Playing informally

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about those opportunities that arise from time to time to play informally with others and how we respond to them. I went through a classical music training. Improvisation and composing came later to me, after I had finished my undergrad studies. I tend to think of myself as someone who was “classically-trained” and know that I have worked at letting go of a lot of rigidity and baggage that can go along with that training.

Recently there was another gathering of the ArtPlay Senior Artists (you can read the blog and forum that is responding to those sessions here) at which we discussed the pedagogy and thinking that underpins the MSO ArtPlay Ensembles that I direct. After the session one of the other artists began to tell me about her own music performance experiences, and how unable she had always felt to just pick up her instrument and play whatever… she felt she had to have something prepared, or time to rehearse, before every playing in front of anyone. “Then I went to art college, in the 1980s,” she told me. “And of course everyone was joining and forming bands. They ‘d ask me to play too, but I couldn’t, I just didn’t feel I could play in that way, and I wished that I could.”

The funny thing is, I told her, despite all the work I do with improvisation, and in encouraging people to play, I too still can feel crippled by exactly the same feelings. I was at a party recently where there were many musicians (quite a contemporary, avant-garde experimental crowd) and after dinner the music started. Tony (my boyfriend) played (brilliantly, as always), the host and his son performed, some other guests (each of whom were electronic music people) performed using various bits of equipment. I had brought my clarinet with me, but when the time came, I shrank away from playing. I surprised myself, but I knew I didn’t want to play. I felt like I needed to have prepared something. I didn’t feel comfortable to just get up and improvise, for some reason, even though I know I could have done that.

By contrast, there was another party recently, when Nico and Martin were here from Ireland, and when the music started there you just couldn’t stop me. Someone lent me a saxophone (I hadn’t brought an instrument with me) and I played all night. I passed it to Tony, seeing as he is the resident expert saxophonist, but the mouthpiece/reed set-up was wrong for him and he was happier just jamming on the guitar. We sang, we played, we rolled out as many songs as we all could think of. No shyness or reluctance on my part at all.

It was a very different crowd at the second party – people I know very well, whereas at the first party I was a bit of a newcomer to that group – they are Tony’s friends who I am only just getting to know. When he and I discussed this barrier to playing informally he didn’t agree that it was a legacy of a “classical music training”. He had felt similarly reluctant at the second party, he said, as I had at the first, where he knew fewer people and where the music environment was one based around familiar songs. I know heaps of songs – I’ve always sung and been around people who sing – but he doesn’t, and hasn’t.  So he felt less comfortable playing, despite being a seasoned, veteran improviser!

Therefore, perhaps the ‘barriers’ are set up more in response to the environment or people present, than they are to our training or abilities. However, I do think the “classical music” training does little to prepare musicians to engage informally and spontaneously with their instruments (I am thinking about a comment an MSO player made to me years ago, when I first started running training projects there, that even to play Happy Birthday at a celebratory gathering felt stressful). And it is crazy, in a way, to think there are any barriers for people playing music who already know how to play. There are enough for those who’ve had little experience or exposure!

All of these questions are going to be put in a completely new context when I go to East Timor, I suspect. More on that later.

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1 comment so far

  1. Tiny on

    I think discussions around our “training” have to take into account informal as well as formal studies. As a kid I spent hours mucking around with an old acoustic guitar, jamming along to the radio in a fairly unsophisticated way with a few barre chords – informal training. Singing songs was definitely out of the question, given my somewhat tuneless teenage voice. By comparison my formal training includes thousands of hours working on improvisation skills on woodwind instruments, focussing on harmonic progressions and explorations into the avant guarde, and skirting around learning popular tunes. Also my working life as a musician has not included regular gigs playing standards, jazz or pop, so my repertoire of this material is small.
    It’s natural for me to jump at the chance to play free improvised duets for soprano sax and bassoon to a crowd of experimentalists (it’s home ground for me), and to baulk self-consciously when confronted with the prospect of saxing lyrically by ear on a few pop songs I’ve never played before! I’d rather play guitar, where I am not weighed dowm by expectation.
    It’s strange that after nearly 40 years of music making I don’t have a repertoire of well known songs that I can wip out at a moments notice. After all, isn’t that a common determinant of a musician’s value in society? Some kind of expectation to entertain, to reel off the hits?
    So our respective training and studies, both formal and informal, have set us both up to respond exactly as we did at those two events. Informal music making happens because you want to play, not because you have to or feel you should.


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