I’ve been doing improvisation all my life, really. Before I could even read music or understand the rules of theory, I would sit at the piano at home and “tell stories” with the keyboard. It drove my father crazy. Shortly thereafter I started taking piano lessons and for a few years learned nothing but Everyone Else’s music, but that didn’t last long.
While I was at Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts in high school, the jazz instructor took me into his studio. He gave me a sheet of paper with the F blues scale on it, sat down at his signature white baby grand piano, and said, “Now play!” I put the horn on my face and blew one note after the next. Doobee doobee doobee doo.
“Stop! Take some rests. Nobody likes a person who talks all the time and never says anything!”
My first improv lesson. Not bad.
I became emboldened and started improvising at the piano for real. Later on, as an organist, I really got into it, improvising all kinds of stuff–even short fugues and what have you. I loved trying to fit the form and length of an improv to the action of the church liturgy. It’s challenging, but also a guide. I often liked to time a dramatic shift right as the priest started swinging the thurible at the offertory. Not easy, but fun. I took a few more improv lessons. Some teachers prefer more planned-out structure than others. I responded best to the advice that Martin Baker, Director of Music at Westminster Cathedral, once gave in a masterclass: Sit down at the organ and see how bad you can make it sound. He compared it to the babbling of a baby before he or she learns to talk. It was brilliant advice, and liberating.
Improvising by yourself is challenging, but not half as challenging as improvising in a group. I was recently asked to play keyboard in a free improv trio at the opening night of Bok Bar in Philly with Matt Cohen on viola and composer Adam Vidiksis on drums, under the auspices of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. This was an exciting opportunity, but I was nervous.
You see, I’ve done plenty of improvising in group settings when I play the trumpet in the rock band, The Robotrippers. My technique there is to get good and hammered and then just blend my whole being into the music.
“Alright, Mike, this next one’s in E.”
Christ. That’s F# for me. And that’s all I get, and I just go. I can remember neither song titles nor melodies. If I play a wrong note, I lean into it harder, making it sound more intentional. It works. It contributes to the existential angst of garage rock.
That won’t work when you’re the keyboard player.
Back to governor’s school: There was an improv seminar led by this super cool and nerdy professor who’s real name escapes me, but who as I recall was nicknamed The Scientist. We all sat in a group, various instruments, and just started playing–no game plan. I was on keys even though I got admitted to the school with my trumpet playing. Maybe that was the first mistake. Most of the other guys were jazz musicians–damn good ones. It was a lot of fun.
But I was having trouble. I kept changing the chord progression on these guys, and they didn’t like it one bit. Thing is, I could never remember the chord progression I had laid down! I felt like maybe I was put in a tight spot, though, since it was supposed to be FREE improv. But tell that to a jazz musician and see what kind of reaction you get!
This little episode is all I could remember as we got ready for the gig a few weeks ago. There was no rehearsal. Over some early evening beers we came up with a very loosely-configured set list. In my old age I was smart enough to avoid chord progressions altogether, though I did play some chords. Open fifths and modal melodies are your best friends. But I was still scared to death–a feeling that I have learned to love on stage. In my experience, the magic happens when your head is spinning and the only viable option is to just go for it. If you’re bored or even equanimous you’re at the wrong gig.
We started playing. I still used the Get Hammered technique, but not to the same degree. It went swimmingly, and that’s simply because we listened to each other, copying one another’s motifs, not unlike the way the vocal quartets in the Renaissance would mimic each other’s musica ficta choices.
I couldn’t possibly have had more fun in this glorious beer-induced mishmash that defied genre. When you improvise, you’re always one step from abject failure, and it’s an invigorating feeling. There’s no such thing as playing it safe, because even playing it safe can go wrong–by resulting in a piece that puts people to sleep. We’ve already got too much of that going on at concerts these days.