At one place I teach at, there’s a class where the students have to, every week, perform a new tune and improvise on it. I often find I’m repeating myself to them: ‘tell a story’, ‘make a statement’, ‘develop ideas’, I say. They’re thinking too much; trying to remember all the things they’re supposed to know: arpeggios, licks, scales, form, and so on.
The thing that’s most telling is when the music, the ideas, the improvisation, sounds disjointed. It’s difficult to think about all that stuff whilst trying to make it into music.
So, to get my point across, I came up with this analogy, which I think is a good way to think about [one way of] improvising: I give you a word, and you tell me about it. It can take any form. Do about 10 minutes. Here’s an example using the word ‘moon’:
You might talk of things you know:
Valleys filled with tranquil seas.
The dark sides, the silver skies.
Waxing, waning, shifting tides.
You might talk of ice-cold stillness,
Of dust-grey fields or windless plains.
Squinting, crackling words of wonder
Softly break the world. Begin again.
You might talk of other Moons,
How moonlit limpid eyes beguile.
Lost to time; struck and moved to say,
‘The moon lives in the lining of your skin’.
So there you go. It could just as easily have been a big list, or a focus on one thing, maybe a ‘negative space’ approach of everything the moon is not, the word, the letters, the sounds, allegory, stories, whatever. Just have a go. Do something. Anything.
Tell me anything and everything about ‘Moon’. Go off on mad tangents, if you like; or just say the first thing on your mind. Doesn’t matter. The point [!] is that whatever you talk of, whatever you imagine, however near or far you go – you’ll always be On Topic. There’ll be a point to your story, a theme, an idea, a frame, hooks, threads – Meaning.
There’s no meaning in mechanics, no story in an arpeggio.
The art is in the relation. Look for the topics in art works. Look at each and every tune you learn as an exploration of a topic. See how Darn that Dream’s first three notes are the topic, the rest is the story; those musical repetitions in Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech; the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars that frame The Colleseum’s construction; the hues of The Seagram Murals; that combination of mayonnaise and mustard in your sandwich that sets off the flavour of the coffee – All Topic. You might also call it thread, idea, motif, element, combination, relationship, whatever…
Think how some forms use a kind of build-up to an ‘a-ha’ moment – films, novels, compositions, and so on. A denoument, when all the threads tie in at the end. You can organise stuff in a gazillion different ways. And the splendid thing is that with anything that has form, or that can be perceived to have form, has structural ideas waiting for you to steal them, use them, be inspired by them.
Look right in front of you. Can you see any form, pattern or theme? The wall in front of me is a large yellow canvas, flanked by two speakers atop of another set of speakers. Could I use that construction and turn it into music? Of course! How? I wouldn’t know until I had a go.
But to wrap up (back to improvising): try starting with a musical topic; the simpler the better. As in the case with ‘Moon’, it could be one or two notes, or a phrase from a melody, but start simple.
Then tell us all about it.