Learning NOT to read Music: A classical “note reader’s” voyage into the art of improvisation Part #1

Nov 26, 2009


For the first installment I’d like to introduce my parents, Demarre and Ira Carol McGill. They were my first teachers and the biggest influences on my music-making. In many ways they have already taught me so much about music and life. These two wonderful things, as I would discover in this conversation, are improvised everyday. My parents’ experiences as extremely creative artists gave them the ability to show me the way. We discussed this a few months ago before my concert in Jefferson City, MO over lunch. I took out my iPhone and recorded some of the conversation. This is what was discussed.

Back in the late 60’s they would get together at a spot by the lakefront on the South Side of Chicago and listen to long jam sessions by an eclectic group of musicians. There were musicians of many different backgrounds just getting together for the love of music. Bongos, singing and dancing into the wee hours of the night were the norm. Not really related except in name but enjoy Bongo Bop, Charlie Parker. Bongobop These were exiting times for them and it was all about expression. As my Dad points out, Dashikis and large afros were in vogue. In case you don’t know :)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashiki. Mom says that self awareness and self pride were at the heart of the music and the style.

My parents are both former art teachers and my Dad recently retired as Deputy Fire Commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department. Dad says that during the 70’s and 80’s when they were very into oil painting and drawing he would wake up, go to our art studio at home, and 6-7 hours later it would feel as if he came out of a trance and the painting would be complete.  He then goes on to make a very important point that, “…life itself is an improvisation.” I love this idea. We improvise everyday. You wake up with no schedule and say hmmm, I think I’ll do this. If we do the same thing in the same way everyday, we lose that spirit of improvisation. Dad has learned to embrace this even more in retirement.

This conversation brought us to another discovery. Our lives are structured to become note readers but we need to appreciate the beauty of change and discovery. Improvising is what makes us really human. We have choices to go in one direction or another. We are the composers of our own destiny in so many ways.

I urged my mom to jump in and talk about her experiences as a dancer and choreographer. She received her master’s degree in Dance Movement Therapy, was a member of a modern dance company and has choreographed for many productions. She is currently a professional actress and obviously loves to stay busy! She describes how it all starts in the mind. Mom imagines the movement in her mind’s eye and combines that with what she hears in the music. She envisions the steps then incorporates them with the body. Her movements were always so natural. Watching her move to music taught me about expression. She has always improvised. She says, “I saw what I felt from within and then expressed it outward.” I love this. She did not start off taking dance classes, she describes it as having, “…a sense of dance.”  To learn steps better she had to go back to her natural instinct in order to learn the notes…umm…I mean steps.  She tells one story of how she was trying to learn a dance and the choreographer screamed “Get out of your head!” Mom was trying to go over every little thing in her head but as soon as she just let go, it clicked. She says, “When I internalized it I could learn the steps faster.”

My parents also told me that when I was a kid and they would play music I would dance and improvise to the music. So much so that they almost put me in dance classes. I’m a better clarinet player than dancer but watch out Baryshnikov,


it’s never too late.

My brother also improvised on our electronic keyboard at home and composed his own pieces when he was very young.

This was my start with music and art. From these beautiful people I learned how to create, dance, hear, feel and express “…what is within, outward.”

I began this project thinking that I would have the first discussion with a professional musician but I’ve realized wisely, that I learned most of the things I know already from my parents. The first great artists and improvisers of my life. On this Thanksgiving I want to start off this journey with a tribute to them. Thanks guys for everything. Cheers.


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