Smart Improvising, Or: Improv in the Key(s) of Florida

Topographic map of the State of Florida, USA (...

Spring break isn’t for a week, but I had the chance to come to the University of Northern Florida as a guest of pianist/composer/improviser professor Gary Smart to do some improv  workshops and performing and I leaped at it.

Gary and I go way, way back. There used to be (sigh) such a thing as a Ford Foundation grant for cities to have a composer in residence. A fantastic idea! I was in Anchorage (Alaska) playing in an army band (my clever way of getting out of the draft during the Viet Nam War was to enlist). It was a great time. I was doing a lot of music: playing in the Anchorage Symphony, singing in the community choir, taking lessons, giving lessons, horn choir, practicing hard eight days a week. Near the end of my tour I applied to grad school in horn (U of Wisconsin-Madison – John Barrows); it was too far to go to audition, so I had to make a tape. I hired a woman who had a DMA in piano performance. I gave her the notes some weeks before we had to record… and… she didn’t learn her part very well. Came time to tape, and it wasn’t good. It wouldn’t do at all. I was desperate. Time was running out. I had to send something in.

Northern lights over Kulusuk, Greenland

I went, hat in hand, to Gary Smart. Gary was a brilliant pianist (besides being a composer; I had already played his Aurora Borealis with the Anchorage Symphony – first time I ever heard bowed gongs, among other things). I had heard him play a piano recital that was, well, nuts. He played the entire orginal Pictures at an Exhibition, plus Stravinsky’s Petrouschka, and a bunch of other tough stuff. His encores were a couple of jazz pieces of his own composition (“Waltz for Marilyn” was one – Marilyn was/is his charming wife, a lyric soprano). Did I mention he plays jazz, too?

I stood before him like the mortician before the Godfather in Godfather (I). Please, Godfather, uh, Gary. Help me, please. I knew he was good, but I was also giving him no time to even work on them. We had to record… tomorrow at the latest. He said, “Whattaya got?” I handing him a Mozart concerto orchestra reduction. He looked it over and said, “OK. What else?”. I handed him a Sonata by Halsey Stevens. He sat down at the piano and started playing the part – flawlessly, it sounded to me – and then, with an impish grin, started improvised in the style of Halsey Stevens.

“OK. When do you want to record.”

“Tomorrow?”

“OK. What time?”

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So Gary Smart saved my bacon back then. I ran into him serendipitously on the net last fall while looking for something else. Mirable dictu! Is this the same guy? After all these years? The guy with an African Grey Parrot named Pablo who could whistle aimless melodies (Gary: “Pablo has the idea of melody. He just doesn’t know any.”) and was terrified of claves?

It was. We got to talking (via email) and we soon discovered that not only was he (still) an improviser, but he had one of two (that I know of) college music programs that required all students to take an improv course (the other being Charles Young’s at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point). So we plotted to get me down to UNF to play and do a workshop. And here I am, my second day here. So this report will no doubt be continued later.

I met with his spring semester improv class (you have to take it some time before graduation; most take it as seniors), a small but bright and talented group. We did a warm up mirror movement exercise that I had stolen from William Westney, who was at UI last week, and then I did some Soundpainting with them, since this was a kind of improvisation that they were not familiar with. We ended with some trios and quartets where they made it up; Gary and I played along in one. It was great fun and I thought they did very well. Gary has an easy, light-hearted manner, which is perfect to help put new improvisers at ease. He made suggestions for limitations on the piece, which always makes making choices easier. To a singer: “Sing a song to space aliens who have a very different idea of music and of life.” To a trio: “Start aggressive and then get progressively more calm and passive.” Everyone made interesting choices. The one place for improvement might be leaving more space; the common cold of classical improv is playing too much. It’s so much fun to play, that the hardest thing is not playing, but it invariably improves the piece to leave more space and vary the texture. They and we will be performing – improvising – for all music students at a daytime concert on Friday. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Gary and I (and possibly the clarinet teacher) will be improvising a concert on Sunday. Stay tuned for more Florida adventures.

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