Is the Baby Improvising?

Is the baby improvising when it’s crying? Cynthia Lilley says this is a koan (a question for meditation).

Might be, but I want to consider it as a real question—that is, an invitation to an answer.

Certainly the baby is vocalizing, and certainly the product is unscripted and urgent. But is it improvisation?

In order for our question to have possible meaning, this baby of my invention must be old enough both to hear the sound and to realize where the sound is coming from—namely, itself. Let’s say the baby is at least nine months old; it is already an experienced babbler and has engaged in babble-talk (da-da-dialogue, we might say) with at least a few interested adults in its vicinity. At times, this babble-talk has had the appearance of conscious interaction on the baby’s part—that is, both we and the baby know that it can listen and it can respond.

The baby also babbles by itself. It seems to be making vocal sounds for the sheer pleasure of being able to make vocal sounds. It explores an enormous variety of sounds—people who know about these things tell us that the baby at this stage makes all the sounds of every language in the world. As the particular language of its environment settles into its ear, it begins to select, to limit, and, of course, to lose what it doesn’t use.

I have called this solo babbling “exploring.” I hesitate to call it improvising since it doesn’t appear to have deliberate shape, and it isn’t clearly conversational—that is, it doesn’t seem to be searching for a response. But it is conscious in that the baby can hear it and can control it. In the sense that it is explorative and experimental, I would call it pre-improvisational.

But, oh dear, now the baby is crying. It wants something—food? Sleep? A diaper change? Entertainment? A change of activity?—and is taking steps, so to speak, to get it.

The crying is purposeful, intentional, and meaningful. The baby may not know explicitly what its need is—that’s for the Other to figure out. What the baby does know is that it can use its voice to summon the Other to pay attention. (There is crying that is merely an automatic response to discomfort and is addressed to no one; that’s not the sort of crying I’m talking about.)

In the course of this summoning of the Other, the baby will probably shape its vocal production to the unfolding of the situation. Is attention on the way? The volume and intensity may abate in anticipation. Is there no apparent response? The sound may become shriller, higher. No doubt other, more internal conditions—needing to breathe, for example—may color the contour of the cry, but clearly some part of the plaint is a call—inviting a response—that is crafted for a purpose. Is it improvising?

What prompted these speculations was a conference on improvisation and composition at Michigan State University that Cynthia and I attended on September 20, 21, and 22. Primarily a gathering of academics, it was quite an eye-opener for Cynthia and me. (Less excitement for the ear—these were scholars, after all; they gave papers, but plenty for the mind, or brain, as the case may be.) Most of the many presenters read or spoke from a prepared text, usually the report of a research project, with graphs and charts and coefficients of this or that attached. Some of the research was interesting in itself, and several of the discussions were informative and stimulating. A few of the presentations included videos of real children engaged in musical activity. That was always a treat.

Cynthia and I chewed it all over every night, and that was when our question arose about the crying child. It arose, of course, out of the larger question (not explicitly addressed at the conference): What is improvisation anyway? Particularly, what is it that we should all be advocating for—and researching—so fervently? For this was a convocation of the faithful, all right; everyone there knew improvisation (and its sister—mother? daughter?—composition) to be the essential, largely missing component of American musical education. It is heartening to know that improvisation has so many distinguished champions.

Among the most articulate and impressive were Keith Thompson, PA State University; Carlos Xavier Rodriguez, University of Iowa; Hilree Hamilton, University of Wisconsin; Jackie Wiggins, Oakland University; Pamela Burnard, Cambridge University, England; Betty Anne Younker, University of Michigan; and our own (I speak as a New Yorker) Daniel Deutsch, who teaches improvisation/composition to groups of students from kindergarten to graduate school, with utterly remarkable results. Our own (I speak now as a Dalcrozian) David Frego and Tom Kanthak gave a fine presentation on improvisation for dance.

John Kratus of Michigan State University, the conference organizer, delivered a thoughtful and refreshingly philosophical talk, “Why Create Music?” He cited three different theories of the genesis of creativity: it’s a release of internal psychic pressure (Freud), it’s a response to the environment (the behaviorist, Skinner), it’s a reaching-out of the self into the world (the humanist, Maslow). Declaring his preference for Maslow, Kratus pursued this line of thinking into a consideration of the origins of the musical impulse itself. He spoke of the creation of the songlines [sic] of the Australian aborigines [sic] (we had heard, the day before, a marvelous and strikingly similar account of the Zulu and Xhosa music of South Africa from Eric A. Akrofi, University of Transkei, South Africa) and described Diane Ackerman’s idea of “deep play,” from her book of that title, and its role in making music.

Beth Bolton, Edwin Gordon’s colleague at Temple University, presented a session entitled “Improvisation in Preschool Children: Evidence of a Musical Language.” She showed videos of very young children—some a few weeks old—being sung to and (perhaps) listening and (perhaps) responding. The eye of the beholder had a role here. The films were interesting and puzzling. What was actually going on? She is a persuasive speaker and the strength of her convictions is unmistakable.

