I like to improvise, but I am not a jazz player on the horn. Nevertheless, it is a very good idea for any improviser to learn from any/every source and jazz is certainly a source that we should steal, uh, learn from at every opportunity. One basic resource for the jazz player over the years has been the so-called Real Book, which was for a long time an illegal compendium of lead sheets – basic melody and chords of jazz standards (and some not-so-standards). They were illegal because they included the (copyrighted) tunes. Fake books (real/fake? Get it?) that just gave the chords to songs without the tunes avoided this sticky bit of legality.
Real Books were hard to find for most people for a long time – you had to know a guy who knew a guy who sold them from the back of his station wagon in parking lots on odd Thursdays. Real Books were the necessary samizdat resources of learning jazz. If you know jazz, you could get together with anybody and play all night and beyond – somebody just had to call out the page in the RB and everybody could play, whether they were familiar with the tune or not.
Although you might be able to fault the usual Real Book for choices (lots of tunes you never heard of before) and mistakes in chords and melody, you can’t quibble over quantity. Lots of stuff here! RBs are thus handy but quite bulky to schlep around, which is possibly a good reason to learn the tunes by heart as quickly as possible.
A couple more notes on our activities in this semesters improv class (Improvisation for Classical Musicians)…
We started out with a lot of rhythm. Classical musicians focus mostly on pitches; rhythm is a stepchild as far as the quantity and quality that we focus on it. So we learn basic percussion/rhythm skills: tapping (either body percussion or small percussion or drums) duple, triple, and mixed accent groups, plus some basic rhythms: Long Short Short (LSS), SSL, SLS, taking rhythm solos.
The first composition is a Bricolage piece: each person brings something from home that makes some kind of noise. Each person in turn selects four players and teaches them each a different ostinato rhythm. Then all play together. The conductor/composer indicates a soloist (one at a time), who then plays anything they want. After everyone has had a turn, all return to their ostinatos. The piece ends with a sharp unison “hit.”
Assorted principles and suggestions for classical improvisers (first installment):
•Imitate. Copy what you hear, either from yourself or others.
•Don’t be afraid to repeat something. Over and 0ver and over.
•Repeat something, but after the third time or so, start making changes, however small.
•Mean what you say, say what you mean (not what you think someone wants to hear or what you think will impress them or what someone else might say).
Imagine that the entire amount of time of a piece is represented by a pie chart. A player would do well to imagine her time spent during the piece as follows:
• Don’t play. A quarter slice of the pie is silence: don’t play – just listen to the choices of others and to the direction the piece is going. Also when everyone plays all the time, the result can be too thick (hard to hear through it) and will certainly be monotonous. Timbre comes alive when players leave space for other sounds to come through. Note: the silence doesn’t all have to come at once – it can be apportioned throughout the whole piece.
• Steal. Half the pie is imitating/stealing ideas, both from other players and from yourself (re-use those ideas). Listen for strong ideas and play them back, perhaps as a sequence, or using motivic devices such as augmentation or diminution. Or take other’s players’ ideas and turn them into accompaniment patterns.
• Solo. One quarter slice of the pie is for discovering one’s own solo ideas, polishing and refining them, developing them, making them as strong as possible.
Imagine that you were not allowed to speak unless you were quoting Socrates, Cicero, Aristotle, Winston Churchill, Lincoln, etc., not even “Please pass the salt” unless you were quoting. Imagine that you were an English major but were not allowed to write any of your own thoughts, no essays, not even an email; you could only copy down quotes from Twain, Dickens, Faulkner, Joyce, Cervantes, Goethe, etc . Imagine that you went to art school but were never trained or encouraged to do anything but reproduce famous paintings, never, never paint or sculpt anything that you thought up, ever. Just copy Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Ingres, Leonardo. Imagine if you went to music school and never played anything but the notes of some distant (and likely deceased) composer, never received encouragement or training to make your own music…
Oh, wait. That is, in fact, how it is in music school. No creating. Just recreating. Nothing wrong with re-creating – unless it’s the only show in town. Any garage band worth its salt composes its own songs. Why is it that your averate terminal-degreed music student can’t write a convincing piece for their own instrument? Isn’t something missing?
I have a lot of books on creativity and creative thinking, and bookstores know I’m pretty much a sure thing when something new and interesting comes out. NPR alerted me to a new one: “Imagine: How Creativity Works” by Jonah Lehrer. I just downloaded the audiobook, which I will listen to right after I finish my current audiobook (“1493” by Charles C. Mann). But even before I get a chance to hear Lehrer’s book, I wanted to share some flash inspiration that I got from the NPR interview. It was the part about how Steve Jobs redesigned Pixar studios (of blockbuster animated film fame) “to maximize collaboration and creativity.” The original design had the three teams of specialists separate in their own buildings: scientists, animators, and directors. Creative soul that Jobs was, he saw immediately that this was a Very Bad Idea when it comes to inspiring creativity.