Educationalists love jazz bands. They don’t necessarily enjoy listening to them (although I do) but they are fascinated by the interplay of the musicians, the way that they work as a team with very informal leadership structures, the way that they can share tacit understanding of each others’ actions, and the way that they can often improvise at will, playing something quite spontaneously. Wolfgang Stark, a professor of organisational and community psychology and, as it happens, a keynote speaker in the meeting that I attended in Berlin a couple of months back, has worked with a jazz musician, Christopher Dell, on what jazz bands can tell us about organisations.
But not everybody is as creative, or innovative, or original as a jazz musician. And not every task needs creative or original thought on every occasion. So maybe we should look at other musical styles to give us ideas about learning. Classical music, in general is very precise and formal, with every detail laid out in the score, and with clear instructions and procedures to follow. So if we look to jazz bands to understand how to develop original ideas, maybe we should look to classical musicians for ideas on how to follow instructions clearly and competently, but also to do so with style and panache.
Incidentally, it’s tempting to assume that most music from mediaeval days until the 20th century was classical, but that’s clearly untrue. There were thriving cultures of folk music, in parallel with classical music, for many years. And while classical music generally depends on music being written, folk traditions are aural in that musicians learn tunes purely by listening to them. As evidence of the existence of parallel traditions, I’d draw on the work of none other than Elvis Presley. His greatest hits included wooden heart – originally a German folk song, so non-classical – and I can’t help falling in love with you – based on an eighteenth French song, plaisir d’amour, written very much in the formal, classical tradition. And I’m sure that the folk traditions would have included plenty of improvisation.
While a symphony orchestra operates on a command and control principle with a conductor at the front, other groups of musicians are more democratic. A string quartet should be a partnership of equals – if anything, more so than a jazz band – but one aiming for precision in following a score, not improvisation.
But there is one place that classical musicians can get close to improvisation, and that’s in the cadenza within a concerto, where the soloist demonstrates his or her own virtuosity. Traditionally, while a composer might write cadenzas, soloists would also often write their own. Interestingly, the violinist Nigel Kennedy, who spends time working on both classical music and jazz, has written his own cadenzas.
So maybe the cadenza is a metaphor that we should look at for learning. It offers a choice to the performer – to use the composer’s cadenza and make the best of it, or to write their own, or even to pick up another cadenza and possibly adapt it. It allows for originality within a disciplined whole. And it offers a chance for individuals to show other their strengths.
It’s particularly relevant because of the dichotomy that I’ve observed in higher education, that students are keen (and increasingly so) to carry out their own research, but they need and expect a lot of scaffolding to do so. And that this dichotomy is particularly marked with the current generation. Moreover, the cadenza idea fits well with the current generation’s interest in individuality and identity. So we shouldn’t necessarily expect students to go off and improvise jazz, unless they are really comfortable with the idea. But we could ask them to do the equivalent of writing a cadenza, a short piece which fits into a larger whole, and which can be adapted to make best use of a particular student’s individual strengths.
I should, of course, point out that I’m not the first person to have thought about this. There’s a business coaching company in Newcastle called Cadenza Associates, and in 2009 Rebecca Front wrote a piece in the Guardian, which applies the cadenza metaphor to her own memories of schooldays. And those were both revealed by a quick Google search without even looking outside the UK. But I still think it’s a powerful analogy, and in the spirit of encouraging comment and dialogue I would be interested in hearing from anybody who would like to pursue it further, particularly in connection with higher education.