Interview by Guest Writer, Simon Reich
I have always thought that to be a well-regarded teacher in a particular area, you need to know the subject inside and out and be a proficient exponent of the subject and Mark Polishook is definitely one of those.
Here is a YouTube link to give you an idea about him, before we begin the interview:
Mark has a huge reputation for his willingness to teach the subject that some people class as the “Holy Grail” of musicianship. Improvisation has been a part of his own musical performances for many years and to glean some of his expertise, I caught up with him last Christmas with a list of questions.
1. To move into the area of improvisation, do you need to have a certain level of skills as a piano player or can even a beginner jump in with both feet?
“Yes, of course a total beginner can jump in. Because improvisation is just that. It’s making things up on the fly. On the spot. The way to make things up on the fly is by improvising.
But, something I hear all too often is that pianists who improvise just feel the music, and technique isn’t needed. What I would say is having technique makes it easier to play the piano. And for sure if we can’t play something we practice beforehand we’re not going to play it spontaneously in the moment! So the more technique we have the better.
In terms of learning to improvise, if you’re just beginning or if you’ve been doing it for a while, what can help is to match piano technique to the ability to generate ideas. A way to do that is to play music by J.S. Bach – because we can experience the wonderful ideas embedded in his compositions and at the same time we can build our technique by playing his music.
Now that I’ve brought up the idea of acquiring technique for improvisation by playing classical music, I should say I’m very keen on playing classical music and jazz transcriptions to acquire technique. I’ll add that the Chopin Mazurkas are wonderful pieces for improvisers. However I’m not a fan of technical studies like Hanon. What I recommend for pianists who want exercises specifically for the idea side of improvisation, or for technique relevant to improvisation, is Claire Fischer’s Harmonic Exercises for Piano. Play them in 12 keys like Claire Fischer recommends.
As for Hanon, I recommend to avoid them. Because there are better, more musical – and safer – ways, such as Claire Fischer’s exercises, to get a technique that’s far broader and grander. That said, one of the great improvisers in jazz, John Coltrane, is known to have practised Hanon exercises on the saxophone. So there’s a place and a role for everything.
2. Do scales and chordal theory need to be learnt prior to improvising?
“No. Chords scales and theory absolutely are not required knowledge prior to improvising. Well, they’re not required if you assume improvisation is something we do with our ears. Meaning, if improvisation comes from first listening to the music we hear in our heads and then having knowledge of chords and scales can be helpful but it’s secondary.
The thing to consider with theory – and knowledge of chords and scales – is it leads easily to a huge problem we face as pianists. The problem is when we practice chords and scales – in others words things ported over from music theory – those same chords and scales turn easily enough into clumps like weeds we could pull from a garden. For example, pull this clump – play this chord – over here! Pull that clump – play that scale – on top of that chord over there.
But the reality is scales work with chords and vice versa. But scales don’t actually go over chords and chords don’t actually live underneath scales. To the contrary, they grow out of each other. It’s a cart and a horse kind of thing as to which comes first. That that’s so is why there are theories of counterpoint and harmony. That’s why it’s helpful to recall from music history that harmony grew out of counterpoint. And counterpoint, which was the first of the two to emerge, grew from what composers and theorists heard when they began to play more than one melody at a time. Which is to say music grew historically from melodies that occur simultaneously.
So trying to simplify things with knowledge of chords and scales can be helpful to a point. But in the larger picture it obscures how music historically was made. Why not benefit from the experience of musicians across years of music making. That’s a lot of experience from which we can learn!
3. Some people think of improvisation as an art rather than a science. Do you think it’s something that can be taught to everyone, or is it inherently in some musicians?
“Why even think of improvisation as either art of science? Why not just improvise and let it be what it is?
On some days we’ll see it as art and practice or perform accordingly. Depending on what we think art is. On other days we might practice or perform as a science. Depending on what we think science is. The thing is, great science isn’t a set of principles known in advance that we have to use. And great art isn’t total freedom from systematized ideas worked out in advance. That’s why we can talk about physics according to Newton or Einstein – because they’re two very different views of the exact same thing. And it’s the same with baroque music and the classical style that followed it; or classical music in general, and jazz.
It’s helpful to remember that different points of view, whether from science or the arts, are really just styles that share similarities and points of origin and which also come with built-in differences. So rather than categorise according to science or an art, either of which put artificial rules and distinctions on everything – well, it’s the categorising that puts the rules in place and not art or science themselves – my advice, very simply, is play and experience. Then judge later – if at all! Because the improvising and learning to improvise is a process. So experience as much of the process as possible and leave rules and categories to others.
4. Musicians can sometimes be categorised into those who rely on printed notes to perform, or those who play by ear and can “hear” new compositions in their head all the time. Do those who play by ear move into improv more easily? Or is it just as possible for both groups to improv?
