Thursday, March 02, 2006

Acceptance and Surrender

As I began to explore in my first entry, "Sometimes It Takes a Crisis," classical musicians can be blocked from improvising by overly-ambitious standards or expectations.

For me, the problem was that I had imposed a standard of having a tremendous amount of harmonic control, even though I play a melodic instrument. Classical musicians, especially professional classical musicians, often have our self-esteem wrapped up in how well we play our instrument.

So being a beginner, in a sense, on one's own instrument, is frightening and something most of us avoid. Not only do we tend to be afraid to improvise, for fear of not being good enough, we also are often afraid of trying new approaches. Learning to play period instruments, for example. Many mainstream players are dismissive of the entire historically-informed performance practice movement not just because it is so different, but also because the idea of having to relearn one's own instrument, to be a beginner again, is threatening.

In Zen, as I understand it, the "beginner's mind" is prized, as is nonattachment to status and the opinion of others. We Westerners tend to be very different. Our reputation, our status, our accomplishments, our reviews, these all seem to be what make us who we are.

When developing our musical creativity by improvising, we have to put aside not just unrealistic expectations, but also (at first) pretty much any expectation of what we will do. Actually, putting aside expectation remains key to improvising forever. You can't plan it. You can't practice it. You surrender.

When I started improvising, I was in a profound crisis. I needed emotional release. Angry, conflicted, and anxious, I realized that if what (I thought) I could not do was play notes that made sense together, I could play purposely play notes that did not make "sense." In other words, atonal music. Music that would be much like the aleatoric music I played so much of during my student years. I could express all that tension and anger and doubt by playing wildly expressionistic atonal music, music full of gestures, but not trying to make sense in a traditional tonal sense.

Something opened up inside and tremendous amounts of impassioned music started flowing from me. It was incredible. It was cathartic. It was damned near intoxicating.

It was the music I needed to play at that time.

A couple of years later, a colleague of mine was beginning to explore improvisation. When would improvise, simple, sweet melodies would come out. He was embarrassed to play them for other people because they were so uncomplicated and unsophisticated. Not what a professional classical musician should play. Not what others would expect or want to hear.

These sweet little melodies were what his body or soul or whatever wanted to play.

It is perhaps ironic, or maybe telling, that at the time I finally allowed myself to express my true feelings through music, and accepted what I could and couldn't do, I was going through a similar experience in my personal life. (Does that imply making music is not personal? If so, that's not what I'm trying to get at. Improvising can be the most intensely and intimately personal thing one does.) I was finally allowing myself to express my gay sexuality and accepting the fact that I am gay. Instead of stopping myself from expressing myself as who I am, I was allowing and accepting these intimate feelings, as imprisoned in shame as they had been. This was paralleled by, or perhaps expressed in (or both), my music.

The point here, if you are beginning to explore improvisation, is to let go of expectations, accept your "strengths and weaknesses" as a musican, allow yourself to express your feelings with the musical vocabulary you now have, and surrender yourself to the music which wants to be played.


Anonymous said...

Dear Eric, I have almost completed my book, 21 Steps to playing the cello, from the student's viewpoint. It has a very short, concise chapter on cello improv-I'm working on it right now. Would you like me to email it to you? Of course, I'd like your comments and support.

Eric Edberg said...

Sure, I'd be delighted to read the improv and any other chapters of your book!

You can email me at eric AT