Sunday, April 16, 2006

Express Yourself Through (Weird) Sounds

When I'm asked to do an improvisation seminar somewhere, I call it "Expressing Yourself Through Sound: Improvisation for Everyone."

Because that is what improvisation is to me: expressing one's self using sounds. Any sounds. It's quite convenient that we life in a post-musique concrete world in which composers embraced what had formerly been considered noises as musical sounds. When I teach a section of our introductory seminar for first-year music students at DePauw, we work on a definition of "music." I won't thrash out all the possibilities here, but suffice it to say we have to work out something that includes sounds from "found objects." Perhaps a good, all-encompassing definition is "sounds made on purpose with the intent of having them listened to."

The Music for People motto for many years was "self-expression through music and improvisation." And that's what I focus on: facilitating and encouraging self-expression.

Since I work mostly with classical musicians, the first challenge is to get people over the usual fears, including (but certainly not limited to):
  • I won't be good enough.
  • I can't play by ear.
  • I'll make mistakes.
So that's why I frame the work in the way I do. It's not about identifying chords by ear, it's not about making sure you play a 16-bar melody, it's not about staying in a key, it's not about playing your instrument well, and it sure as hell is not about not making mistakes.

Feel a feeling. Make a sound that expresses that feeling.

Simple as that. You can't do it wrong. You can't lose.

Many classical players have their self-esteem tied up in how well they play their instrument. Especially professional players. For me, I know, playing the cello was, for many years, the way I justified my existence. My sense of well-being rose and fell with how "well" I thought I was playing.

So improvising on one's main instrument can be especially frightening. You're a professional flutist? For heaven's sakes, the last thing in the world you may want to do is to take a risk and sound bad.

Ah, but here comes the good news. Make a sound that expresses how you feel. And feel free to make it some other way than on your main instrument.

Groan. Moan. Shout. Slap. Thump a drum. Play just one note on a piano. Play an entire, horrible-sounding tone cluster on the piano, one that would have made Charles Ives himself proud.

OK--that's not so hard, is it?

Now pick up your instrument. Make unconventional sounds.

Scratch if you're a string player. Don't stop the strings all the way to the fingerboard. Do snap pizzicatos. Bow the on the other side of the bridge. Use your instrument as a drum.

Make all those squawking sounds on a clarinet or flute you've spent your life learning to not to make! Crack a note on a trumpet or horn. Just blow through the thing.

Sound effects. They are liberating. They can be cathartic.

They are a great place to start.

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