Defending the idea of “wrong” in improv: speaking off the cuff versus babbling nonsensically

Just 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 of as improv, meaning just babbling and not “worrying” about how it’s coming out.

I do think that this approach is probably needed for the generations of trained musicians who were probably made to fear mistakes like they fear death. Not concerning oneself with how it’s turning out is probably a necessary stepping stone to loosening up … but to me in fact, there is a sense of wanting it to come out right.

“Improv” to me means speaking off the cuff in a meaningful and comprehensible way, not just babbling nonsense and not sweating that it’s nonsense. There is definitely such a thing as good improv. Montero proves that; she is an extemporaneous orator on the piano.

Speaking casually doesn’t mean making a fart noise and a lip bibble. Nor does typing casually; I’m thinking a bit before saying what I’m saying, but I’m not really doing any nitpicking cogitation. Most of these thoughts are things I’ve already mulled on, so they aren’t even really off the cuff in a strict sense. (And Montero has said that her brain cranks out improv 24/7, so she is also ruminating all the time as well, only she does it musically. I’m not saying that she’s thought out everything beforehand — but I am saying that when you think about something all the time, it’s easier to toss something off in real time.) Speaking casually means not freaking out as much over grammar as one might if one were writing.

Generally though, a good and persuasive speaker who can string together ideas well is also familiar with proper grammar. I’ve known no people who are flat ignorant of grammar who are not also ignorant of how to construct an argument or even a story. Similarly, most improv artists also have a very, very good sense (either explicitly learned or picked up on their own) of what makes a good piece of music. Montero might not have studied music theory in a classroom, but her pieces move around in the I-IV-I-V-I-iii-ii-V-I universe very neatly. Clearly, her nonstop ruminations have given her an excellent intuitive sense of music theory and the structure of a good piece.

Anyhow, there is a difference between getting the ideas in my head out of my head and into the air with a decent sense of accuracy, and just making random clunk noises and calling it art. I really do aspire to the first. The second may foster an attitude that releases tension, but it’s not my endpoint. What I want to do is to go slowly enough that I develop a good sense of where to reach, and stop having the noise that the instrument is making drown out the noise I’m hearing privately in my head.

Not casting around haphazardly for the key that corresponds to the noise I’m hearing — not having to stop and work at making a B, as I said before — will help with that, because then, the noise from the piano can start reinforcing what I’m hearing in my head rather than dragging it off course.

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