Non-Syntactic Music Elements As Vehicles for Musical Invention

As an undergraduate saxophone performance student at UM-Ann Arbor (long before my second tour as an undergraduate music education major and more recent graduate studies at Oakland University), I was fortunate to be a member of the improvisatory-based Creative Arts Orchestra under the leadership of Ed Sarath, who I mentioned earlier. This group was comprised mostly of “Interpretive Performance Specialists in the European classical repertoire”, to use Sarath’s language (Sarath, 2013, p. 294).

Ed taught us to improvise conceptually focusing on what Leonard Meyer called non-syntactic music elements. We would improvise as an ensemble, or in smaller configurations, focusing on concepts such as tessitura (high vs. low), density (more vs. less), tempo (fast vs. slow), dynamic (soft vs. loud), articulation (smooth vs. choppy), timbre (the difference in sound quality between voices or instruments), and silence (lack of sound). Ed would give us one or more of these to use as the basis for our improvisations. Reflecting on how engaging this was for my friends and I in this group at that time, I began to make this a key part of the curriculum at Holly Academy. These became the basis for problems I would set for the students. This provided a goal-oriented approach to the music classroom, while also providing multiple avenues for assessment. I fused the non-syntactic elements with the idea of telling a story.

In my previous blog post I discuss basing the general music curriculum on the skill set of the jazz musician where story telling is a focal part of the problems I set for the music students. The students are required to write stories in their English classes. At our school they are taught about main ideas and the development of main ideas. I feel this is a clear way to discuss authentic musical experiences. If we are performing a piece, we are merely playing someone’s preconceived main ideas. It is the performer’s obligation to understand what these main ideas are, and elucidate how the ideas are developed over the course of a composition. Using the non-syntactic elements as a vehicle for improvisation or composition, students are beginning to learn how to tell a musical story while learning about key musical concepts.

This approach speaks to the important function of the Contemporary Improviser-Composer-Performer. With the CICP as a model, the general music students are simultaneously the improviser, composer, and performer. They are learning to tell a story using basic musical parameters. They improvise, compose (notate using icons), and perform the story. Assessment then becomes a question of whether or not the student is demonstrating an understanding of those elements of music. At the same time, I am holding these students responsible for verbally knowing what the non-syntactic music elements mean. There performance is assessed on whether or not they are playing to the steady beat and whether or not they are accurately playing what they notated. As the students are working on this process there is always a drum groove from the app Drum Genius playing through monitors in the classroom. For a highly insightful look at the future of music education, read Sarath’s Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness from SUNY press. I will comment further on his Integral Approach to Music Education in coming blog posts.