The values of improvisation

“ I don’t improvise,” the musician told me, the lightness of his tone belying the tension I sensed he was feeling. “Most of us here don’t improvise. It’s the opposite of what we do in this job.”

That’s okay, I thought. We don’t need to call it improvising. We’ll just make stuff up.

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Monique Kooijmans via Compfight cc

This interaction came on the first day of a 2-day training project I ran for a symphony orchestra recently, aimed at encouraging the musicians towards performances that moved beyond standard concert formats into more interactive, informal, and responsive models, such as those that are appropriate in many community contexts. I describe it as flexible musicianship, and it involves breaking down the intentions behind a performance, and exploring processes like workshopping, teamwork and collaborative decision-making, composing, and yes, the i-word, improvising.

Why does improvising create such tension for a lot of orchestral musicians? As this man said, and as others have pointed out in many training sessions before this one, improvising is pretty much the complete opposite of what a professional orchestral musician is asked to do musically in his or her daily job. Orchestral rehearsal and performance are about honouring the intentions of the composer whose music sits on the music stand in front of you. The group of 50+ musicians all make that commitment. They place their trust in a conductor whose interpretation of the score will determine the nuances of the performance, and their job is to perform their part accurately, honouring the vision of the conductor and the composer, ahead of their own personal preferences or choices.

By contrast, improvising is all about personal preferences and choice. Of course there are stylistic ‘rules’ or parameters that govern the choices that you may make in any particular context, but there is a trust in the moment and in the work you have done to prepare beforehand. Something that comes out slightly differently to what you’d intended is not necessarily a mistake; it can also be a new path, opening up a serendipitous set of possibilities. This is quite a different mindset to playing and performing in an orchestral context.

What the conversation about improvisation reveals is the way that our musical enculturation establishes within us a set of values and beliefs about music-making. These values and beliefs determine what makes sense and feels comfortable to us.

Orchestral music – performance, and the training that prepares musicians for this work – is underpinned by values such as precision, virtuosity, and accuracy (e.g. there are right and wrong ways of playing this music); expertise; and clear communication of hierarchies (leaders need to act with authority so that players can relax and feel they are in good hands – more a benevolent dictatorship than a collaboration). When the intention is one of honouring the music as a thing that exists autonomously, the finished ‘product’ is the focus, rather than the process or experience of getting to that end goal.

When my non-improvising musician talks about ‘not improvising’, he is revealing his musical enculturation in two ways. One is the discomfort of working musically in a more open-ended or less predictable environment. This jars with the expectation of predictability, and his perceived responsibility for accuracy and ‘correct’ realisation of the music. The other is about the way those values are loaded into a word like ‘improvisation’. In a musical world where music is presented to others, rather than a platform for participation, ‘improvising’ refers to a different musical expertise – that which is developed by a musician who has studied in depth the techniques and language of musical styles that are not dependent on notation. It takes years of dedicated, focused, painstaking work to develop that language in order to improvise with fluency. I can see why he wants to say from the outset that he doesn’t “improvise”.

Therefore, I don’t use the word ‘improvise’ in these contexts, at least, not at the start. It invokes too much immediate resistance and fear. In reality, the improvising you do in a workshopping situation or participatory performance environment, is more about creative thinking, responding spontaneously ‘in the moment’, and seeing your musicianship as a kind of arsenal of possibilities that can be applied in any number of situations, rather than only when particular parameters are in place. We can all do this – extremely specialised and detailed training cannot help but establish this kind of skill base – but we may need to learn to dismantle some of the preconditions our musical enculturation has attached to those skills.

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