For one, it gives me a break from tackling my wrong notes, distasteful vibrato, and being torn between interpretations in the practice room. There are no wrong notes, no wrong inflections. I wouldn’t say that a note during improv with “distasteful” vibrato/intonation/whatever was necessarily done on purpose, but was made in the moment and without expectation. There is something very freeing and empowering about this. What happens on accident- a cracked note, or a gasping breath, can turn into inspiration for what is to come.
At the same time, I can tackle my classical music troubles through improv. Lately, I’ve had issues with controlling the style of my double tonguing. I’ll start moving my fingers, with no regard to scales or my piece, and focus solely on my double tonguing. This allows my mind to be entirely focused on the production of my tonguing, because I am not going to be distracted by the fingers in an awkward passage, or by the monotony of scales.
When I improvise, it is something of an unconscious experience. I breathe in and hope for the best. Sometimes I will plan- “Start with some quirky extended techniques, go into a melody, and end on this particular note,” but any motives or themes that surface in my playing I am totally unaware of until I hear them myself. I am more involved with the “now” rather than thinking about what I am about to play (big contrast to performing classical music). I’ve had someone say “I don’t know how you think of this stuff…” Me neither. I don’t think of it and therein lies the magic of improv. No thinking, no planning, no worrying. Just Music.
Listening to other students, I also find improvisation helps a lot with intonation. I expect this is because with a score, the student looks at a note, and goes on auto-pilot, fingering and playing the note as they always do. In improv you are often unaware of what note you are on- but totally aware of the sound. Not only does it help with awareness in intonation, but general awareness in group playing. Group Improvisation involves a lot of picking out motives other performers create, and transposing them in your own way onto your instrument. It is possible for a string quartet with music in front of them to pick a tempo, start together, and finish together, without really listening to each other. It is NOT possible for improvising players to create any kind of music without listening. When is one more aware of other players than when there are no notes and no memory problems to distract??
Improvisation for me is always more of a release than something I actually practice- but I consider it central to my music education. Without it I would be too wound up over not sounding “perfect” to enjoy my flute. It’s like recess: After enough running wild for long enough, a little structure is welcome, and I can go to the woodshed on my composed music with a free heart and mind.
–Sara Wachter, posted on Greg Sandow’s blog Dec. 7, 2007