There’s a huge difference between how we prepare for a performance of a written “part” and how we prepare for an improvisational experience.
Most of us classically-trained players are intimate with the former, so let’s talk about how to prepare for a creative opportunity that’s made up of the unpredictable and the unknown.
And let’s borrow a phrase from martial arts, “training for chaos.” In this instance “chaos” refers to the area you enter beyond what you “know,” to an area that can’t be precisely foretold or controlled. (I also love the term “wild” for these real-life encounters - as in wild flowers, wildlife, and wilderness - situations where your very best is accessed naively and intuitively.)
Of course, to prepare for creative musical encounters there’s a lot of useful, overlapping values from the classical world: achieving a foundation of technical ability and facility, recognizing intervals and chords (ear training), keeping steady rhythm, etc.
In addition to that, improvisers develop creative relationships with their instruments and with the elements of music, for example, taking a mode and exploring the intervals and possibilities, perhaps inventing some new melodies, or picturing a colorful or distinctive interior where that mode seems most at home.
Or finding a drum loop in 5/8 and becoming the world’s leading expert in jamming out with it in F# Phrygian!
Our creativity is nourished by our curiosity about, and love for, colors, styles, and sounds from the world around us. And this pathway – the pathway to developing creatively in our private daily practice – is what we discuss and work on together at our summer workshops in Vermont, as well as in classes at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
But wherever your creative imagination might lead you, an incredibly enticing invitation awaits: entering the realm of the unknown where all you’ve listened to and practiced blossoms into living music.
Finding your way through these wild waters, the moment of chaos, does not rely on formulas or planning – though that’s an important part of the preparation – but on the calm that comes with having navigated them before.
You might call it “calmfidence,” the ability to breathe, listen and respond with fluidity when faced with a situation that is evolving with each moment.
This aspect, gaining that calm confidence, can be practiced. And though there are apps that are brilliant for practicing almost any detail of music, training for chaos is best done with other musicians, in a variety of settings that challenge and nourish.
A good coach can provide a series of improvisational experiences that can be structured progressively – the student will be challenged incrementally, and will succeed each step of the way.
This is how it goes at our summer workshops in Vermont: engaging intensively over several days, players are given a supportive and fun environment for perceiving the intricacies of this wild musical situation, and with encouragement from a tribe of co-travelers, they move through layers of experiences that deliver enhanced confidence.
Another big gain is mapping the road to increased freedom and expression. That comes with understanding more and more how chords and scales interact, how rhythmic subdivisions enliven your improvised commentary, etc. And when that becomes clear to a soul yearning for expression, then your daily practice session becomes a passionate and creative experience as you paint the colors of music on your imagination, and apply your understanding to your instrument, in your hands, in your ears.
So “training for chaos” by jamming with other players in a variety of musical contexts delivers in two important ways, first by gaining confidence and calm, and second by pointing out areas where further development is desired.
There's another dramatic takeaway from this kind of training: the positive effect it has on performing chamber music and solo repertoire. It's been resoundingly affirmed that gaining improvisational skill and experience brings more awareness, poise and presence to the performance of classical repertoire. More on that another time...
- Eugene Friesen
For more information about our summer programs in Vermont, please visit: