Improvisation Center

Center for Musical Improvisation & Multicultural Dialogue
Proposed by Bob Gluck, Associate Professor
Department of Music, University at Albany

Music improvisation has positive value and powerful impetus to build common ground for dialogue and relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. This value, evidenced in the University at Albany's recent groundbreaking debut improvisation courses and workshops, inspired the creation of a proposed Center for Musical Improvisation and Multicultural Dialogue.

Why musical improvisation?
Chances are, today you have already practiced improvisation in some area of your life.

If you drove a car to work, or rode a bicycle, improvisation was involved as you easily navigated the distance between both points. Improvisation is a subconscious skill exercised by all people throughout their life for everyday activities. Stephen Nachmanovitch calls it “spontaneous creation.” It is such a part of our existence that it is often a second nature trait. Examples of improvisation in everyday life include navigating a car through traffic, a pedestrian’s careful steps on a snowy surface, a basketball player running a play, a business negotiation, and whenever we engage in meaningful conversation. Whether improvisation occurs alone or within a group, new discoveries are made, boundaries between people dissolve, and both commonalities and distinctions are discovered. Rarely, however, do we think consciously about ourselves as improvisers, or consider how we apply the skills in various situations when we are with others different from ourselves.

Historically, improvisation has been a core element of music making throughout the world, particularly throughout African, African-American, Latin American, Central Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American cultures. European composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven were improvisers at heart, yet in the 19th century, improvisation gradually became a lost art in European cultures. Today, traditional higher education music programs rarely focus on improvisation. As boundaries between musical genres collapse in the twenty-first century, musicians are increasingly expected to be conversant in a wider range of genres and performance practices, and the ability to improvise. Fortunately, musical improvisation can be learned, and these skills can be enhanced.

What does musical improvisation have to do with multicultural dialog?Aruan Ortiz
Music improvisation has positive value and powerful impetus to build common ground for dialogue and relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and races. Improvisation, particularly within collective settings, requires an elaborate, learned skill set: spontaneity, intuitive grasp of group dynamics, and communication skills. Communication skills include the ability to listen closely and respond, or at times to remain silent. It is also the ability to generate unique responses in the face of constraints and collectively agreed rules. These values have been evidenced in the University at Albany's recent groundbreaking debut improvisation workshops and related courses, inspiring the creation of The Center for Musical Improvisation and Multicultural Dialogue.

Our positive experience at the University at Albany
In 2010, two academic departments at the University at Albany, Music and Africana Studies, jointly introduced a successful new course, designed by Professor Robert Gluck to build on the positive value of a diverse classroom. The course Jazz, Identity, and the Human Spirit has proved to be a useful model of how constructive dialogue about cultural history and values can be facilitated smoothly and efficiently through the lens of race, and within the context of musical ideas.

Building upon this success, beginning in fall 2011, the University at Albany has hosted three pilot improvisation artist residencies, organized by Professor Gluck. The goal was to foster a nonjudgmental setting where exploration is encouraged, where students and other participants are encouraged to take chances and make mistakes, to make new discoveries, and to become comfortable doing so with peers from a range of backgrounds. The fall 2011 residency featured Cuban-American pianist and composer, Aruan Ortiz, who returned in spring 2013. (Click here to view Aruan Ortiz leading a conducted improvisation with the UAlbany University-Community Symphony Orchestra, Bob Gluck piano soloist.) In fall 2012, educator, conductor, vibraphonist, composer Karl Berger was our guest artist. In each of these instances, it was stunning to observe students taking risks and being creative, and almost visibly transformative for the participants. Our fall 2013 program featured bassist and educator Christopher Dean Sullivan. Excerpts from his workshop, which joyfully engaged students through improvised group and individual singing, playing, and drumming, can be found here.
Aruan OrtizChris Sullivan
Each residency has included improvisation master classes, lectures, and performances. For many workshop and lecture participants, this was their first experience improvising in a musical setting. For musicians, it was a new experience outside of their stylistic comfort zone. However, the response from all participants surveyed was highly enthusiastic and their involvement was strongly supported and encouraged by faculty.

