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What is improvising?

October 8, 2017

When I first started to study music seriously over 12 years ago, I had an idea that improvising was something only jazz musicians could do. As students, we would go to the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton, AB to watch our fellow classmates perform on the open mic night. I was always incredibly impressed as this was certainly a skill I did not possess. Not only was it not a skill I did not have but it was a completely different genre that I could play.

 

I have a much greater appreciation of jazz now but it was completely foreign to me at the time. Jazz is certainly one type of improvising. It is a learned skill that takes years of practice. Once that knowledge base is built up - a musician can flawlessly perform any number of runs and it looks completely off the cuff. It's based on a strong understanding of chord progressions and music theory. In order to break the rules we first need to know what they are.

 

I would suggest we step outside of the box and ask ourselves what is improvising in another sense? Would creating a bass line from lead sheet symbols count? I think so. What about humming a melody that popped into your head? Or perhaps singing tones as a group around a central pitch? I think so, but what if we go even further, is moving to music, in a spontaneous way, a form of improvising? 

 

I have been working on my own ability to improvise movement to music. Students are asked to interpret the sounds that they hear and move in a free way, paying attention to the musical phrase or rhythm. We are instructed to outwardly express our feelings towards the music. There is no performance but the group freely moves around the room in no particular direction. We can find gaps between other people and move to fill the empty spaces, or if you feel like you would like to dance with one or more people, you can create your story together but you have to coordinate your movements non-verbally. This is repeated in multiple different ways throughout the lesson and at the end we are asked to discuss or write down what we experienced throughout the class. There are no rules and there is no theory or previous skill required, only to express your individual feelings in that moment.

 

It's actually a lot harder than it sounds.  We are so concerned with what other people think that doubt creeps in. Whether it is a feeling of embarrassment or worry that we are somehow doing something wrong, we second guess our own feelings. At least, this was my first reaction. This is especially jarring for adults who have more practice in beating ourselves up. Yet, as a teacher of young students with a multitude of personalities and experiences, I think this practice is especially important for children as they develop into confident adults who can participate in music making throughout their lives. Music is so innate to our sensibilities that this type of free movement, even among the least musically experienced individual, reveals intricate musical elements.

 

Some of the activities that we do in the class are designed to create trust and understanding of the world and its people around us. The other day everyone had to sing their name along with an action. We all took a turn and after each person had sang and acted out their name, the class imitated what the person had created. We not only repeated the action but were asked to imagine that we are the other person. For me, this simple direction caused me to think outside of myself and rather than blindly copying them, I paid closer attention to their movements and really tried to put myself in their shoes.  

 

This type of improvising doesn't really align with the earlier comparison of jazz music, nor would it fall into the category of improvised dance. Yet, we are fostering the ability to trust ourselves and to confidently express the non-verbal cues that are so important to interacting within a culture. I am reminded to trust more in myself, live a little more in silence, and improvise creatively with joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2017 by ALLISON LUFF