My plan for this week was to record one of Francis Poulenc’s Improvisations for piano, and write about the study of improvisation’s effects on the brain. There was quite a splash a few years ago around this topic, and indeed there is a TED talk and several articles available online that describe the effect on certain parts of the brain when someone is musically improvising. All kinds of music can involve improvisation, including jazz, of course, as well as the world’s folk traditions. Some of the most involved improvisations are created by organists, where that instrument’s vast array of tonal possibilities are thrown into the mix.
As you must realize, musical improvisation involves the use of musical building blocks in spontaneous ways, and those building blocks of scales, chord progressions, rhythms and melodic lines are practiced by a musician for years, to the point that they become second nature. These building blocks are then called up as needed during the process of improvising, as skill is transformed into art.
It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to realize that we all improvise on a daily basis. Every verbal exchange is an improvised reaction to someone or something and we use the building blocks of vocabulary and grammar and tone to improvise our comments and conversations. Some are better than others at being able to speak “off the cuff,” but there is no doubt that practicing builds skill, and in some, even art.
My plan for this week was also to avoid writing about anything connected to the recent Presidential election, but I simply can’t sweep that under the carpet. In the last few days I have twice been brought to tears by fallout from this election. A friend from Delaware visiting me over the weekend told me about his friends, an older gay couple who have lived in a wealthy Wilmington suburb for years. They came home this past week to a note on their door. “Dear Homos…” it began, and from there became even more hateful, with threats of what a Trump presidency means for all of the LGBTQ community.
In another incident, a woman working at the church where I have been playing this fall shared something with the staff. Her son works at Towson University in Maryland and was walking with three other young African-Americans when they were accosted and taunted by a group of young white men with the words “Hey n…go back to Africa.” His cooler head kept violence at bay, but what those tormenters didn’t know is that this woman’s son had emigrated from Africa with his parents in 2008, and he is an African-American in the most literal sense. He and his family were thrilled to have voted for the first time in their new country just last week, and this incident shook them up in ways that are heartbreaking to think about.
The perpetrators of those incidents were improvising, using the building blocks that came most naturally to them I guess – hate, fear, divisiveness, cruelty, ignorance. We’ve read and heard about many of these kinds of anecdotes recently, but these particular incidents were just two degrees of separation from me, which seems so very close.
I heard another story from a different staff member at this same church. She was shopping a few days ago in a part of Washington, D.C. that I would have thought to be the epicenter of liberal elitism, in a high-end grocery store near Washington National Cathedral. A group behind a young Muslim woman wearing a headscarf quietly repeated, “go back to where you came from.” The person telling this story said she went over and stood next to the Muslim woman, putting herself in between the ugliness and its intended victim. Without saying anything, she improvised her own response, and it spoke plainly of solidarity.
We have a choice of building blocks with which to improvise, just as musicians can decide what harmonies and rhythms to use in their improvisations. Mean-spiritedness or an acceptance of differences? Ignorance or a desire to understand? Walls or reconciliation? The cowardice of hate or the courage to love?
No one just sits down and starts improvising on an instrument without practicing the various elements of music’s language. In the same way, we all need to practice the building blocks of civil discourse right now, because we don’t know when we’ll be called upon to improvise a response to incivility.
I did make a recording of Poulenc’s lovely little Improvisation No. 7 after all, because music will always be the right response to any situation. (Poulenc, Improvisation No. 7)
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Where I’ll be:
September 4 through November 20 – organist/choir director at Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (1 Chevy Chase Circle, Washington, D.C.) while their Music Director is on sabbatical. (www.chevychasepc.org)
November 27-January 1– organist/choir director at Christ Episcopal Church, Rockville, Maryland, while their Music Director is recuperating. (www.christchurchrockville.org)
December 14, 7:30 p.m. – concert with Zemer Chai, The Mansion at Strathmore. (http://www.zemerchai.org/upcoming-performances-cr3j)
December 12, 15, 16 – World Bank/IMF Chorus concerts, Magnificats by John Rutter and Johann Pachelbel for choir and orchestra. 1:00 p.m. (www.wbimfchorus.org/news)
December 17, 10:00 – Washington National Cathedral, Bethlehem Prayer Service, simulcast (https://cathedral.org/event/bethlehem-prayer-service)
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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of new connections between old and new.