Improv = Improve

About learning to play an instrument John Stevens says: Improvisation is the basis of learning to play a musical instrument. But what usually happens? You decide you want a certain instrument. You buy the instrument and then think to yourself, “I’ll go and find a teacher, and who knows, in seven or 8 years’ time I might be able to play this thing.” And in that way you miss a mass of important musical experience. Studying formally with a teacher might be the right way to achieve certain specific aims, but to do only that is a very distorted way of approaching a musical instrument. A person’s own investigation of an instrument–his[her] exploration of it–is totally valid.  —Derek Baily, Improvisation, 1992.


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Recently I had a satisfying musical experience playing with a five year old girl, daughter of one of my regular musical collaborators. I get together regularly with a small group of musicians and we never really know what will happen when we start to play. No sheet music, no set list, no repertoire, no plan of any but the vaguest sort. We simply make sound together, listen as intently as we are capable of listening, and respond as appropriately as we are able. If you are five and new to music, listening and responding in this way will mean something different from what it means to me, a person who has been playing for over 30 years. But improvising sounds can be done by anyone, musically trained or not. Behar played wonderfully on the piano and seemed to really enjoyed herself in a way I wish I had experienced when I was five.

In my group (our tentative name is Meh!) we use many different instruments (trumpet, didjeridoo, piano, guitar, flute, percussion, some bizarre one-stringed Thai instrument whose name is a mystery, etc.), and sometimes other sound-producing elements, though nothing as radical as Cage’s water-filled bathtub (see below). Sometimes what we create grooves steadily, sometimes it is a wash of soundpainting, full of color and movement, sometimes it’s quiet and sparse, sometimes dense and loud, and this might all happen within one “piece” of music. This is the very fun act of free improvisation.

Free improvising can be a lot like jet-skis, though: really fun for the person doing it, but maybe not as fun for those who only get to (have to?) listen to it. It’s participatory, and that’s the beauty of it. Here‘s a percussion-esque free improvisation to check out if you’re still unsure about what it might be. Often other elements are incorporated, like movement. Sometimes believe zanier/weirder the better. Is the result music? I think so, but then my definitions of music are pretty all-inclusive. Are yours? Check out the vid below by music pioneer/visionary John Cage who thinks deeply about music. Do you think this is music? Either way, it’s thought-provoking and great fun to watch/listen. Of course you should know that Mr. Cage is not improvising, but using a pre-conceoved composition to call into question the nature of Music. There is a bit of improvising in this particular performance however, as he was not allowed to turn on/off his radios because he wasn’t a union member (!), so instead he just smacked the top of them to signify turning them on, and knocked them off the table to signify turning them off. Suspending what you think Music is can be valuable when thinking about or attempting your own improvisations. While scanning their brains in an fMRI, a recent study found that the “judgment centers” of their brains were “turned off” (didn’t receive blood) when they improvised.

So, my whole point is to encourage you to forget the lessons, forget the sheet music, forget the scales, forget everything you think you know about music (for a while anyway) and just listen and respond with sound. Try to make sound that expresses something, anything, even if it is just the expression of the sound itself. Play with length, volume, timbre, movement, or anything else that comes to you. You can do this with others or alone, and it’s a great (and I would argue “necessary”) addition to your daily practice routine. There are no “wrong” notes in this kind of music, and that is another of its beauties. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Which leads me to remind you that it’s important to try not to judge what you hear, either from yourself or another. This is easier to say than to do. Those improvising musicians in the fMRI had lots of practice improvising. Just becasue you’re improvising doesn’t necessarily mean that judgment center of your brain is switched off. It takes familiarity. Practice. You can assess and think about what you hear, even talk about it, but don’t apply anything as limiting as “good” or “bad” to what you hear. This can be very liberating. This is playing music, or one form of it anyway, and it can be done by anyone at any time.

Here are some more books on improvisation to explore.

If this interests you, check out NPR’s  A Blog Supreme. This particular link covers more experimental forms of improvisation. Check it!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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