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The beginning of spring: it’s still freezing in the Netherlands but nevertheless, days are getting longer and the time of creation has started. What a good moment to write a new post for our blog!
Recently, after a concert we did, someone asked me the question: ‘What makes an improvisation successful?’ It opened up a discussion about phrasing, harmonic knowledge, style, the importance of good timing and so on. Yet, there is more.
We, as a quartet, improvise a lot. Sometimes we change a few notes here and there, we adapt a rhythm or we create an entirely new piece together out of the blue, so-called free improvisation. Improvising is in a way like talking and improvising together like having a conversation. We often have long musical conversations at the beginning of our rehearsals, where there is no plan and no goal: we simply talk. Someone opens with a simple idea, like a groove or a few notes, and we all get involved. This can go on for a long time (usually until someone starts thinking about tea or coffee) and I personally love these sessions. Sometimes it sounds like small talk about the weather, and sometimes these conversations are deep and meaningful. Usually, I don’t really know how it happens, but we all feel more open and more connected with each other afterwards.
As a child, we learn to speak by listening to the people around us and copying their sounds and phrases, while making a lot of mistakes. This is how people used to learn music as well. But verbal communication (we are not talking about poetry here) differs from musical communication in the sense that it is linear. It is rooted in the left side of the brain, the dominant side. Words can lead to specific action, like sending someone out for groceries or sharing your knowledge about something. The message is clear and direct but always incomplete if it comes to sending or receiving a message that is not purely objective. In music, we deal with something that goes beyond words, is more abstract and more profound. When we improvise together, we operate more like a portal, we transmit something that is larger than us. A musical conversation derives from our intuition, which is rooted in the right side of the brain. Our intuition makes decisions at a speed 20.000 times faster than the speed of the intellect, often so fast that a performer isn’t even aware of it. As my teacher, the great Didier Lockwood who recently passed away, used to say: ‘’Quand on improvise, on ne peut pas mentir, on ne peut pas.” “When we improvise, we cannot lie.” It is instant.
Whether something is a success or not, depends on your goals. A musical goal can be to play more in time, to work out more extended ideas or to play fewer notes. However, goals are directed towards the future and belong to the area of linear thinking, just as the past, our fears, and our ideas about ourselves and others. Sounds waves do not. A true musical conversation, whether it is with ourselves, other players or the audience, is one where everybody is able to let go, to listen and flow freely. In that sense, every improvisation is a successful one.
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