Finding Your Own Music: A Case for Free Improvisation

September 1, 2002

My goal in this column is to convince those of you who have never experimented with free improvisation to try it. In earlier columns, I have mentioned that improvising is an absorbing part of my musical life, and I relish this opportunity to help you find your own music—the music known only to you and the music that can, arguably, put you in touch with your thoughts and feelings so much better than words.

What does it mean to have "your own music?" What style and pitch system must you internalize to develop and nurture it? If you suffer from ìimprovisation avoidance,î how can you overcome the fear of playing or singing something that has not been previously notated? How do you start doing it?

We have all learned a great deal from our years of music lessons: technique, a high regard for composers and the beautiful music they write, and, for sure, the deeply satisfying experience of recreating and sharing with others magnificent individual works. Apart from a long list of pieces we may have mastered, weíve also developed a sense of what music is and what it feels like to express a musical gesture. It is as if we had a kind of idealized artifact in our imaginations that is "MUSIC writ large."

I believe it would be impossible for musicians to agree on its substance, because we would have to use our comparatively impoverished vocabulary to communicate our ideas of it, and because it would be as variable and singular as any one of the individual minds considering it.

Nor could we turn to aesthetics or philosophy or cognitive psychology for help. It is, after all, music of a very highly personal sort that I am suggesting here, music evolved from hours of careful practice, listening, and interpretation. It is, simply, your own music, and the only way to know it is to perform it (most importantly, I believe, for yourself).

There is a high probability that your music is patterned in some way. Einstein once distinguished humans from other life forms by suggesting that we search out patterns when they are obscured, and manufacture them when they do not exist. We are pattern seekers in the extreme. Recently, Steven Wolfram, in his provocative and potentially revolutionary book, A New Kind of Science, shows how ìcellular automataî can generate the most elegant and complex designs. The graphics in this weighty volume are indeed music to the eye. Cellular automata are actually simple sets of procedures rather than patterns themselves. Likewise, your music, rather than having a particular design or form, is a set of potentials, a bunch of things to do with sound that unfolds only when you perform.

So will your music be tonal in the conventional sense? Jazzy? New age? Dissonant? You wonít know until you hear it; but I think you ought to start with dissonant music. This may seem a strange suggestion. Iíve had some success, however, working with musicians who have never improvised, and weíve begun with patterns that often turn out to be quite dissonant. Hereís why: If we analyze the fear many musicians feel that keeps them from beginning to improvise, it boils down to not knowing the answer to the basic question, "What note(s) do I play or sing next?"

You can find books that will suggest beginning with a C major triad and learning a variety of ways to express it, or learning simple tunes that can be harmonized using patterns of two or three chords, or learning scales and modes that fit well with certain chords. My experience with these methods is that it takes a beginner a long time to get to the stage where the resulting music sounds good. Very often, musicians, especially those who already have great facility and considerable experience, run out of patience. Improvisation never gets to the point where it seems worthwhile. And early success and pleasure is the goal here.

If you begin with dissonance, you can establish a crucial and liberating Primary Rule: There will be no wrong notes! You might think that an uninteresting and senseless chaos will result, but it doesnít. Thatís because we agree on very simple initiating strategies that do not require pitch choices (or more accurately, interval choices) as the essential ingredient. Here are some that have worked as starters:

  1. Think about the rhythm and inflection of your name. Express this on your instrument in a variety of ways. For example, how would it sound when youíre trying to attract attention, or when you are crooning it to a loved one, or when you are in a reverential mood?

  2. Imagine two musical textures and create an improvisation that establishes one and then moves into the second. My favorite of this type begins with trills and tremolos, all played very softly. Sharp, loud, staccato sounds are then introduced, intermittently at first, eventually taking over completely. The original texture is then gradually reintroduced.

  3. Imagine a mood: exhilaration, tentativeness, contemplation. Or create an image: moving through ice fields or steamy jungles, being in the mind of your pet or some other animal.

Here are two that are designed for partners; the last has a more explicit musical structure:

  1. Hold a conversation. Remember that time during a conversation is rarely shared equally, and that you may be interrupted, or a few of your words may be repeated by another, or your partner may have to think a bit before replying.

  2. Choose a church mode or a simple scale pattern. One performer plays a drone or single pitch while the other plays freely in that mode. Decide on how and when you might switch roles.

Remember the rule about no wrong notes! And remember that these are initiating strategies; feel free to let your imagination move in other directions once you are well into your improvisation.

But what about the dissonance? None of these strategies require using specific dissonant interval patterns. If your improvisation starts or tends toward conventional chords or melodic patterns, fine! I just think it best not to be constrained at first by traditional structures.

Finally, remember that you are drawing on an intuition and knowledge about how music goes that you have been accumulating through your entire musical life. Thereís a lot there, believe me! I hope you will discover it and that improvisation will become an experience you turn to frequently for reflection and pleasure.


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