May. 26, 2016

Improvisation, Part V

(con't from Part IV)
In terms of improv, this coffee cup says it all.
Many people get discouraged when learning how to improvise because they try for perfection, when that's perhaps the exact opposite of the true spirit of improvisation.
Improvising music isn't about avoiding mistakes; it's about risking them, and recovering from them [See blog, Musical Landscapes].
If we always stay perfectly within the audience's expectations and the "rules" of music, then our improvising will be dull and predictable; we need to push the boundaries and be willing to risk trying things that might not work out.
If we play a whole string of bad-sounding notes, our improvising is, by all accounts, a failure; but play a single bad-sounding note, and we have a whole range of possible ways to recover from that "mistake" and make it musical.
Those momentary clashes of discord that shake the audience out of their slumber can actually become our solo's greatest power, if we skillfully turn our phrase in that direction which makes our "wrong" note "right."
These recoveries are easier when we have a strong knowledge of theory, but really this is a skill you learn by doing.
When we're practicing improvising, we need to push ourselves every time; we need to suspend our natural judgment and high expectations of ourselves; we need to take risks and go beyond our comfort zone [See blog, It Takes Guts].
When we make a mistake we need to keep playing and forget about berating ourselves; we should see it as an opportunity to practice a more important skill than perfectionism, viz., recovering from mistakes.
The idea is to play the notes we mean to play because we've heard them in our head already, even if only a split of a second before playing them on the keys; but the more times we've made a mistake and recovered from it in practice, the less scary will be the idea of making a mistake in a real improvised performance.
Our improvising will become far more interesting if we learn to embrace our mistakes.
Here's the key thing to know: every great improviser started out terrible; it's true; so when we begin to experiment with improvising, we shouldn't expect to sound wonderful; in fact, we shouldn't even expect it to sound musical.
We should start small, start simple, and great improvising will come in time, if we keep our attitude right; a positive attitude is essential to being a successful improviser and musician.
Here's something else that helps:
If we really want to make fast progress with improvising, then we should make a point to record what we're improvising and take the time to listen back; we should then force ourselves to really listen objectively and carefully to what we played, evaluate it, see which parts worked well and which didn't, and ask ourselves why.
Better yet, we can ask a friend or a teacher; we can take some note of what we can learn from that to bring to our next session of improvising.
This simple habit of recording and reviewing our work can transform our practice sessions from small, slow steps forward into intensely transformative masterclasses that dramatically accelerate the progress we make as an improviser; this is not an overstatement; it takes guts and patience to actually do it, but it really does make a world of difference to the results we get.
Here's another point: To teach our brain and ear the improvising skills we're aiming for, it's important not to overwhelm them; there's no better way to overwhelm than to rush, rush, rush.
Instead, we need to take our time; we need to slow down to speed up, maybe set our internal metronome for half speed (50%), not so slow that it becomes hard to produce clear musical phrases, but slow enough that we feel we have time to make the decisions we need to, about what to play next.
We need to be patient with ourselves; like all aspects of learning music, learning to improvise will take time, so we need to take our time and enjoy the journey; as long as we're improving and enjoying the progress, that's all that truly matters.
When improvising, we need to learn to play with emotion and passion, tell a story that transcends words along, and let go of that "perfection thing;" if we hit an unforgiving note, we should just play on; even our musical idols were once novices, and each of us has to start somewhere.
We should learn to have fun, laugh, and leave criticism at the door when we sit down and practice our improvising.
Remember, the goal with practicing improvising isn't to produce polished musical renditions -- it's to free up our musical instinct, shake off those inhibitions, and let our musicality shine through.
(con't in Part VI)