Thursday, March 5, 2015

Adventures in Improv

Improvisation has never been one of my strengths as a performer. I would much rather read from a score -- even sight reading difficult material -- than make material up in the moment. I prefer to stay with my strengths. Sadly, it's not always possible to avoid improvisation. I have a humorous story to share with you that happened last month.

I received a phone call from my former church employer asking if I would consider "serenading" the youth group at their upcoming Valentine's Banquet. While I wasn't excited about going back to the church to play, I have fond memories of working with these students and thought it would be a fun way to connect with them briefly without making a long term commitment. My understanding of the request was that I would play 2 or 3 songs for the students before moving on to other aspects of the program. I was certainly in for a major surprise when I arrived at the site.

Upon entering the festivities, the coordinator gave me an agenda for the evening's event. The outline showed that I would begin playing upon the students' arrival and continue until the arrival of the entree! I would break for the meal and then resume playing for the remainder of the night. In my current line of work, I am not committing a large amount of repertoire to memory. For this particular event, I opted to load a few selections into my iPad rather than bringing multiple books. When all is considered, I had six pieces of music with me ---- and I needed to play for nearly 2 1/2 hours! I'm suddenly realizing that I am going to be doing a lot of improvising!

Now that I have found myself in this situation, there is no other choice than improv. It wasn't as painful as I expected (although it's still not something I want to repeat any time soon), but I also learned a few important things about successful improvisation.
  • Maintain an awareness of harmonic structures. Before launching into anything TOO creative, I found it helpful to establish a key clearly in my mind. I would venture to the relative minor briefly and lay the groundwork for the use of secondary dominants. It was important to always know what key I was planning to work in and how things moved within that key.
  • Keep the harmonic progressions simple! Since I am not an experienced improviser, it was important for me to stick to very basic progressions. Even though I used most of the same progressions throughout the night, I still found that I could achieve a variety of sounds by alternating the meter, tempo, and style of the music while repeating familiar (established) progressions.
  • Allow the melody to guide your movement. As I played, I wasn't thinking about composing everything at once. I focused on a melodic line and allowed the tune I was hearing in my head to find its way to the keyboard. Since the basic chord progressions were simple, I found it fairly easy to provide harmonic support for the melody since I was employing pentatonic melodies for the most part. (Using pentatonic scales just made it easier to avoid unintentional modulations to other keys unexpectedly....a lesson I learned the hard way!)
  • Relax and enjoy the music. I had to accept the fact that I didn't know what the music was going to sound like in advance. I couldn't be overly critical about fingerings or execution. I simply had to breathe and let the music flow. Once I convinced myself that I had enough information about music in my head to improvise successfully, I found it was actually rather fun.
Since I'm the improv novice, I welcome your comments. What are some of the most important things you tell someone as they begin to experiment with improvisation at the piano? How did you first discover the joy of improv as musician? Post your stories and ideas in the section below.