Improv Tip of the Day: Just Duet

Improvising doesn’t mean being unprepared. On the contrary, the preparation is ongoing and endless: you have to be ready for anything, kind of like life itself. So there is more than plenty to work on in the practice room. But improvisation is fundamentally social, so we need to get out of the practice room – or more to the point, the practice room mentality – as often as possible and play with a partner. Partner play makes everything more fun and fun is, well, fun, i.e. highly motivating. People will do stuff that is difficult or even not very pleasant if they perceive it as fun, witness any sport. Which would you rather do: run back and forth rapidly for an hour or play racketball? And so on. In musical improv we are energized and inspired by our partner. More, more! Stephen Nachmanovitch said it best in his book Free Play (in fact, he says all kinds of things about improv better than anyone has ever said them: run, don’t walk to the nearest bookstore and buy a copy if you don’t own one yet):

One advantage of collaboration is that it’s much easier to learn from someone else than from yourself. And inertia, which is often a major block in solitary work, hardly exists at all here: you release each other’s energy. Learning becomes many-sided, a refreshing and vitalizing force.

As with having a workout partner at the gym, the best thing is to meet regularly. You thereby keep each other committed and motivated and put in the time, and, oh, have a great time. You challenge each other and inspire ideas in duo play that you would have never found by yourself.

The nice thing about improv is that you don’t need anyone in particular to improvise with. A horn player doesn’t have to wait to find another horn player who dares to improvise; a like-minded bassoonist or guitar player or bass trombone is just fine. Likewise, the other player doesn’t have to be on the same level. A pro won’t be bored if she doesn’t have another pro to improvise duets with. She can improvise with a student of any level, for instance. You might not improvise the same things given different instruments or different levels, but you adapt to the situation and you come up with something, and that something can always be interesting and worthwhile.

Even when you’re alone in the practice room, it’s still good to practice with a partner, even if that partner is not a carbon-based life form. Nonhuman partners could include:

•Metronome. Interacting with a source of rhythm/pulse is the simplest way to reap some of the benefits of partner play. You can work on improv at various tempos, hone your beat-feel-precision (help: is there a word for this?), and have fun syncopating like mad in-, on-, around the beat. There are electronic metronomes as well as computer/smart phone app metronomes.

•Autoaccompaniments. Electronic keyboards very often come with autoaccompaniments that can be set to any tempo. So instead of working on your F# minor with a metronome, do it to a samba beat!

•Computer programs like GarageBand can do the same thing but give you more control over sounds, patterns, and form.

•Recording. OK, your partner is not terribly responsive to what you’re doing, but you can still have fun of playing along with a recording of any kind of music that you like.

Another day (tomorrow?) we will go over some of the ways that partners might interact.

For today, find somebody and make music together!