Our positive experience revealed the benefits to not only pursue this program for enhancing an important musical skill set, but for also enhancing and improving communication, resolution, problem solving, and productivity between diverse groups. The formation of the Center is to leverage and build on these experiences to enhance and expand future opportunities for the campus and community at large. The specific benefits for groups include improved intercultural communication and understanding, innovation, creativity, team building, problem solving, and much more.

The need
The University at Albany is truly a microcosm of the world. In 2011, the student body of 12,779 undergraduates and 4,363 graduate students included representatives from 83 different nations. The campus freshman classes have grown increasingly ethnically diverse with over one third of the most recent class of 2016 being students of color (38.6%). Graduating students will enter an increasingly diverse workforce. In 2010, of employed workers in the United States, 100 million were white, 17 million Hispanic, 13 million black, and 6 million Asian. The University at Albany is ahead of the curve as a diverse environment. In the university setting, we are training global citizens, who are self aware, empathetic, and culturally competent. There is tremendous value in experiences that equip and strengthen skills to negotiate and thrive as a global citizen within an increasingly ethnically diverse world.

The plan
With an increasingly globalized society, classroom, and workplace, the ideas in this Center propose to leverage and build on the rewarding processes and outcomes of the courses and workshops run to date, to benefit an expanded audience. There will be two main areas of focus:

  1. The Art: explore collective improvisation - reflecting on the experience to enhance bridge building through the act of “doing” and to build self-awareness and cultural fluency in a multi-cultural world.
  2. The Science: design an environment of programs and experiences that instill the critical competency of improvisation for musicians.
  3. The Translation: explore how specific modes of musical interaction translate into skills that enhance verbal and transactional engagement between people and within groups.

The mission of the new Center is to create sustainable programming through an annual music improvisation workshop series for students, faculty, and surrounding community. The workshop series would be led by a combination of visiting artists and University at Albany faculty. Workshop experiences will continue to model a variety of musical contexts--from work within small groups to larger conducted ensembles. Workshop components will also continue to include guided group and individual reflection on the workshop experience, while identifying areas for skills development.

Funding needs
The 2010-2013 residencies have been funded by a variety of sources, among them grants from the University’s Department of Music, Department of Africana Studies, University Auxiliary Services, Diversity Transformation Fund, and Office of the Vice President of Development. The success of that installment pointed to the positive potential for ongoing programming. More substantial and steady funding streams are needed to continue this programming on a sustainable basis, supporting fair artist honoraria and needed staffing.

Aruan OrtizDreaming of the future
As students increasingly enter a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial society, skills are increasingly needed to successfully navigate that environment. Despite the increased entry of a diverse demographic into the workforce, many people are raised within segregated environments, in which they continue to substantially live their private lives. People often tend to make choices reflecting their comfort range and this is guided in critical ways by personal experience and exposure. There is a strong need today for young people to challenge the way they restrict their contact with people different from themselves. There is no better way to do so than by having positive experiences through “doing,” develop nonverbal negotiation and relationship skills, and do so within a non-judgmental environment that encourages self-reflection. Musical improvisation within groups is an excellent vehicle for this kind of exploration and interpersonal growth. For musicians, it offers a needed skill. For all students, it provides an opportunity to grow as self-reflective, trusting, capable, worldly young people, better prepared to enter the wider world.

For more information
Contact Robert Gluck, Associate Professor, Department of Music, University at Albany,

Bio of Robert Gluck, Director, proposed Center for Improvisation and Multicultural Dialogue
Professor Bob Gluck brings a unique skill set to lead the Center for Musical Improvisation & Multicultural Dialogue. He is a classically trained musician, jazz pianist, educator, and historian of jazz and electronic music. The New York Times’ Allan Kozinn has called him "an accomplished jazz pianist,” noting his “virtuosic fluidity," to which Cadence magazine adds that he is "a brilliant improviser.” Gluck is equally skilled as an educator and organizational consultant, gained in his study of group work and community organization at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work (MSW), and at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (MHL and title of Rabbi). Bob Gluck studied music at the Juilliard, Manhattan, and Crane Schools of music and at the University at Albany (BA), and Electronic Arts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (MFA). He has seven CDs to his credit, and is author of “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band” (University of Chicago Press, 2012) which explores one of the great improvisational ensembles. Info: