Imitation, Improvisation, and I

You know you're in a picture just like this one.

What could that cute-as-a-button baby have anything to do with this?

Notice the girl passing notes...

Or what does that cute-as-a-button baby have to do with this?

Did you know that babies will imitate facial expressions within hours of birth? (No one has proved that they do it immediately, since they’re usually busy crying and getting power-sprayed). What these activities have in common is imitation. Learning jazz involves extensive time not spent playing, but listening. Imitating other musicians that are admired is key until different elements from all those artists are chosen to create a unique sound. In the classroom, students are imitating more than we probably want them to. A their teacher’s attitude, their peers’ behavior, even speech patterns.

Humans, particularly children, learn naturally through imitation. It is one of the many traits cute-as-button babies get from ancestors. Darwin’s theory of natural selection at work: new generations are more capable of solving the problems that plagued those that came before. This is typical of basic tasks such as communication and movement.

The sciences of mind can provide a sounder conception of human nature, which ultimately underlies all educational policy. What is the mind of a child inherently good at? What is it bad at? ….An emerging view is that the human mind is impressively competent at problems that were recurring challenges to our evolutionary ancestors – seeing and moving, speaking and listening, reading emotions and intentions, making friends and influencing people. It is not so good at problems that are far simpler but which are posed only by a modern way of life: reading and writing, doing mathematical calculations, understanding the world of science or the mechanics of a complex society. We should not make false analogies that assume that children can learn to write as easily as they learn to speak, that learning math can be as fun as learning to run and throw, or that children in groups will learn to do science as readily as they learn to exchange gossip. On the other hand we can try to co-opt the mental faculties that work well (such as understanding how objects fall and roll) and get children to apply them to problems for which they lack natural competence. (source)

This information came at me while I have been learning how to improvise and play popular music on saxophone. I have only been, one might say, “classically trained.” Making music on the spot, without inhibitions, is a difficult procedure for me. A few days ago, I was given a new jazz chart in the university jazz band I play with, and it gave me a good startle. There was a solo. I stared at it. It stared back. Unabated. More frightening than the most complicated classical composition was the lack of any notes at all. Our relationship began there, and I let my eye contact fall to my baritone saxophone lying across my lap. No help came from that. All it was saying was, “I just do what you tell me to do.” The solo had won this round.

Learning to play jazz is a lot like picking up the speech patterns of your friends. I listen to other musicians that I want to emulate, and then listen to myself to see if it’s working. This usually involves playing my saxophone straight against a wall. I probably look like an imp.

“Who do you like to listen to?”
“A lot of Chris Potter.”
“Yeah, I can tell by your sound.”

But, it’s encouraging to read the above quote and think that my hours spent trying to imitate are bridging the gap between inherent abilities (imitating, listening) and complex problems (improvising over a Giant Steps progression. Not on your life, by the way).

I find Indian music very funky. I mean it’s very soulful, with their own kind of blues. But it’s the only other school on the planet that develops improvisation to the high degree that you find in jazz music. So we have a lot of common ground.

John McLaughlin

On the other hand, learning a new language is a lot like listening to jazz musicians. (See what I did there?) Last week, a former Spanish professor asked if I would be willing to record my voice reading a few paragraphs in Spanish. She is researching the depth of accents that both native and non-native speakers have when speaking Spanish, especially those who have spent time in Spanish-speaking countries. Her questions inquired about how much time I had been learning, where I had traveled to, for how long, etc.

“Where did you go?”
“I was in Chile.”
Nods. “I can tell by your accent.”

I am interested to learn about more of her findings over time. Am I some kind of anomaly, picking up an accent after only 7 weeks, while other American students who were with me clearly did not?  Or am I just a musician? Is it all just improv?

Learning through imitation is not cultural, it’s biological. As animals, we’re geared up to learn from day one, literally. Our environment and our genes is what does the teaching.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Just as a thank-you for reading, I present you with some Balkan-flavored improvisation. Enjoy!

Creativity: A Ghost Story

I read many a ghost story as a youngster. In my elementary school’s library, I migrated towards the supernatural and scoured through the haunted. They would end with just a touch of mystery; story lines that never found closure.

To this day, no one enters the old house… All he heard was the faint scratching fade down the street… The figures are still said to be seen on the property…

And, on I read. Each story ended as though the final sentence on the last page was incomplete. The voices were never silenced in the hallways, and so the nail marks will reappear on the door, but if the white lady is left wandering the beach, then the black dog continues to bay, and eventually the dancing child will find his playmate, though not if the servant hides… while the door can never stop… an innocent traveler can still hear… she will always be screaming… when the moon is out, they… but until he returns… and… to this day… while… still… yet…

They pulled and pulled and pulled me along. Would I find out if the man in the suit found happiness? Let’s read on, and maybe the next story will offer some satisfaction. But the family hasn’t made peace with the gnome in the attic. Could they still? We can’t stop now. The sound of the ghost train is still heard. Could I, one day, hear it for myself?

