Cool, Yes; Miraculous, No
Muggles don't get it.
By muggles, I'm referring to people who, while not themselves part of the improv or music worlds, nonetheless are appreciators of those worlds. The more enthusiastic ones can be called "fans," the obsessed ones "nerds" or "geeks," but all of them, from the utterly dedicated down to the mildly intrigued, constitute a group best characterized as "the audience."
As the audience, they do utterly get that what they're experiencing is cool. That is to say, they're witnessing performers do something powerful, entertaining, deeply moving, something that resonates deep within the observer; and they're seeing it appear to be effortless. Seeing it happen, feeling awe at how polished it appears to be, how seamless are the transitions from one part to another, they cannot help but think there is something magical about what is happening on stage or, barring the supernatural, at least a sign of great talent.
An essay like this would be incomplete without examples, so here we go:
I'm a fan of Radio Lab, an NPR program and podcast that explores the outer and inner dimensions of human exploration in moving and often hilarious ways. From time to time, the hosts of Radio Lab devote a portion of a program to improvisers, demonstrating their own awe of performing artists who work without a script or score. Whether musical or comedic, these performers are clearly skilled at what they do, whether it's creating a Shakespeare play from scratch or using a single cello to create a lush web of ostinati that wash the ears and mind in a warm musical bath. What makes me chuckle, though, is the wonder in Robert Krulwich's voice as he describes what these performers are doing: starting with a single thread, one suggestion, and transforming it into an entire world.
Another example from the world of muggledom, in this case, newscasters: in 2005, Oprah Winfrey hosted a sort of summit for gospel singers, the centerpiece of which was a "gospel brunch" during which a microphone was handed around and one after another of these performers built on what had gone before while the backup band played a standard gospel chord progression. This link is a news story about the event during which the music is frequently interrupted by interviews with performers--and I have no problem with what they're saying--and interjections by awestruck newscasters about how not one note we're hearing was rehearsed. There are also some jokes made at the expense of the white celebrities in attendance, including one saying how terrified he was that the microphone would be handed to him.
One more: this video has been going around the internet virally for at least a year. It's of an elementary school mallet ensemble (xylophones, metallophones, glockenspiels, and at least one vibraphone) performing an arrangement of "Immigrant Song," a Led Zeppelin standard. The children play well enough, though their flat affect makes the video hard to watch after awhile. What gets me in this case is the accompanying comments by Joe Terzeon, an administrator for viralthread.com. He's utterly ignorant about everything he's writing about, calling all the instruments xylophones, believing "percussion" only refers to shakers and drums, and associating elementary music education solely with shrieking recorder concerts. Worse, he leaps to the conclusion that these kids are exceptionally talented.
Before I launch into myth-busting mode, I feel the need to assert that I have nothing against audiences holding performers in awe. A brilliant performance deserves a standing ovation, and being awe-struck by a performance is an experience every audience should have.
I do have an issue, though, with the notion of talent.
A quick disclaimer: yes, there are people who are born with some native ability to do things more easily than others. For my part, I never had a problem with expressing myself on paper: English has always come easily for me.
Some of you will be surprised that I made that statement about writing, rather than music, because (apart from this blog) you primarily know me as a musician or music educator. But here's the thing: I wasn't born a musician or teacher. I wasn't born a writer, for that matter, either. I became a writer, a musician, and a teacher through practice, and, in the case of the latter two, through studying at the feet of great musicians and teachers.
How much practice, you wonder? Years. Decades. A lifetime.
The Louisville Leopard Percussionists learned "Immigrant Song" from a teacher, and made it sound so polished by practicing it. They also have, I expect, benefited from being in a school that has had a consistent, thriving music program that starts in kindergarten. Some of them may have an extra spark of musical talent, but that's not how they've gone viral. It took years of practice to get there. They didn't pick up those mallets yesterday. For comparison purposes, here's a performance by a group of eighth graders (as well as three of their music teachers) from the San Francisco School's music program at the 2011 International Body Music Festival. These kids have benefited from a rich musical education that started in preschool. Yes, they can learn complex pieces like they're performing here very quickly, compared to children who've grown up in the hit-and-miss music education atmosphere common to public schools (my own being no exception); but given an environment like The San Francisco School, and a commitment to practice, I believe most children could do what they're doing here.
Now let's talk about the improvisers who appear on Radio Lab, and the gospel brunch performance that so astounded the ABC news people. As a piano improviser, I've been blessed to be part of ComedySportz, an improv troupe with locations around the United States. Playing for CSz, I've seen hundreds of performances, many of them good, some breathtaking and, unfortunately, quite a few of them not-so-great. The best improvisers do create stage magic, seeming to build a world from thin air. In fact, though, they're drawing upon thousands of hours of improv experience, characters and bits they've been honing for years, techniques for moving from one scene to another, for heightening the realism of even the most absurd moments and characters, and a willingness to commit immersively in the improv experience that comes only with practice. Again, there's probably some talent at the root of all this--and some individuals do come to improv much more easily than others--but most of what one is seeing on stage is the product of years of hard work.
That goes for the gospel singers on Oprah's lawn, too. These musicians have been immersed in gospel music and its cousin, gospel preaching, since infancy, and have devoted their lives to performing it. Handing the microphone around is as easy to these people as passing a baby around at a gathering of grandparents. Each takes off from where her predecessor left off, adds something to it, then hands it on to the next. Meanwhile, the band continues to vamp, working through the same chord progression over and over again. It's the same dynamic at work in a blues or jazz jam session.
Make no mistake, though: as the interviews demonstrate, those singers found it a powerful experience. That's been my own experience of being part of a great jam session, whether it's with fellow musicians or improvisers. The gestalt of it is a wonderful thing, whether you're contributing as an artist or watching it all from the auditorium. Skilled artists creating spontaneously together can generate powerful experiences.
What makes it work, though, is countless hours of woodshedding, by oneself and with one's peers. Talent really has very little to do with it, and none of it is magic.
What's most frustrating to me is that this topic never seems to come up when people talk about sports. Whether you're talking about Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, or the Williams sisters, it's understood that all these great athletes got that way through hard work that started when they were small. There may be talent there, but it's only a starting place. It takes years of sweat, bruises, blisters, injuries, and lost opportunities to do other things to become great at a sport.
That's just as true of the arts.
So sorry, muggles; as cool as what you're seeing may be, there's nothing magical about it. The performers who are blowing your mind got that way thanks to just one boring, unmagical thing:
So what's your excuse?