Book review…Jean-Michel Pilc, “It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation” (Glen Lyon Books, 2012)

An intimate look into the philosophies of pianist and educator Jean-Michel Pilc, It’s About Music provides a potent and widely applicable model for artistic growth through fostering essential musicianship and the individual creativity of the student of improvised music. Pilc’s inspired pedagogy leads through clarity of thought and the power of suggestion rather than heavy-handed imposition of systems, theories, or approaches.

It's About Music cropped_1Jean-Michel Pilc, It’s About Music: The Art and Heart of Improvisation, Glen Lyon Books (Montrose, California), 2012. ISBN 987-0-9859039-0-9. 241 pages.

As I worked through It’s About Music, I always had a pencil in hand: every page is underlined, written in, starred, or otherwise notated and filled with reminders to my future self when I refer back. Some of the notes I’ll use at the piano, others in my writing, and still others in my classroom or with my own private students. And this may be because of an affinity of approach between Jean-Michel and me, which became clearer during our interview, but I suspect it has more to do with his book’s potential application among a wide range of musicians, educators, artists, and aficionados. Those familiar with jazz improvisation method books will find Pilc’s book a drastic departure from the norm, the first and most noticeable sign of which is the complete lack of music notation. In its place are over two-hundred pages of captivating prose filled with exercises from the rudimentary to the advanced, historical and personal anecdotes, the sage wisdom of artists and scientists, and Pilc’s thoroughly explained philosophies on practice and performance, music listening (hearing), wellness, and everyday life.

Pilc addresses readers directly and invites them to interpret his exercises and suggestions in an individualized way, preferring to act rather “as a friend, than a master” in his teaching. This is not necessarily a novel approach in teaching, but relatively uncommon in jazz education, particularly in terms of Pilc’s distaste for rote exercises and adherence to particular schools or theories. Pilc’s pedagogy assists the student in pursuing her or his own path, rather than prescribing a singular course of action to be followed from the beginning. This kind of teaching is selfless and taxing, but oblique, difficult to articulate, and a much more challenging mode of instruction, particularly when attempted via a written text. Students looking for regimen and a strict diet of progressively more difficult exercises will find them; however, Pilc only plants seeds, preferring to allow the student’s own creativity shape development and growth more directly. And yet, he cautions against following his own directives or suggested objectives too closely, which is in fact one of the most revolutionary aspects of the book. Pilc devotes ample pages to the nurturing of artistic voice and “getting out of our own ways,” that is, avoiding the pitfalls and hang-ups that can stifle creativity and imagination.

Teaching creativity and imagination may seem a hopeless or naively idealistic task and yet, as demonstrated not only in his prose but more importantly through his music, Pilc lays out productive and effective ideas for accomplishing just that. A major part of his approach involves connecting imagination and experiencing music to the everyday: while he regards music performance as very much outside of everyday activities and interactions, Pilc provides a series of exercises in which awareness of musical expression within everyday routines (and vice versa) leads to a more natural, embodied perception of music. He foregrounds dissociation—achieving independence of contemporaneous activities—as a chief means of attaining a heightened performance state in which the musician hears and participates as an audience member without concern for the instrument or execution.

It’s About Music will start a lot of discussions and could help a lot of musicians. Those not familiar with or empathetic to Pilc’s music may not find the same potential in the book that I have. Nevertheless, for its originality of approach and the unique opportunity to read an in-depth explanation and application of a master musician and educator’s approach to improvisation, this book is essential reading. All the better that one might work through it, marking up the pages, bringing it to the practice room, and applying its lessons. Click on the links below to view a few excerpted pages from the book, shared with permission from the author and publisher.

Table of Contents  Sample Text (pp. 47-50)

Features

“Inspired Intuition and Dissociative Play: The Improvising World of
Jean-Michel Pilc”
“Sense, Feeling, and the Rhythm of Study: A Conversation with
Jean-Michel Pilc”
Album review…Jean-Michel Pilc, Essential (Motema Music, 2011)
Album review…Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig, Threedom (Motema Music, 2011)

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