I observed a couple of really interesting workshops at Wilfred Laurier University in Waterloo today. They were improvisational music workshops for cellists and violinists, taught by Sera Smolen from Ithaca, NY. Sera turned out to be a really cool lady. As soon as I introduced myself as a teacher of improvised theatre, she said, “We should do something together!” Such a quick acceptance was a sure sign of a true improvisor. She mentioned that she had improvised music alongside dancers and poets, but never to theatre or comedy.
Anyway, the classes were fascinating. I couldn’t believe the parallels between improvised music and improvised theatre. Even the approach to the craft by students was similar. The main lesson Sera taught was that “There’s no such thing as a mistake.” This is the core to improvised theatre too. You can’t make a mistake. Anything that you do is your choice, and as long as you stick to it, it’s the right thing to do. Other exercises she taught were intended to build teamwork. Yet, there were other exercises that emphasized individuality for giving and taking focus within the group.
The first class was a group of kids about 8-10 years old. They were of varying skill levels, and their personalities varied greatly. Most were very shy in the beginning, but it quickly emerged which ones were the class clowns, and which were the wallflowers. Sera was very good at bringing them out of their shells, teaching a series of progressing exercises to build their confidence. When it was clear that they were frozen by not knowing what to do, she said, “When you go outside to play, do you know exactly what you’re planning to do? No, you just play! So let’s just play!” Soon, even the shyest kids were leaning forward in their chairs, totally engrossed in the class, anxious for their turn to play next.
The second group she taught were more advanced students. There were kids from about 12 to 15 in this group, and they were much more advanced. There was also a tiny, Chinese girl who looked like she was about 7. She sat on the chair and had to wrap her ankles around the legs of the chair because her feet couldn’t touch the floor. She had a very tiny violin too, which she played with incredible precision. She would bring it up to her chin and put it down like a machine. She was so cute it was almost painful.
Anyway, one thing I noticed today was that most of the Asian kids seemed to be quite afraid to improvise. Some of them even skipped their turns, although by the end of the class, they had gotten over some of the fear. I have been thinking about this stuff quite a lot over the years. I’m sure it’s not a racial thing, but a cultural one. Chinese culture promotes respect for authority, and also respect for elders. Learning is done by rote memorization). Creativity and independent thinking are not encouraged. Speaking up and being noticed are actively discouraged. Quiet accomplishment is the ideal in Chinese culture. Chinese kids are prodigious at playing from sheet music, and memorizing classical music. The Chinese language is heavily based upon memorization, so learning music is a breeze for those who learn to read Chinese. For this reason, here are many extremely talented Chinese classical musicians. But this type of talent is not useful in improvisation at all, which is based on invention and emotion. The evidence of this is that there aren’t many famous Chinese jazz musicians. I was glad to see the Asian kids in this class though, and seeing the smiles on their faces as the new skills are unlocked. :nod:
My other thought of the day is somewhat related. It’s a quote from the audio book that I’m listening to: “Dark Tower VI: The Song of Susannah” by Stephen King. “There is no love in thinking. There is only death in rationalization.” I’m not sure why that struck me so hard. I guess it’s because I’m on a journey to find my balance between thinking and feeling. For most of my life, I’ve been a thinker. But recent events and my improv experiences have unlocked the feeler in me. Maybe the quote made me feel like I’m saving my own life. 🙂