A few weeks back, I blogged about the many elements of musical improvisation. I re-read the piece recently and realized, with a few tweaks, it could easily be interpreted as relationship advice. And so I present the reworked piece here, for both musicians and those who may need a little help with their love lives.
First, improvisation requires years of experience, playing every style, every level of quality, music you love, music you hate. Just as good writers must be great readers, good musicians must be great listeners. The concept of “big ears” comes into play here, before you even play a single note of improvisation. Big ears come only from years and years of listening, and listening with intent to other musicians. Only when you are truly listening can you respond appropriately.
With experience comes a growing vocabulary and a wealth of knowledge that can be accessed in an instant when improvising. But one should not confuse vocabulary with licks. Licks are learned patterns (fills, melodic lines, riffs, etc.) that can be inserted in a time of need (not advised, but can get you out of a sticky situation), can be used to impress (also not advised but understandable, considering the scrutiny of our fellow players and our relentless egos) or in the case of many musicians, qualify as their entire stable of musical ideas. Licks are the platitudes of the music world.
Vocabulary, on the other hand, is what gives us the freedom to be expressive and responsive, to actually say something musical, to engage in a meaningful exchange with fellow musicians or to make a worthwhile musical statement on your own. A shared vocabulary is important. It is difficult for people speaking two different languages or even two unfamiliar dialects to enjoy a meaningful exchange of ideas. Multilingual folks can move from community to community having informative, meaningful conversations effortlessly, and they become better people for having done so.
But all of this seems meaningless without chemistry. Working with a group of musicians with which you share chemistry is essential. This may seem abstract, nearly intangible, and it should. Just as with a romantic relationship, there are people with whom we click, and those with whom we cannot imagine ever playing with again. That rare combination of musicians with whom everything seems to work, that is when improvisation can reach near spiritual heights. Again, it is rare, but it happens. For those of you who’ve experienced this, it’s frighteningly beautiful.
For all of this to work, one must be present and able to respond to the moment: This is essential. If your head is cluttered, if you’re trying too hard, if you’re worried about failure, if you’re uncomfortable, then you remove yourself from the experience and do an injustice to the music and to fellow performers. They deserve your full focus, and the music deserves your commitment to your best performance. This is not always possible, but when it happens, again, it is among the most rewarding experiences a musician can have.
When all of the above factors are working together, you can’t help but create something magical. Again, the rarity of such an alignment makes these moments seem elusive, almost impossible to achieve. But it happens. And when it does, it’s like some sort of inexplicable metaphysical event. Those who witness it, not just the players, feel it, too. But one must have the self-confidence to make it happen.
Confidence does not mean arrogance. Arrogance destroys improvisation. Confidence is that relaxed state of mind in which you will respond the best way possible to the shifting musical climate, making split-second decisions that support your fellow musicians and create the best possible musical statement. Confidence is the opposite of blowing chops. I mean, there is a time and a place to whip out your most technically challenging stuff, and that time and place is when it fits with the foundation established by the musicians around you.
Humility is at the heart of confidence. One must be able to say, “I did not make the best choices in that last piece. I will learn from this experience.” One must not shift blame for a failed improvisation. One must not assume oneself a better musician than those he/she is playing with, even if it is true. One must, instead, humble oneself to the situation, and the music being created in that very moment with those very musicians. Otherwise, you shouldn’t even be there.
Saying too much is also a part of this. Just as a person who bloviates, who rambles on and on (not unlike I’ve done in this column), the musician who plays too long, tries to make too many musical statements and hogs the stage soon loses his fellow musicians and the interest of the audience. You have to know when to shut the hell up.