Leading up to writing this post, I was reading through a few lists of documented mysteries and unsolved crimes on Listverse; a pastime of mine when I have such wonderful nights of no work or school the next morning. As I read, I found myself reflecting on these childhood fascinations by an old and familiar feeling: a fuzzy sensitivity on the back of my neck, a slowing and shallowing of my breath, a heightened listening. This was accompanied by occasional head-twitches—you might call them “fearful glances”—to the corners of my apartment that lay behind me. Was I, at my age, becoming…becoming…spooked?

Just to make sure that this couldn’t have been happening, that it was in no way possible for my neck hairs to be rising, I left the website and pursued Facebook and listening to music. There, I thought. I’m not scared. It’s not even crossing my mind. Not one iota. No big deal. I’ll just turn my music up. But it’s because I like it. I like my music. I want it louder. It’s an Argentinian band.

La Parca estuvo cerca,
Me miraba con cariño,
Asomó por la ventana y sonrió.

“The Grim Reaper was close,
She was looking at me caringly,
She leaned in the window and smiled.”

Damn you, neck hairs.

For most of my life, “to this very day,” I attribute this sensitivity to an active imagination, and this imagination to my creativity. It came from the focused energy that I put into my personal protection from the wolf in my closet (yes, that’s what was in my closet. And a man in a top hat was outside the front door. And a black cat was on top of my parent’s dresser.). If my own memories and work have taught me anything about kids, it is that they have the capacities for energetic, unmitigated imaginations that could send the kettle whistling.

I believe that we adults find it difficult to be as freely creative as a child. We find something—anything—to inhibit the flow of ideas that electrifies us from mind to fingertips. Barriers are set in place to try and reroute the flow which are euphemized with words like “logic,” “realism,” and “discipline.”

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.

— Carl Jung

We as adults have the gift of reason, in that we understand when an idea is impossible due to such things as the laws of gravity and mechanical motion. What we consider to be our “logic” should not hinder the creative process, but be the cardinal advantage to seeing it through. We should not only be free enough to welcome the idea, but wise enough to bring it to creation.

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.

— Pablo Picasso

Now, I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how I unabashedly equate this same idea to the failure of argumentative governments and beloved religions. Perhaps they ought to freely and uninhibitedly welcome ideas, welcome friends, welcome enemies, welcome peace, welcome questions, welcome answers. If not, then perhaps their neck hairs ought to be standing.

I leave you with a fragment of my imaginative 6-year-old self. This is a song I listened to from the narrow bench seat in the back of an old blue Ford truck, a recording by Caryl P. Weiss. Hopefully it won’t give you the spooks…unless…

The runaway returns.

Oh, it’s you.

Um, hello.

It’s been a while, you see.

I can’t make any promises to you right at this moment, but… well, hear me out.

(Merry Christmas, by the way.)

There have been a few changes between us. No, it’s not you, it’s me. The changes I see in you have only been for the better. You’re great, you’re wonderful. I would love to have kept up with you these past few months, watching these changes take place and applauding each one of them.

But that is one large reason why we have spent some time apart. I’ve been trying to acquaint and reacquaint myself with the people around me in exactly the same…

(Happy New Year, too.)

…in exactly the same way.

So, if I may, we can reacquaint ourselves to each other and see if what we’ve both experienced in these past few months have taught us anything. It’ll be good. I promise.



Some context…

I’m spoiling you with two posts in two days. Don’t expect this to continue.

At this time, I’ll explain a few things about living here that will help to provide more context. Some are basic, and some are complicated.


Decimal points and commas are reversed in Spanish. A given number, like 1,000.5 in English, becomes 1.000,5. Currently, one US dollar is about 500 Chilean pesos (still shown with a $). A typical meal costs about $3.000-5.000, or $6-10. More importantly, wine costs about $2.000-4.000 a bottle. Do the math, and I’ll wait for the jaws to drop.

You don’t put your toilet paper down the toilet. You throw it away. It’s hard to remember, but the pipes are very narrow; so it’s better to throw it away than have a clogged pipe system.

In Chile, dogs are not captured, put into shelters, and eventually killed like they are in the States. I’ve seen many, many strays wandering around in every city I have seen. Usually they are sleeping.


Both college and high school students in the Chilean public schools are on strike. Basically, they believe that the schools are run too much like businesses. Exams at the end of high school that determine placement in college are useless when it comes to how much money the student’s family already has. If they can afford to go to a good school, they can still go at get the same degree as those who work very hard to pass those exams but have lower financial means. So, the students took control of the universities and are not allowing anyone in to take classes nor work. For a while, the international program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Valparaíso (PUCV – Pontifica Universidad Católica de Valparaíso) continued to function. However, since it’s something that PUCV is very proud of, the students decided it was time to get serious and put it to a halt. They came into the offices, kicked everyone out, and sealed the door with silicone.

So, I will be taking my classes in a hotel until the strike ends. Hopefully it ends before I leave, since I would love to experience a bit of college life here in Chile.

Students on the march. The red sign reads "I pay to study, I study to pay." (Photo via Prensa Latina)

After a whole day speaking Spanish, though, makes me exhausted. After about 9 pm, my brain starts to slow down and it’s hard to think as quickly. If I could think of an image to represent my brain in this state, it would be this: