Some discussion of improv — what it is, how to approach it

Enjoyed it. It’s a nice way to clear out the cobwebs, and especially when done v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, I find it’s easier to predict and follow my ear. Not infallible, but better.

Improv is so strange. I know and can hear things in my head that are very hard to translate to the instrument. It’s as if, every single time I wanted to say something extemporaneous, I had to stop and rethink, “Okay, how do I make a B again?” And that stopping-and-thinking process interrupts the flow of the speech. It’s hard to get up momentum and just let the sound ride on itself if I’m always stopping and having to think, “How do I make this sound again?” And I don’t want to do that crapo faux-improv junk when people just sort of make random cacophonous garbage without “worrying” what it’s turning out like. I can hear specific stuff in my head. I’d like to be able to speak it clearly and well off the cuff. I suppose this is why it’s useful for composers to hum to ourselves; you generally can make a sound with your throat as you hear it in your mind, although it’s still not guaranteed. And many sounds one can get out of an instrument one hasn’t a prayer of getting out of one’s throat, either because they are out of range or just far, far too fast.

I can hear something in my head, often a very complex melodic/harmonic construct, and have a hard time getting it onto the piano only because I don’t hear a sound in my head followed by my finger reaching invariably for the right key. This is not a function of “perfect pitch,” I think. Relative pitch is fine for this sort of thing, and most people turn perfect pitch into a stone idol before which they debase themselves. (Well that, and that no two people can even agree on what the hell “perfect pitch” even is.)

Hearing a sound in my head and just having my finger reach for the right key is similar to thinking the word “but” and having my lips just make the right shape for the B. If I had to stop and think before doing either, I’d never be able to speak although I might be able to write, painfully, and slowly.

This is the state I and most musicians are in when it comes to composing.

And I’ve found that going very slowly — not herky-jerky one-note-then-cogitation-then-a-second-note, but simply a slow-motion sort of one chord at a time type thing, like slow practice — helps. I can reach and find the right chord much more accurately. Without that very slow-motion play, I can hear an F in my head and reach for the Eb. I might even hit the F accurately, but then my left hand goes for an FM shape, when it’s actually a BbM chord.

This is another reason why it’s so much easier to improv and noodle on that damned viola. One note at a time is much, much easier. I can just play that F and let the ear of the listener fill the correct chord in without having to define it. I think it’s also easier because, on the piano, the location of each note is sort of removed from the physics of the sound itself. You could, if you wanted to, put the notes on a piano in any order, really. But on a viola, their spatial relationship to one another is exactly the same as their relationship in the ear. I think it’s more intuitive to reach 2/3 of the way up a string to make a fifth then to reach across the arbitrary width of a couple piano keys to do the same thing. I’m not sure, though. It seems that way to me.

Anyway, that slow-motion practice thing seems to help for improv because it lets me really pay attention to what my mind is hearing, instead of trying to reach for the corresponding keys and having that (probably wrong) sound drown out what’s playing in my head. I think I’ll stick with it for a bit and see how things end up turning out. I’m just not in a mood for anything else anyhow, and this is enjoyable.

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One comment on “Some discussion of improv — what it is, how to approach it

  1. […] a little development of the idea of improvving as “speaking off the cuff” on one’s instrument. I wanted to revisit this only because it flies in the face of a lot of what people tend to think […]

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