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Lessons learned from free improv

The other day I was at the Viking Room with junior Liam Fisher talking about free improvisation. The two of us started playing together several months ago, and our musical backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Fisher’s experience comes from playing in jazz and funk bands. My training has been primarily classical. Somehow, our improvisations have been able to bridge the two worlds in unexpected ways—finding new sounds and new ways of thinking about our instruments. 

Free improvisation is an experimental style without any rules beyond what the musicians playing decide. You can add constraints (like only non-pitched sounds), parameters (like we’ll feel this one in three) or form (like planning to roughly climax three-fourths of the way through). It’s like one of those abstract art forms that people look at and say, “Oh I could do that too,” and it’s true that it is very accessible in the sense that anyone can freely improvise. Yet at the same time, the undefined-ness creates so many unique challenges. 

For example, it’s not clear: when do you play or when do you leave space? When are you responding to the ideas of your musical partners or forging your own path against the grain? How do you begin? How do you end? How do you communicate to other musicians if there’s something you want? When do you change ideas? When do you settle with an idea? When do you let it go? Are you truly exploring the variety of sounds your instrument can make or are you falling back on clichés? What makes an improvisation work? When do you know it sounds good and how do you even talk about it when it’s so abstract? 

While at first we kind of laughed about this, one thing Fisher and I were starting realize in our conversations is that the challenges in improvisation mirror a lot of challenges in life. 

Instructor of Dance Margaret Paek is very clear about this in her contact improvisation classes. Three of the main tenants of contact improvisation are listening, trust and play. You learn to take care of yourself by speaking up for yourself and your boundaries; saying no is really important. You learn to trust that the people around you will communicate their boundaries to you and in turn let others know you will listen. Yet you also learn more about that liminal space between where you might be uncomfortable and your limit of discomfort. It’s here, when you have that sense of trust and communication, where you can find a lot of play as a dancer and really, as a human.

Furthermore, improvisation teaches you about presence. Should you assert yourself? How do you assert yourself?  Am I taking up too much space? Should I take up space now? When are you a support? When should you soar? For me I tend on the quiet side, and it’s a lot harder for me to feel valid in taking up space and asserting my presence. Improvisation has given me a place to practice being present and unafraid to share my ideas and try new things amongst others. 

I love free improv because of all of these challenges. It forces me to be present in my music-making, constantly aware and listening to my surroundings and myself. When free improvisation goes well, it’s like magic. The energy is incomparable. The feeling is like flying. However, it definitely takes work, introspection and a lot listening to get there.