Over the last few years, I have been thinking a lot about improvisation in music making. I can clearly remember improvisation class at music college. I remember that we had a lovely teacher, I remember sitting in a circle and I remember how flushed my face would become when it was my turn to improvise on my violin, the mystery of ‘what would I play?’. I remember desperately wanting to engage, despite my nervousness and my feeling of often feeling tongue tied on the violin. Perhaps then I perceived improvisation as a noun in music making, something that happened in improvisation class, something that I felt I would be better at if I practised my scales more and developed my knowledge of harmony. I remember feeling very excited by the spontaneity of musical improvisation, the opportunity to take risk, the element of surprise ‘where did that come from?’ and the liberating idea that there are really no wrong notes in improvisation, just different choices.
A few years after music college, I met my friend Prakriti Dutta during our Masters studies at Edinburgh University. Prakriti is a Hindustani Classical singer and I remember her encouragement as we chatted about improvisation. She suggested that we improvise together in singing using only two notes. In our playfulness, improvising with two notes developed into working with full scales using our voices, my violin, tuned and untuned percussion. Improvising with my classmates was really inspiring and it didn’t feel so scary. Around the same time, I had also discovered the Orff Schulwerk approach and I found myself engaging in improvisation in music, movement, visual art and drama during workshops.
When I went to study at the Carl Orff Institute in 2012, the practice of improvisation took on new meaning for me. Improvisation is rooted within the Orff Schulwerk approach and as the approach is multi-disciplinary, opportunities to improvise through different art forms were plentiful. As my movement vocabulary expanded in dance improvisation, so too did my capacity to improvise in music. Engaging in dance improvisation was intriguing work. As I had limited previous experience in dance, I was free to explore and be curious without the pressure of self expectation. My pathways for possibility synapses were awakened and this transferred into my music, language, movement and artistic expression.
Today, I feel that improvisation is a natural part of my work. Improvisation in music, dance, speech and other forms of artistic activity is core to, not only my creative practice, but also my teaching practice. I fully understand and respect that improvisation in teaching and learning is fundamental.
This week, I was leading a music workshop for a group of nursery age children and their teachers. In the middle of the session and in the midst of musical engagement, I noticed that as I emphatically played the floor gathering drum, one young girl had placed her feet unprompted on top of the drum. I had a sudden moment of mindfulness and in this I questioned my awareness and listening. As I lowered the volume of my playing, the girl tapped her feet on the drum and I responded in imitation tapping the drum with my hands. As the girl responded and I imitated an improvised dialogue began to form. The girl played with her feet and then her hands and I always echoed until the dialogue seemed to naturally resolve. Our direct, shared, non verbal communication was moving for everyone present. Music making can be an immediate vehicle for communication. I thought about the importance of listening as a teacher, of being aware and mindfully in the moment so as to meet with opportunities for musical engagement as they arise. Being open to improvisation in music making and within teaching practice is as much a quality of the musician and teacher, as it is a skill.
And so I am thinking about the following:
Improvisation and Mindfulness, Awareness
Improvisation and Skill, Technique
Improvisation and Knowledge, Understanding
Improvisation and Listening
Improvisation and Uncertainty
Improvisation and Surprise
Improvisation and Music, Dance, Speech, Artistic Activity
Improvisation and Learning,Teaching
Improvisation and Spontaneity
Improvisation and Taking Risk
Improvisation and Play