Last weekend, I had the good fortune of hearing Gabriela Montero play the Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Montero's playing was exquisite and exhilarating. While I enjoyed the Rachmaninoff, what most caught my attention was what happened upon her return to the stage for bows.
Montero explained that improvisation had been a tradition of many great composers throughout history and was something that she had enjoyed since her childhood. She then proceeded to improvise for the audience. What I found most impressive was that she accepted a suggested theme from the audience; the selected song was Elvis Presley's Hound Dog. This was certainly one of the last songs I would have thought to consider for improvisation. The resulting experience was phenomenal! As I left the auditorium, I began to consider the role of improvisation in my own music making and in the lives of my students.
Montero mentioned that she had always enjoyed improvising and seemed to imply that it was something she could simply do. Did she really have no one teach her about improvisation? Is improv something that you are simply born with or you don't have it? In my own musical life, I have never considered myself imaginative and thought that only composers can create new sounds. While I understand harmonic progressions, I find myself tied to the page when I play. When I attempt to improvise, I am afraid to depart from the sounds that are defined as safe and acceptable.
I have equated improvisation with a skill set needed in jazz performance only. Since I am not a jazzer and have no aspirations to become one, I have never seen a need to develop my inner ear. After witnessing Montero's performance, however, I realize that I have been shutting out an entire dimension of music making that can only enhance my own performance.
So the question becomes how do I begin to learn how to improvise? It certainly doesn't come naturally to me. I struggle to simply let go and follow the music wherever it may take me. Often I find that a figure reminds me of a melody I know and I begin to play that work. How do I get past the fear that I'll make a mistake that will simply not be acceptable? While I'm learning how to improvise myself, are their exercises I can introduce to my students so we can grow in this area side by side?
As you can see, I don't have any of the answers.....just lots of questions. I don't think I'm the only one out there that is petrified at the thought of improvising in front of an audience. I would love to hear from those of you who have explored the magical world of improv and found comfort, joy, and personal success. Where did you start? What tips are you willing to pass on as I begin my own journey into this foreign realm of music making? Leave your experiences, stories and suggestions in the comment section below.