How to Improvise

My favorite improv quote is a paraphrase from Free Play, the mother of all improvisation books by Stephen Nachmanovitch:

Question: How do you improvise?

Answer: What’s stopping you?

What’s stopping us is ourselves and the educational system, especially the current system of music education. The system is very efficient at teaching us a lot of things and very well. It just leaves out one thing: thinking for ourselves. All the thinking has been done far away by experts, who are (apparently the only ones) allowed to think up stuff. After all, if we tried it, we would certainly make mistakes and be less than perfect, and who wants that?

We should all want that. “Mistakes” (so-called) are wonderful opportunities to discover something that the distant experts never thought of. This country was built on the gumption and curiosity of people who tried stuff. A lot of interesting stuff came from a “mistake”, i.e. an unpredicted result of trying stuff and seeing what happens, such as Teflon, vulcanized rubber, penicillin, x-rays, the ice cream cone, the Frisbee, Silly Putty, Post-It notes, Super Glue, Splenda, corn flakes, the microwave oven, fireworks, Play-Doh, potato chips, and um… America.

Music lessons are built around fear of the dreaded mistake from Day One. Outside of music lessons kids learn about the world by trying stuff and learning from the results. What would happen if the music teacher and student when on an adventure together to “find out  what kind of sounds you can get from this thing [instrument].” Traditionally trained folks may have an instant horror of the specters of bad habits and chaotic sounds, but let me soothe you (and what was me in bygone days) by gently reminding you that experimentation and good habits on the instrument are not mutually exclusive – quite the contrary. Trying stuff means operating without ink in front of you (i.e. the student), which means you can focus much better on the mechanics of what is actually going on, i.e. holding the instrument, position of the hands/fingers, embouchure, air stream, etc. Staring at a note on a page and noting only if you got the note or not (and recoiling and tensing up if you didn’t) fosters a rather dulled sense of awareness and listening. Creating your own musical show at any level fosters awareness, musicianship, and technique.

How we do it now is all ink. Play this. No. Again. Again. Do this page and play it for me next week. [Repeat ad infinitum]

Nothing wrong with ink-learning -it’s the other half of complete musicianship, and we have to satisfy the demands of parents who want to see “progress” as Little Johnnie moves through a book. And of band directors, who are under duress to produce one concert after another – no time for this experimentation crap! So how about this: take the first part of the lesson (or the beginning of the band period) and start without ink, just experimenting with sounds. Letting a sound lead to another sound, and then another. Letting the succession of sounds start to take shape – the shape that the player hears, not the distant expert – and become… music! Watch the face of your young experimenter (adults are much more difficult to get to do this – they are used to being ‘experts’ and not making mistakes) – the joy of discovery, the warm feeling of empowerment when she discovers that she holds an instrument that can be used to create and express and is not silent when not in the immediate area of some music ink. Make up some music together – listen to each other, steal/echo ideas. Be dragons, clouds, rain, puppies, race cars, flowers. You don’t need many notes. A couple notes from the simplest scale. You can expand with time from there. You can throw in bits of advice how to realize their ideas better (a.k.a technique).

All that in a few minutes, the first part of the lesson. Then go on to the printed page. In a very short time frame you are building a complete musician, one who can think in music and one who is also comfortable reading from the page, but who also understands what’s behind the ink blobs.

At some point – days, weeks, months, years later – you can let them know that they were improvising, if for no other reason than they will never have to ask, “How do you improvise?”

-J.A.