Reflections on one year of improvisation

Risk. As an improviser, I feel as though I’m constantly living in a land of risk. There’s a feeling of never quite knowing where my hand might fall, what direction my collaborators might turn or what I might suddenly hear. It’s scary but exhilarating to explore this world of options where your success is dependent on your ear and having to adapt to the constantly changing soundscape of what you hear. In this ever-changing atmosphere, risk becomes a place you want to be. No one wants a boring, stale “heard before” improvisation. Every note you play as an improviser puts yourself out there. I have to trust in my collaborators that they’ll support me, and I have to reciprocate by showing I’ll support them too. I have to be confident in my risks and fearless in my boundary pushing. 

This Spring Term I celebrate one year of living in this land of risk. Two years ago a very burned-out me took the biggest risk of my life and decided to take an indefinite break from classical piano. I spent the summer playing the djembe, hiking, attempting to learn guitar, writing poetry and working in a hotel. That fall, I continued to stay away from piano as I studied abroad in Russia and immersed myself instead in theater, symphonies, operas and other larger-scale performances. When I came back to school, I longed for piano again, but this time it was different—I didn’t want to even attempt to play it safe anymore. 

As a classical musician, I’ve spent most of my musical life minimizing risk. I practiced five to eight hours a day solidifying tiny details or perfecting each phrase. I’d been told from a young age: you practice yourself to the point that mistakes are just not possible or else you simply aren’t ready. Now of course, this almost never held true, and my perfectionist self has also spent many hours crying in the very same practice rooms over missed notes or memory slips. I looked toward my peers and other pianists who I deeply admired who could churn out these seemingly flawless performances and wondered if there was something within me that was just deeply inadequate. 

When I started improvising, I realized that I’d spent so much of my life in a binary. Perfection or failure were the only options I’d ever considered, but the idea of risk reconceptualized everything. Risk is a liminal space. It’s not like I don’t practice improvising. I spend a lot of time exploring my instrument, transcribing things I hear, practicing rhythms, but there’s a difference. Instead of trying for an infallible end product, I’m trying for options. I know my hand will slip. I know my collaborators will turn and land us in an unfamiliar musical land. I know there will be moments where I turn and land us in an unfamiliar musical land. And I can’t freeze or panic—it has to keep going and flowing and turning. 

I often wonder if there is a way these two worlds—these two mindsets—can blend. I’m playing Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in G, op.32 no.5” right now. It has a very small cadenza in it that I’ve decided to improvise and play my own. I love entering the world of this piece. It’s dreamy and iridescent, full of little shimmering moments that I take with me into my improvised cadenza. And for one little moment, I’m able to slip into a liminal land of risk and truly make it my very own kind of perfection.