Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Playing the Notes That Want to Be Played

Many classically-trained musicians fear, or just assume, they lack the ability to improvise and compose. But as organist Jan Overduin writes, "improvisation is within the grasp of everyone, even those with minimal keyboard skills." (Making Music: Improvisation for Organists, vii) Overduin also quotes the famous improvising organist Gerre Hancock as saying, "The plain truth is that all musicans are capable of splendid improivsation, be it modest or grand." (3)

When I first got a computer that had many preinstalled programs, I'd often come home from teaching and discover my son (7 or 8 years old) at the computer, playing a game or using what was to me a new program. "Where'd that come from?" I'd ask. "Oh," he'd reply, not even looking up, "it was on the computer." The truth is that all of us have an improvisation "program" bundled into our personal software. We may not know the improvisation program is there, and we may not have experimented with using it, but we have it all the same.

Some years ago now I visited a college Kansas to play a chamber music concert and give an improvisation concert. The day before the workshop, the piano professor told me, "I just don't have an improvisation button." "Yes, you do," I replied. "I'll show you where it is and how to press it." Here's how to find that "improvisation button" and press it, how to find and open your improvisation software program.

Even though I've now done a lot of improvising, I find the practice described below the most powerful and reliable way to get myself back into true improvising when I feel stuck. This practice involves playing--or singing--just one note. (In Music for People--see the link at the right--these notes are often called "one quality tones.") Here's how to do it.

First, clear your mind. When I do this, I close my eyes, take some cleansing breaths, go into a quiet place--very much like meditating. Actually, I think it is a form of meditation. It's going into a state of not being absorbed by thinking and trying, but rather observing and being aware.

Next, just listen.

Listen not outside yourself, but inside your imagination. Relax and be patient.

Pretty soon, you'll get a sense of a note wanting to be heard. Worried that you won't hear it? Well, the worry is probably what's blocking it. Relax. Take a breath. let go of the worry. be patient and trust. You'll hear it, I promise.

Sometimes I hear a precise pitch. Sometimes, it's a more general sense, of relative highness or lowness, or perhaps a visualization of the mechanics of playing the note itself on the cello.

The important thing to let the note present itself.

And then play (or sing) it.

The process may be repeated as many times as you wish. The important thing is to clear your mind each time. Notice the thoughts that spring up: qualitative judgements about what just happened, ideas for what to do next, etc. Notice them and let them go. Be still and wait for another note to bubble up from the cauldron of your creative imagination.

In Music for People, there's an oft-repeated saying, "There are no wrong notes." And that's true. In free improvisation, there are no "wrong" notes. In my workshops, I often say,"You can play any note. But only the one that wants to be played."

This is, to me, the essence of improvisation. Improvisation is not about figuring out or deciding what notes to play. When improvisation really works, there's a sense that the music is just presenting itself to you. Stephen Nachmanovitch writes in his book Free Play, "My experience of [improvising] is that 'I' am not 'doing something'; it's more like following, or taking dictation." (p. 4)

Improvising can feel like taking dictation, but to me, that doesn't quite capture it. When things are really going well, it's less a feeling of me creating and playing the music, and more an experience that the music is creating itself and, well, playing me. I become the instrument for the music. Nachmanovitch puts it very well:
As an improvising musician, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a single breath, of both transience and eternity. To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh. (21-22)
There is quite a difference between someone sitting down at a piano and in a silly, joking fashion arbitraily hitting some keys. Sure they are playing "any note" and there are no "wrong" ones, anyway, so why isn't this arbitrary banging improvisation?

It's because while in improvisation the notes are not pre-determined, and no notes are off-limits (unless one creates a game in which only certain notes are used), there's nothing arbitrary or random about the notes which are sung or played. Improvisation is, in fact, very specific. Unlike composed classical music, the specificity is internal and spontaneous. Because it is wholisitc and organic, involving many parts of the brain working together, it often feels natural and effortless.

And sometimes a bit scary--because one doesn't know what is coming next.

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