by Joshua Roman
If you’re a classically trained musician, chances are you can play a number of complex pieces on demand, by memory, you can look at a piece of music you’ve never seen before and decipher the symbols on the page in real time (sight reading), or at least you can rather quickly learn a piece and bring it to performance level. Are you, however, comfortable playing along with music you like on the non-classical station? Can you sit in with your friends and make up a tune, a countermelody, or catch the bass line the first time around?
With the “classical” sensibility that has been cultivated over the last century, the latter set of skills may sound superfluous. Crack open that history book, though, and you’ll see that improv has been integral to musicianship for centuries. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt (name pretty much any musician from before the 20th century) – they all knew how to improvise. Their level of improv was fairly high, in some cases arguably the main reason for their original fame. While that’s an intimidating standard, I’ve come to realize that the benefits of even a basic level of improv comfort are tremendous.
The most difficult part of improv for someone who is used to preparing for hours, days, weeks before letting anyone hear a piece of music, is letting go of that control. The fear of playing something wrong is important to overcome, but I’ve discovered a few helpful mantras/tools:
1. Don’t compare your improv to the music you usually play.
If you spend most of your time playing the music of the greats, you might have totally unrealistic expectations. Those sounds were organized by veritable masters, and have proven the test of time. That’s not necessary for improv purposes! Simple, easy, accessible, creative, and above all, YOU, is what’s important here.
2. Start small.
I mean this in every way possible. Start in a room where no one can hear you, if you need to! Sometimes it’s useful to just play one note over and over again (an ostinato) until you get tired of it and naturally move on. Or, put on a song you listen to all the time, figure out the melody or the bass line, and then gradually begin to find other notes in between. Sometimes I even like to hold one note through a chord pattern, and feel the tension modulate as the chords underneath shift.
3. Allow yourself repetition.
When I was ten or eleven, my dad started having me play with his band on Sunday nights at church. I’ll never forget his reply when I asked about the sheet music – he said “you’ll figure it out. If you don’t like the note you’re playing, play a different one.” Kind of to the contrary, he also said “if you play a ‘wrong’ note, play it until you make it the ‘right’ note.” Basically, if you do something that doesn’t quite fit, you can incorporate the “mistake” into your next phrase, thereby “fixing” the mistake retroactively by use of repetition. So much of music is about how we play with expectations – so a keen awareness of patterns can take us into super cool and new places, and help us let go of the fear of “messing up” in improv.
4. Do your thing.
The most beautiful thing about improv is that it comes from you. It can begin to reflect your own unique voice – your sense of style and the elements of music that are most important to you. Find yourself listening to Lady Gaga when you’re not practicing excerpts? Great place to start! Simple chord patterns, a consistent beat, tunes you can pick up easily. Love the structure of techno with its beat drops and long arcs? That’s a fun way to learn to read what’s coming next. Want to get inside the mind of Dvorak and his Cello Concerto? Take the main theme and riff on it – how would you develop the material differently? One of my favorite things to do in school was to turn out the lights in a practice room and just start “following the sound.” Sometimes melodic, sometimes strange and wonderful fragments, sometimes just a rhythm would emerge. Letting go of expectations is key.
The benefits of learning to improv become apparent very quickly. First off, it opens up so many collaborative possibilities! It also gives you a very powerful entry point into any composer’s music. When you start to see all of the choices the composer did not make, the choices they did make paint a stronger picture. One of the more amusing results of becoming comfortable with improv is less fear of memory slips. I say “amusing” as I think of the times I’ve heard myself and others wander off script, and the hilarious (and therefore less awkward) paths back to the written score. Perhaps most importantly, as this skill develops, it gives you insight into your own artistic voice. When all the musical choices are yours, your priorities emerge much more clearly. This process of self-discovery is absolutely essential in order to cultivate an understanding of what you offer to your listeners and colleagues.
In my own musical life, improv has gone far beyond those beginning days of an added cello line to the band. I improvise all of my cadenzas when I perform Haydn Concertos, I’ve improvised entire pieces on stages including the TED stage, and collaborations with artists such as Anna Deavere Smith, DJ Spooky, Anne Patterson, We Are Golden (“Just Every Fisher’s Folly” and “Allen in February and March”), Mason Bates, have all come about because of comfort making notes up on the spot. And I’m not even very good at it, just willing!
Let’s hear what you’ve got. Share your stories, through improv video or otherwise.