Furthermore, I’m quite ready to believe—I do believe, and have often said so, including in print—that children show evidence of musical capacity before they use words. But that infants of a few weeks or months are engaging in “musical language”—the tapes did not tell me that. They didn’t tell me anything I could say for sure is true. (Beyond the fact, noted by others, that little babies are fabulously fascinating.) I need to see more, hear more, think more. Gordon, and Bolton, are all over the place. We need to stay tuned to what they’re doing and claiming. It is already—and will, I predict, become more—influential.

Well, back to the baby. No longer crying (while we were at the conference, it was getting a bottle), it’s now in Mama’s arms, pleasantly full of warm milk, cuddling Mousey, rocking gently, wide awake and ready for a bit of vocal play. Mama makes a little interrogative coo, Baby smiles. Mama coos again, Baby fixes its eyes on Mama’s face. Mama sings softly, Baby is rapt. Mama ends a phrase, waits; Baby makes a sound, waits. Mama waits, gazing at Baby. Baby makes a long babble. Waits. Mama sings briefly, Baby coos, etc. What’s going on here? Is this improvising?

What is improvisation, anyway?

Here are two more children to toss into our investigations: These two are real and, as it happens, both are girls.

Last year I observed over several weeks a eurhythmics class in which one student, a little girl, about four and a half, prissy and querulous, frequently fell to crying—whining, moaning, lamenting, etc.—in response to what appeared to be minimal provocation (if any). At times, she directed her threnody of distress to the teacher, at other times to a fellow student, the whole class, or her mother or babysitter, watching from the sidelines. Sometimes there were words, often not.

While discouraged from these outbursts by clipped admonitions from the teacher and, less effectively, by her mother or babysitter, who both tended to provide choral back-up in the form of either consolation or remonstration, the little girl contrived to prolong her productions sufficiently to reveal some conscious control at work. One hesitates to call it aesthetic control, although it was calculated and purposeful. The object was apparently to attract attention, but once attention had been achieved the song went on, driven, it seemed, by some intrinsic merit or interest of its own. Is this child improvising?

And then there is my granddaughter, Molly, three. She and her sister Jessica, five, were joined in their household this July by twin girls, Rachel and Eliza. Jessica and Molly are very interested in their new sisters and enjoy tending to them. When I am there, I often sing to the babies, and this is a job Molly has assigned herself as well. Melody as we conventionally understand it has not arrived in Molly’s musical consciousness yet; her voice careens over her tonal range like a drunken gull, swooping, hovering, fluttering, pausing in midair, landing delicately on a long breath. Gooooooeeeeetosleeeeeeeepy little Eli-i-i-i-za, ooo ooo, E-eeli-za-a-ahhhh. Molly sometimes closes her eyes in concentration, then opens them wide, bringing her face very close to Eliza’s. The baby stares at her, smiles. Is Molly improvising?

To decide whether we can call what these various children are doing musical improvising, we need to decide what musical improvising is. The word has of course a more general use: we improvise in language all day long; at night, we often improvise dinner; at other times, we improvise solutions to unexpected problems; but musical improvisation has a more restricted connotation. It’s that meaning that I’m after here.

Let’s try this: A musical improvisation is an extemporaneous offering—vocal or instrumental, solo or ensemble—that is consciously produced, purposeful, meaningful, shaped, and guided by aesthetic intent. It is a thing, an entity, it is made, it is a work.

I think we must add that it is directly or potentially relational; even when hummed entirely to oneself, it is communicative in spirit. As Kratus reminded us, music making is a reaching out from the self into the world. “A person is human through other people” goes the Zulu proverb.

Well, where does this leave us? If we accept these criteria for improvisation, are any of the children I’ve described left standing?

Consider the baby, the one who cries, who coos. Certainly, this baby is producing sounds consciously, and they are both purposeful (I want attention/I want to be together with you) and meaningful (the meaning here is in the purpose). Shaped? Yes, if shaping means tailored to the purpose, but no, if shaping means formed with artistic discrimination. The baby is not making a work, although it is using (playing with) the materials of a work. It is experimenting, exploring the power and pleasure of its own voice. This baby, as when solo babbling, is engaging in pre-improvisation.

The child in the class is a borderline case. It was my impression that her vocal flights, which clearly began with the intent to disrupt and to be noticed, sometimes, captured her interest for their—I have to say—musical qualities. That the product afforded little aesthetic pleasure to anyone else in the room is beside the point; she was making artistic choices. Bad art is still art.

As for Molly—she’s improvising.

May she keep singing.

Originally published in the American Dalcroze Journal, Vol. 27, No. 1. This article was recently re-published in the Fall 2023 issue of Dalcroze Connections, Vol. 8 No. 1.

About Anne Farber

Anne Farber received her license from the Dalcroze School of Music and a diploma from the Institut Jaques-Dalcroze in Geneva, Switzerland. Former faculty: Special Music School, the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA, and the Diller-Quaile School of Music. Former director of the Dalcroze School at Lucy Moses School.

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