New professor explains the art of teaching improvised music2024-01-11
In 2023, Ingesund School of Music recruited a professor in music education. Her curiosity in improvised music has been a driving force and inspiration since childhood. Something which she is happy to share with future music teachers. Her name is Guro Gravem Johansen.
Guro Gravem Johansen comes from a small town in a rural part of northern Norway. When the other children played football, she would sing and play the piano in her room. She also played the euphonium, a smaller version of the tuba, in the school orchestra. At home, her parents were keen singers and loved to sing old traditional Swedish songs.
"To the extent that when I was in preschool, my parents received a message from the school that they were concerned because I sang drinking songs, such Bellman, to the other children."
Her parents’ singing characterised the family home growing up, which has had a great influence on her. Playing music and singing in her room gave her good aural skills.
"To give you an example, there was something wrong with my tape recorder which meant that I could record several tracks on the same tape. My own orchestra. I also learned to write down chord analysis based on what I was hearing, learning by doing. In my room, I also learned to read sheet music and the classical way of playing. In this way I discovered that there are many ways to learn music, through attending music school, reading sheet music and playing by ear."
Jazz improvisation as a form of conversation
When Guro went on to upper secondary school following compulsory school, she chose a music school and got to meet like-minded people. During this period, she played classical piano and sang both classical and jazz.
"My mother had a few jazz records that she had forgotten about that I found as an 11-year-old. I was blown away and got to sing a little bit of jazz in upper secondary school, even though it wasn’t that common at the time. I remember that it said on the records that the musicians were improvising. I asked my mother if they were simply making it up. Yes, she said, they are but I also think they have a system. That “system” is something that I’ve wanted to explore throughout my entire academic career. What is the approach of improvisational musicians and what type of knowledge does improvisation require? It has developed in a tradition that is about creating new knowledge systems, rejecting old ones and renewing them. Jazz improvisation as a form of conversation has been used a lot as a research metaphor."
Via a folk high school and the Music Conservatory in Tromsø specialising in classical piano, Guro then applied for the music teacher programme at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. As she had little experience playing in an ensemble and was used to performing music on her own, it took some time to crack different musical codes. There was also a culture clash, as there are differences between northern and southern Norway.
With a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in music education from the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, she then set her sights on an academic career. But was it an obvious next step?
"My decision was a combination of different things. I’m curious and want to explore and understand different things. A driving force in my academic training has been different teaching methods in jazz. As jazz students, we were told a few times that we didn’t practise enough by ourselves in practice rooms, but rather in different ensembles. There was a kind of hierarchy around it. A “we” and a “them” of some sort. I wanted to clarify and investigate this. To give voice to those who wanted to pursue improvisational music. In jazz, the instrumental elements held more status and were male-dominated, while singing was accepted for women, but had a lower status."
Have you taught both solo singing and ensemble play in the jazz genre?
"I’ve taught jazz vocals at the Music Conservatory in Tromsø, the Norwegian Academy of Music in Olso, folk high schools and upper secondary schools. I also organise workshops in improvisation."
You are also a dedicated conductor, especially for the choir Diandre in Olso, which is specialised in rhythmic choir singing.
"Yes, I have extensive experience as a conductor of children’s choirs, women’s choirs and mixed choirs. In the choir Diandre, we sing a cappella. In rhythmic music, this means that you sometimes try to reproduce the sound of an orchestra as a choir. A bit like the Swedish a cappella group, The Real Group."
A mix of research and teaching
Your doctoral thesis was entitled “To practise improvisation” and you have had many articles published on what it is like to teach improvisation at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Can you tell us a bit about that? You teach through workshops? And then the students get to practise, practise and then practise some more?
"I have many years of experience in holding workshops in improvisation. At Ingesund, I teach music didactics, which is very much about reflecting on music education. And there is no one recipe. If you want to learn, you must practice, try things out and so on. Teaching can be done in many ways. A traditional and perhaps a little outdated view might be to say I know how to do this and now I’m going to teach you. A more dialogue-based approach is more about guiding the students and building on the experiences they already have. If you as a teacher choose to start a discussion in class and then let the students be more active than you, that is also a form of teaching through the didactic choice to step aside. You can never dictate what someone should learn, it depends on the student’s unique experiences and motivation. It is important that future teachers understand that."
You are a newly appointed professor in music education at Ingesund School of Music. What does your new role entail? Could you describe an average day?
"Ingesund wants to expand their music education activities and for teaching to be more scientifically based, which means that we need to invest in the research environment at Ingesund School of Music. I try to understand what is already in place and what has been done before so that I can contribute with ideas and plans for the future. This is a small department with its own culture and traditions, I want to get to know my new colleagues and the school before setting the agenda. I also have a lot of time for research, and on Tuesdays I mostly teach. I love my Tuesdays. Interacting with the students is the best part of my work. I teach general music didactics – that is, how to teach different music subjects. What different roles can music teachers play in society? What is the importance of previous experiences? It is important to be introduced to different theories and perspectives in order to form your own opinion. This also raises the question of critical thinking. The ability to see things from different perspectives and weigh them against each other and take a flexible approach."
You have written several books about improvisation in music, including children and improvisation. Do you think we are born with a special talent for improvised music and/or is it also a skill that you can acquire?
"Yes, on both questions. Improvisation is a generic act, it’s what we do all the time. Babies imitate their parents, children play and so on. I don’t like the word talent, it divides people into different compartments. Rather, improvising is an ability that we must have in order to survive, to be able to interact and communicate with other people."
You have some ongoing research projects, could you tell us briefly what they are about?
"I’m finishing an interview study on the teaching of free improvisation in higher music education in Europe, together with a research colleague at the University of Edinburgh, Una MacGlone. I’ve also conducted a large ethnographic evaluation and research study of an Erasmus+ funded European project in higher jazz education. The project was called “The European Jazz Workshop” and consisted of conservatories collaborating with jazz festivals in five cities to organise workshops and concerts with large jazz ensembles consisting of students from all of the conservatories, where the students acted as both musicians and composers. Also, together with my Norwegian colleague Siw Graabraek Nielsen, I have started an interview survey among teachers and students in the music programme at upper secondary level about instrumental practice. I have also completed data collection for a case study of a music student with laptop and multi-instrumentalism as their main subjects, again focusing on practice. The study is called “The practising practice of a laptop musician”. "
Personal commitment yields good results
You said that you are looking at previous and current research at Ingesund to form an idea of how the organisation can develop further. Is there anything in particular that you would like to see in terms of research?
"It’s a little early for me to have opinions about it, but for one, I think that the people who work with research should be able to use their special interest and expertise. It’s about the individual researcher being able to cultivate a personal commitment in their work, but also that research should be of the highest possible standard – it usually yields good results when people get to work with what they are good at! If we could use each other’s competence in bigger joint projects, that would be very exciting!"
Will you start a group for rhythmic choir singing at Ingesund?
"Yes, if I’m allowed! I will ask the head of department!"
What do you do when you are not teaching or practising music?
"If I get to choose, then I love a bit of gardening! Also, I always bring some form of needlework, could be knitting or something I’m crocheting. I turn to needlework whether I need to unwind, channel thoughts and plan something, or release stress. I also practise a lot on my recorder, although some might say that it’s not a case of practising music. I bought a bass recorder a year ago, and it’s turned into a big hobby of mine. I play both Baroque music and jazz improvisation on it."