One of the joys of improvisation as a musician is the freedom from the ominous accuracy required when playing written music. So much store is set by striving for perfection when playing pieces that are written into the universal psyche of pianists across the centuries. How can I even dare to sit at my keyboard and bash out Bach’s Goldberg Variations unless I have at least a 99% hit rate on the notes? Our ears are trained by listening to the best players in the world calmly trotting out fiendish pieces on recordings. Often a few recordings spliced together just to make sure that there is not a missed semiquaver hidden somewhere.
So when I sit down and improvise, the imaginary audience of critics, eager to pounce on my every mistake vanishes, and I am left free to make my own mistakes and justify them however I like. Does this mean that less accuracy is acceptable when improvising? How should I sit down and practise when I don’t know what it is I shall be playing? Here is the downside, for nothing in life is free.
Playing music from a score provides an instant measure for how much I am improving. It also provides a tangible structure to my practise, rewarding me at frequent intervals with mini-achievements. If there is a bar of music I cannot play, I need only break it down into its component parts, practise them and then stitch it back together. The only prerequisite for improving is time.
If I come across a passage that is technically beyond me, I can work on exercises that train my fingers towards that skill, and then apply the skill to the piece. In this way I improve through a series of quantative tasks, enjoying hearing each step of progress.
Practising for improvising feels like a far fuzzier affair. After all, I cannot improvise beyond my own abilities, so I can only hope that by playing and improvising more, I will get better at improvising. There is a far less immediate sense of satisfaction, and far less sense of improving technically at what I am doing. So it is easy just to think that I will get better by osmosis. This is a critical error of thinking.
I cannot learn a piece of music that is beyond me technically simply by trying to play it. I know this because I have tried it. I have to break it down and drill into the specific technical skills required. So it is with improvising, and not just musical improvising. We have to run those skills, drills and exercises constantly, and also push our core skills to new places in order to improve at what we do on
stage. Practise is not just about repetition either. Research has shown that there is a zone we can achieve when practising where we learn extremely efficiently. Here is a quote from a New Scientist article on the subject:
“Flow typically accompanies these actions. It involves a Zen-like
feeling of intense concentration, with time seeming to stop as you focus
completely on the activity in hand. The experience crops up repeatedly when
experts describe what it feels like to be at the top of their game, and with
years of practice it becomes second nature to enter that
So we must create an atmosphere in rehearsal that allows us to focus completely on a specific skill, and we should be aware what
that skill is. If we are focussing on listening then we should warm up with listening exercises while thinking about listening.We are trying to adhere to this in our rehearsals with The Maydays at the moment. It is not easy when you have a room fool of talented people, and all you feel you want to do is scenes and songs and having fun. It is not easy when we do not have a finely calibrated measure of skill levels. It is not easy when you
can’t see the results immediately.
But since when was the easy