on Monday 1 August 2011
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