“These types of categorisations – by ear or by the printed page – like the difference between art and science – are artificial distinctions. They’re labels for musicians and teachers who, for whatever reason, don’t see crossovers that happen naturally all the time. I point that out because the important idea is simply: Go to the piano and play. Let’s make music with the skills we have now rather than skills we wish we’ll have in the future.
So why not sit down at the piano and improvise entirely without a sheet of music in sight? And, alternately, why not begin improvising with Bach or anyone’s music from the printed page. In fact, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and many of the great composers were all gifted improvisers. And many gifted improvers such as Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett to name only two, play virtually anything at sight.
What I’m advocating for is simply getting past the categories and going instead to the feeling. The thing is, almost everyone who’s played an instrument has experienced that sense of losing time, of being immersed in the moment and the music. So that’s the goal. Get lost in the experience, and so thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we can’t wait to do it more! ”
5. I am a musician who hardly plays from sheet music and will usually compose on a daily basis, without structure, just doodling until I hear a motif come along and then basically follow it through it’s natural course.
Do you think by teaching this subject, you may be taking the mystery and somewhat spiritual side of the event away?
“This is a good question because it’s about the role of teaching. What does a teacher do? What does a teacher bring that a student might not be able to do on their own? And does the process of teaching remove anything from the student? Of course it’s also a loaded and not an open question because it suggests learning from a teacher may remove the mystery from the music.
A teacher can be there to facilitate the journey, to make things easier, to help to organise the path. A teacher can identify short cuts and pitfalls when and if they appear. A teacher can guide a student to find ways to do things that they’d like to do but for whatever reason they can’t yet do. A teacher can point in the direction of the mysteries and say “‘Here there be tygers.’ That’s a great place to explore.”
In that sense the teacher is a helper. But if the so-called mystery we bring to music making is so fragile that adding to our knowledge base – whether by working with a teacher or just practising new things on our own – sends it packing and running, well, maybe it’s naive, unimportant inessential magic that wasn’t worth having in the first place. Which is to say if we’re afraid a teacher will remove the mystery from something maybe what we’re afraid of is the shallowness of the approach from which we’re starting in the first place.
The point is: If we do have the drive to improve then working with the “right” teacher is a possible way, and a proven time-tested way to address that. And the converse is true as well: avoiding new ideas is a great way to stay with exactly whatever it is we’re doing. So the trick, if there is a trick, to working with a teacher is to find the “right teacher.”
6. What can you give us as your most important tips to becoming an improviser, or more proficient at it if we already are practising the skill?
“Improvise a little bit or a lot whenever you sit down at the piano. Because firstly and mostly importantly to learn how to do something, to become proficient at it, we do it. Secondly, and maybe much more important – remove expectations from the process.
Removing expectations means practice the experience of improvising but withhold judgement on the success or failure of it. Forget about magic and spirituality. Just do the thing you want to do and enjoy it for what it is. Put everything aside except for the joy and the challenge of improvising.
And find the right teacher, a guide, to help you on the journey. There’s a ton – heaps – of inspiration to be had from working with the right teacher. There’s magic and mystery in collaboration and partnership. And the “right teacher” is exactly that: a collaborator, a partner.
One part of a recent interview with Mark, yielded these great lines:
“The first thing I teach is relaxation, which helps improvisation and playing the piano enormously. Because when we’re relaxed it’s easier to play and make music. It’s simple.
Expectations can easily become “it-has-to-be-this-way” or “it-has-to-be-that-way.” If we can get rid of as much of “it-has-to-be-this” as possible then we’re closer to a place where everything seems possible. So removing expectations is about learning to play and practice in the moment with the skills we have instead the skills we wish we had.
Take simple things and combine them and the results won’t be so simple.”
I believe you do online lessons? If people wish to be involved with these, how can you be contacted? Website, Facebook, Email etc.?
My website is http://www.polishookpiano.com. Information about how I teach and how to contact me is there and I’m accepting new students. I work with musicians at every level from complete beginners to no experience up to and including experienced professionals with a lot of experience and accomplishments. I really enjoy teaching because it’s a service in which we can use the knowledge and the experience we have to help others and make a difference. If one of the most fun, rewarding things we can do.
Do you supply tutorials on the improvisation?
All of my teaching is directed to the individual so I don’t have PDF files or videos that are tutorials as such. Because there’s no way to create these sorts of things so they go right to the needs of individuals. But I do have two blogs. The new one which I’m updating every week or so is at
http://www.polishookpiano.com. The most recent post is an essay about transcribing
A slightly older blog that I keep online for historical reasons has 90 or so posts:
About tutorials and such: I believe as a teacher in partnering with my students. In collaborating with them. So my blog posts tend to be reflective essays that raise questions. Because I think that’s ultimately the best way to teach and to spur learning.
Thanks so much Mark for taking the time to speak to us here at Pianodao.
Teaching website (and blog)
A second blog
Mark Polishook Piano