More on “How to Improvise”

I’ve been reading about the process of reconstructing a historically significant concert for a modern performance. The effort of finding period instruments and performers who can play them, studying extant scores and supporting literature and conferring with the research of like-minded experts seems like an arduous one. I found myself reflecting on Mendelssohn’s mounting of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and how its realization was reliant on a certain amount of editing and re-orchestration. Gunther Schuller’s unveiling of Charles Mingus’s Epitaph also crossed my mind, although, in this case, access to many of the composer’s friends and colleagues was possible. The event I was reading about was Maurice Peress’s recreation of the legendary Aeolian Hall performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, when Gershwin himself played the piano to the ripieno of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra. I found it in the conductor’s book, Dvořák to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and Its African American Roots (Oxford Press, 2004), that he recommended to me. I want to thank Mr. Peress for the recommendation because, despite the amount of documented disdain directed at Whiteman’s music, Gershwin’s masterpiece falls far from the adjectival category I used to describe the work of the “King of Jazz.” So, here and now, I retract my assessment of everything that Paul Whiteman called “jazz” as “drivel.” Even though Rhapsody in Blue is anything but jazz, it is also anything but drivel.

Another perk that the reflection on this research gave me is that it has made me reconsider the kind of preparation and the arduous efforts that improvising musicians bring to their work. I know I wrote about this subject in a previous entry, but now I find myself comparing the kind of research, study, conference, practice, and attention to equipment issues that improvising musicians indulge themselves in with those of the musically literate genres (to borrow a term used by Amiri Baraka when he was known as LeRoi Jones). This reconsideration was inspired by a late-night mixing session of music in equal parts composed and improvised that was recorded last month.

Decisions are often made in the witch’s cauldron of the recording studio about what takes, or parts of takes, to include in a final product. More often than one might imagine (or admit) the result is an entirely new work, almost unrecognizable from the original versions that were butchered to construct it—a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, both grotesque and beautiful to behold. But more often there is just the process of listening, altering and da capo that one, especially the engineer, hopes isn’t a Sisyphean endeavor of improvisation à la Mandelbrot.

While we were playing with levels, panoramic schemata, equalization settings, cross-fade adjustments and the like, I thought about the year’s worth of rehearsals that went into the date, the amount of solitary practice dedicated to finding strategies to play music that will—by design—never be mastered, and the amount of work that went into composing it. Then I compared that with what I do for any “gig”: making sure that I’m up on the chord progressions and instrumental techniques I’ll need to play in a situation where little other than bare frameworks are provided (frameworks that will, in large part, probably by replaced by ones not practiced); the preparation to sight read a new work, or learn a piece by ear, in performance—it almost seems nerve-wracking.

I would like to hear from fellow improvising musicians, of every stripe (or square), about some of the things they do to prepare for various kinds of performance situations. For instance, if I’m going to play an evening of bebop, I tend to practice at home on the electric bass. I might read through stuff in my library or work on chord progressions that I know I’ll be playing. If I can, I’ll do that for a couple of days before, along with my regular routine, which is pretty irregular. I might play through the chord progressions on the piano or guitar and then, right before I’m ready to leave, I might spend 15 to 20 minutes warming up on my upright bass (if the neighbors don’t complain—and, occasionally, when they do). That warm up might be just “walking” through alternating choruses of blues and rhythm changes that modulate through all the keys, or it might be playing the melody to a tune. Sometimes, I’ll play along with the television or radio (helps keep the ear sharp). Usually, I listen to anything but bebop, though. But I can’t say why.

I think that what we do to prepare are the initial stages of how we improvise and could be of interest, or even value, to someone reading this blog. I, for one, am looking forward to reading the comments.

6 thoughts on “More on “How to Improvise”

  1. dB

    My goal in preparing for improvising is to be able to do what I want to do when I want to do it. In that way, my approach is pretty similar to that of a non-improvising musician who relies more on his general skills than preparing specific pieces. I want to be able to hear exactly what I want (not just pitch, but also timbre, articulation, dynamic level), and to know exactly what I need to do physically to make it happen.

    For me, this means practicing every pitch collection I can think of (all of the diatonic modes, whole tone, octatonic, hexatonic, chromatic), in every way I can think of (in seconds, thirds, fourths, etc.), across my whole dynamic and timbral range. That puts every note in my ear (and fingers and embouchure) in relation to every other note. That whole process takes about a week to complete, and is pretty much all I ever practice, besides some sight-reading and just improvising for fun.

    I like to practice my extended techniques, because I really do like to be in control of the sounds that I’m making, but that doesn’t stop me from trying things I’ve never thought of before in performance.

    Reply
  2. dB

    Re: I?
    I’m pretty sure you’re kidding, Phil, but foiling verification is one of the very reasons I choose to remain anonymous. I’d rather have people responding to what I post here than inspecting my credentials for “verifiability.” I kind of resent the idea that anyone would react differently to what I’m saying if they knew who I’ve studied/collaborated with or by whom I’ve been awarded.

    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    Nowadays I don’t do any preparation whatsoever, but that’s only because I’ve done it enough that nothing really takes me off guard anymore.

    Prep-work can develop your skills on a technical level, but there’s nothing that can really prepare you mentally for improv — you just have to do it, reflect on it (luckily we have recording devices now to do this), and try to sharpen your ears and reactions over time. Play with different people in the beginning, but then start to refine your skills with people you genuinely enjoy playing with.

    Composers have a tendency to isolate themselves from the public, but improv is more or less a communal activity, so it’s important that you do it with other people, and regularly, if you can.

    As a side note, anonymous posting is pretty much the norm everywhere on the internet except in a few places like here. The art world loves to play identity politics.

    Reply

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