A great example of free improvisation!! (Although, it doesn’t always have to be like this).
Free improvisation is an exercise to help you accept and enjoy the music you play. As a teacher, this is probably the one exercise where I experience the most resistance from my students …initially, but after a while they all grow to love it. First, I will describe the exercise, which you can apply to any instrument, and then we’ll talk more about some of its deeper aspects.
How to Practice Free Improvisation
Close your eyes and play your instrument without stopping for at least two minutes. Every note you play or sing is the right note. Don’t think about trying to play anything you know, but rather just let your hands or voice flow freely from one note to the next. You can play loud and soft and let your body move in a relaxed way while playing, just listening to every sound you make, not judging whether it is good or bad but simply appreciating sound. You only have to listen. If you have trouble trying to stay present, focus on your breath and body, identifying any tension and releasing it.
If you record your improvisation and listen back to it, you will be surprised that most of the time the music will sound a lot better than you thought. This is an important observation.
Free improvisation will evolve as you progress to reflect changes in your technical accomplishments. If you enjoy writing music, this exercise is useful because you may play ideas that you can later develop into compositions. Here are some comments from students about the exercise:
“Free improvisation is my favourite part of any piano practice. I love being creative, and free improvisation allows me to experiment with all the interesting sounds a piano can make. This kind of playful and unselfconscious exercise instils a musical open-mindedness in the practitioner as well as being a relaxing and enjoyable addition to a practice routine. But most importantly I feel that free improvisation has the special ability of being able to constantly rejuvenate my passion for playing piano.” – Jo Witt, aged 18
“Free improvisation was the most challenging thing I’ve had to do because everything else you can practice out of a book but this is just so spur of the moment. I think to do it well, you have to express yourself and this is especially hard when someone else is listening to you. I find it easier to do now when I’m alone in my room. When I first started I couldn’t even do that and it took me a while to even understand what I was supposed to do. I didn’t like this exercise at all when I first started but now I enjoy it a lot. – Kieron White, aged 32
“To me it feels a bit weird doing free improvisation. It sounds sort of wrong not to play from a piece of music. I start to feel a bit timid and don’t really like making loud sounds that I have created. It’s hard to play what you feel with others around you. When there’s no one around I find it easy. I know my teacher won’t tell me it sounds wrong or bad, because it’s not. But I still feel awkward.” Nina Cooke, aged 12
Here are some commonly asked questions about Free Improvisation and how I would answer:
Q I don’t like this exercise. What is the point of doing it when it sounds bad?
A. It is important to be able to let creativity flow freely. It doesn’t matter if you think the exercise sounds bad – it is not the point of this activity to create good or bad music but just to play your instrument without feeling restricted. It only takes two minutes of your practice time and as you grow as a musician I assure you, you will grow to appreciate it. Your reaction is the same as many of my students, you just have to trust and persevere with this.
Q Sometimes I find it hard to get started on this exercise. Is there anything I can do to make it easier?
A. You can try to musically interpret a story or a feeling. One example I use to get my students started is this: “You are lying on a beach, completely relaxed and feeling the sun warm your back. The day is a perfect temperature, not too hot and not too cold and you are just about asleep – very calm. All of a sudden you feel a couple of raindrops on your back but they quickly multiply and you find yourself in a storm and have to run home.”
In order to play this story you think about each of the feelings you may have in the situation. At first playing calmly and smoothly to describe that floating feeling before sleep, then you might play the sound of a couple of raindrops in the upper register of your instrument, then move down your instrument, hitting the keys hard to depict a dark thunder storm and fast runs up and down your instrument to imply running.
True artistic expression requires honesty and openness. For many, even the well-accomplished artist, sometimes exposing the true creative self can be difficult and this explains why someone can learn to play music but may not be able to create music that touches those who listen. I have attended some performances that were technically brilliant but failed to engage me. Similarly, I have attended concerts where technical ability was not a strong point but there existed so much energy in the music that the performance was electrifying. The most memorable musical experiences I have witnessed have been those artists who are technically capable and possessed the ability to let music flow from them unhindered.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the technical aspect of your instrument and forget what it is about music that drew you to it in the first place. Music speaks to us. It has the ability to soothe, to excite, to unite, and to communicate a complex spectrum of human emotions to a wide and varied audience. It was my desire to connect and relate to other people that led me to music, but if I am going to express myself I need to have something to say, something worth stating so that others will want to listen.
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