On Improvisation

In my education and training as a musician, I have never learned to improvise. However my teachers had much experience with improvising. My teacher of music history and harmony often improvised offertories and other such situations in the sacred contexts of Catholic Mass as an organist, and my piano teacher Jack Daniels as a jobbing jazz musician in the early 20th Century.

Learning to improvise makes me really feel like I am playing when, performing as a pianist. Play comes to mind very strongly. For me, improvising as a form of play establishes a set of rules, and follows its own sense of momentum when done successfully.

I’ve been jamming (as we call it, rehearsing is my favoured term though) with some friends lately, and one particular friend is a self-taught musician. I have been introducing improvisation to him by trying to establish little tricks, little maxims. These are:

  • Know the tonal centres: what is the tonic, what is the dominant. If in doubt, hang around those notes

  • Take risks, get out of your comfort zone, learn to make something new.

I’m still learning myself about improvising. However as I work within genres when it comes to improvisation it feels like playing within rules, then potentially following them, subverting them or creating a new set of rules. Musical improvisation feels like an immensely imaginative and creative activity for me. However in my approach to improvisation it relies very much on the pedagogical playing principles that I have developed and continue to develop as a player. In short, the more I learn how to do things by the rulebook (be that Bach, Romanticism or Pop Songs) the better I am at having a recourse and a vocabulary in which I can create.

Improvisation feels like playing. It feels like an authentic and original outlet for creativity and one’s inner aesthetic sensibility. Improvising feels very much the pinnacle of Kant’s notion of the ‘free play of the imagination’ between the faculties. Kant’s notion of genius can also be typified by the exemplaries of originality: to follow no rules but the ones one sets for themselves.

Michael