Free, unstructured improv may be the most easiest way of music making (just watch what a young child with no lessons will do with a piano), but often well-intentioned teachers causes us to un-learn this natural skill, or not appreciate its value in trusting our own creativity.
I believe the ability to spontaneously create music without thinking about it is an important skill, and should be practiced regularly. In this video, I demonstrate how I go about it.
For more information, I highly recommend improvisational violinist Stephen Nachmanovitch's excellent book Free Play.
In my development as a musician and violinist, I was deeply fortunate to be mentored and encouraged by a number of great teachers who nurtured creativity and encouraged improvisation. I interacted with several amazing teachers who were directing sessions to unleash our creativity, break rules, and, one time, drag a pine comb across the strings in lieu of a bow.
These were really wonderful, fun, lessons for which that I could not be more grateful. I learned how to fearlessly create my own solos, and cultivate the indispensable skill of playing spontaneously – waiting for permission from no one to create my own melodies from chord progressions. So it didn’t take long for me to take my new found skills into jam sessions. I played with singer-songwriters, tried to start a band in a friend’s garage, and offered my services to my church’s “contemporary” service instead of the “traditional” one. Numerous times, these ended up being frustrating experiences. I received a lot of dirty looks, and wasn’t called back for gigs – and the band didn’t go anywhere other then an amazing list of potential names. I was unsure why all these opportunities were lost – after all I playing smoking rifts and thought I was sounding amazing! Why wasn’t anyone else appreciating how freely I could create solos on the spot, or play so passionately?
After many failed attempts at trying to jam with people, I learned the hard way that what I thought was amazing playing came across as showing off, drawing too much attention to myself, and not fitting into the ensemble or supporting the leader. I then realized that these freedom-inspiring lessons were only half the story. I had learned how to “talk,” but not how to listen.
In order to do music-making together, it is important to find a way to make your own voice fit into someone else’s. Sometimes this will mean holding back, not simply doing every hot lick that comes to my mind or fits in the chord progression, but waiting, or doing something simple that will fit. The violin, is in a similar range to both guitars and the female voice, and so I have to be particularity conscious of not drowning these instruments out, but playing soft and simple enough to support, rather then overwhelm, the rest of the musical experience. When playing improvised music with others, one of the most important skills is knowing when to hold back and give someone else his or her moment to shine.
Although I think the people I play with would admit I’m not perfect at this yet, here are some tips I’ve found to be helpful in practicing this skill:
1) During your daily practice times, set a timer and devote a set time (between 1 and 10 minutes) for “outer space time” – truly playing without processing, without judging, freely and unaccompanied. It is very important to develop the skill of playing without any rules whatsoever. Just like scales are an important part of your practice routine, but they don’t belong in a gig, cultivating a muscle of free creativity is vital, but you need to learn how take those ideas and properly channel them into lines set by those around you.
2) Play along with the radio, or a station on pandora.com or some other way you can listen to songs you’ve never heard before. Hold out a single note at first, shifting down a half step if it doesn’t sound good. Then, start trying to solo “in between the gaps,” whenever there is silence or a simple instrumental break, or find simple riffs that don’t clash. I have found that music like mainstream hip-hop, pop, country, and rock with simple, repetitive hooks work best for this – so leave your hipster snobbery at the door.
3) (somewhat courtesy of Barry Green’s excellent book The Mastery of Music) Play looking at your fellow musicians, and pay attention to breaths, nods, and other cues that something is about to happen or the leader wants the song to go somewhere. Again, you shouldn’t just be thinking about yourself, but how what you are doing is contributing to the whole, and that means bringing your focus to the others around you, letting the leader affect how and what you play. For example, when playing in a religious setting, I generally try to play at a piano volume during the sung parts of a song, and then crescendo when I get the nod giving me permission to do my thing.
4) Through prayer or mediation, learn to cultivate an attitude of musical humility. As someone influenced by western ideas of the individual musician as “rock star,” it has been a hard, but deeply rewarding path to learn how to use my music, not to draw attention to myself, but to support others. Robby Steinhart's criminally underrated work with Kansas is often a powerful demonstration of how relatively simple lines from a stringed instrument can greatly enhance a rock song, not by drawing attention to itself, but add a lot to the group as a whole.
5) LISTEN! LISTEN! LISTEN! Listen to the notes coming out of your instrument. Listen to everyone else playing alongside you. Listen to the silence, not a break but a actual note with the potential to be deeply pregnant with meaning. Listen to the people in the audience who are really connecting and enjoying what the group is creating. If you can, try to listen to the obnoxious people talking at the bar who are trying to ignore your music, and experiment with seeing what you can do to draw them in.
When I thought of it as a contest and tried to outdo and impress everyone, making music with other people was one of most frustrating parts of playing. As I instead gradually see it as a gift everyone can share in, it has produced some of the most joyful and ecstatic moments of my life. The difference is in learning how to listen, and become part of the whole experience.
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