The Importance of Musical Improvisation

When I picked up my clarinet for the first time in fourth grade, it was like magic. By placing a reed on a hand-me-down black plastic tube with tarnished keys, I was able to make some pretty cool noises! However, after years in band and orchestra, the joy of playing my instrument got lost around the time I was graduating high school. And it was not until I started getting involved with the Improvisational Group of Lawrence University (IGLU) and other groups that got me “off the page” that I started to fall in love with playing music again.

Although a contemporary piece that utilized key clicks and interesting extended techniques during a visit day sparked my interest in coming to Lawrence, I immediately felt myself placed into a box of what I needed to do once I arrived. As a clarinetist, my expectations in the Conservatory seemed along the lines of: take lessons, get into the best large ensemble and perform technically challenging pieces “in a musical way” for your juries and recitals.

But part of me had already grown tired of that setting. I knew I was going to be playing with great musicians, but had no interest in trying to become first chair, or learning a piece until it was “perfect.” I wanted to play music that stretched me in new and interesting ways.

Unfortunately, it had not occurred to me until about my junior year that there are other options in the Conservatory outside of the described classical music setting, no matter what instrument or major you entered Lawrence with. Which, looking back, is absolutely outrageous now that I have discovered other settings where I can play the clarinet, and even more outrageous after I found spaces that I could make music without my clarinet.

For instance, in Jazz Workshop, you can literally bring in any instrument and be welcomed into the ensemble if you want to learn how to play chord changes and improvise. No matter what your music background is, playing in Gamelan offers a way to learn and approach a non-Western genre of music. Stopping in on a Deep Listeners of Lawrence University club meeting (DLLU) provides for a great variety of listening and music-making experiences. Checking out SOL Studios opens up opportunities to record music and perhaps find students to experiment with more popular genres of music. And of course, IGLU provides new approaches to music and movement that have the ability to advance the way you think about music every single term. The list goes on.

Everyone coming to the Conservatory should be taking advantage of these types of opportunities, and faculty members should help inform their students about their existence. Getting yourself off the page and improvising does so much for your playing that large ensembles and chamber groups alone cannot. Improvisation helps you to listen in a completely different way and expand your comfort zone.

When improvising, you also immediately find out what your strengths and weaknesses are. The exposing feeling of not having music to play helps you to become more in tune with what you do and do not know about your own playing. For instance, I thought I knew my scales way better than I actually did before I started practicing jazz improvisation.

Improvisation is a truly creative art form. I have gained a much greater appreciation for classical music since coming to the Conservatory and learning about its history, however, performing it can be limiting. To me, playing early classical music feels more like studying than creating. While valuable, after a song has been played so many times the same way, at some level it feels like the type of regurgitation that happens on a test. After playing someone else’s song all the time, it feels so freeing to ask yourself “what is my song? What types of sounds do I want to play? Where do I hear this melody going next?”

I understand that there are lots of things that people say you should do during college and add to your schedule in order to “become more well-rounded” and fully embrace the college experience. Of course it is impossible to do absolutely everything during our time at Lawrence. However, I think if you skip out on taking some time to improvise, you will be missing out on something more than just “become more well rounded.” Before I started improvising, I felt that I could call myself a clarinetist, but now I can more confidently call myself a musician.