The Fear of Spontaneity

... when improvising.

The first question of someone wishing to enter the world of improvisation is: how do I improvise?

They (should) listen to the great masters, read books on chord theory and spend weeks and weeks learning various scales from blues to bebop, yet they never know what to do with all of it and feel deflated.  The reason, as always, has nothing to do with the piano, but the mind.

This article is directly associated with the content of the following video on my YouTube channel:

In the tutorial, I aim to get across multiple teachings:  to break away from 'playing in scales', to understand note value awareness (discussed at length in a dedicated chapter of my eBook A Philosophical Approach to Jazz Piano), to understand that there are no 'wrong notes' in jazz and finally, to be spontaneous!  To stop overthinking; to understand that improvising really is about playing whatever comes out.

Now, the first reaction to this is always:  Yes, but if I play anything, it will sound like a child just hitting any piano keys; they need to sound bluesy or jazzy.

(Consider my new eBook: Water Pianism)

I agree - but that is the theoretical side of improvisation.  The place I am at is:  once you know the blues scale, the bebop scale, modal theory, all twelve major scales, the pentatonic scale, etc. etc. etc (!), you can play any of those notes... and this is the problem: What notes to play when you know which notes are 'relatively safe' notes rather than just guessing?  This is known as a 'pool of notes' but what is special about it is that it is unique to you - you have your own pool based on your own discoveries of what sounds you like the most.

I love 9ths.  I love minor to major third grace notes.  I don't like clashy sounds.  Some do.  This is known as your Musical Personality and it must be discovered before you start improvising.

A fear of spontaneity is produced  by overthinking.  One starts to question the fact that they are questioning, and then why they are questioning the fact that they are questioning about questioning.  How on Earth is one to improvise in such a state!?  Only with a calm yet playful mind is one able to improvise successfully.  Is it not true that the more still the water, the deeper one can see?

I would like to introduce a Japanese Zen artist, Zhu Da, who would paint with his hair.  Of him, it was written:  "Sometimes, he would scatter ink with an old broom, or smear and daub it with his hair, so that the entire paper became so untidy that you couldn’t lay your eyes on it. He would then take the brush and apply shadings of ink wash, bringing out forms of mountains and forests, hills and valleys, or birds and flowers, bamboos and rocks."

This is improvisation in a nutshell.  You could analyse the lines, depths, angles, persepctives and brush strokes in great detail, but never could you reproduce such a painting with your conscious, analytical mind.

This is why my tutorial video above encourages you to improvise 'randomly' from your own 'pool of notes'.

Spontaneity, as my opening picture dictates, may be likened to the clapping of the hands or the spark produced when two pieces of flint stone are struck together quickly.  Not once will the sound hesitate to come from a clap, not once will the spark appear seconds later; so must the improvising pianist play from his available pool of notes.

Being spontaneous often comes with the notion of being unprepared but what must be understood is that the preparing has already taken place in the form of theoretical study and major scale mastery.  As with Zhu Da, anybody can throw paint on a canvas and use their hair or hands to spread the paint into completely random lines in much the same way as anybody can walk up to a piano and press any of the keys in a random order.

The point is that, with Zhu Da's random lines created from his hair's random motions, he has created a keyboard of sorts, but is only able to transform the 'mess' into something wonderful thanks to his knowledge of the aforementioned theoretical subjects of lines, depth, angles, persepctive and other such studies.  The actual improvisation is spontaneous; he gives detail when he sees a mountain side, a river, a tree or a cloud in his 'mess'.

You, at the piano, must use your theoretical studies as a background to be able to find details in the mess and bring out what you feel, see, believe, want and like the sound of from within yourself in a way that nobody else could or would.  Comparison is futile.

Let's say you have two chords which alternate in a piece of music.  You wish to improvise over them.  Each chord lasts 1 bar of 4 beats.  The tempo is a standard 120bpm (beats per minute).

Because so many different minds and hearts are reading this article, it is impossible to offer one piece of advice.  What is Your musical personality? What sounds and rhythms do you like?  How do you feel right now?  Do you know your major scales without hesitation?  The answers to these questions dictate how you will improvise.

The two chords are  C7 (C, E, G, Bb) and FM7 (F, A, C, E) (see my video on naming chords and their emotional connections).  My musical personality dictates that I like blues sounds and smooth melody lines without too much atonality.  I feel happy and comfortable because of my warm cup of tea and newly discovered joy of wearing a dressing gown.  Considering the musical theory I know (and you know/are acquiring), I know that the notes in my available pool are:  the blues scale for the C7 chord but not the FM7 chord (due to the class of the 7ths), the 6th is a smooth note, grace notes will be nice for the M7 chord due their elegance but a crush note (less elegant grace note) would be nice in the C7 chord... etc.  I also know that the notes of the chords themselves will work.

Now that I have my available pool, what do I do with those notes?  Well, flicking my hair is somewhat an impossible task, but metaphorically, that is what must take place:  a mindless (yet 'theoretically prepared') flicking, a random selection of those notes without conscious interference.

Once these interesting notes are acknowledged, you may then start to see patterns in them; what were for Zhu Da mountains, trees, clouds and rivers for the pianist are melodic lines, repetitive notes, octave jumps, trills, patterns and 'games' based off of one note... for example:  A, the 6th in the key of C and the 3rd in the key of a F.  Use this note to alternate to other notes.  Have fun!  Play A then go up to the E, alternating with the A, go to the D, the Eb to E as a grace note, ...

Your problem is simply a fear of being spontaneous.  Your ego wants to be in control of every moment of the improvisation, but it is simply not possible.  Only by ignoring your ego's impossible demands of holding on to every beat, note and rest (silence) will you be able to create the melody lines you want.

It is simply a matter of coming to the realisation, in your own time, that improvising starts in the mind, not at the piano; that if you Play You (!) and not try to play somebody else, you will be creating musical miracles in no time.

I am reminded of a little story in which a student in search of higher wisdom pushes a large rock off a very high cliff and falls with it.  After much holding on to the rock, trying to slow it down and relocating to various parts of the rock for safety, he realises that all such efforts are in vain and simply sits atop the rock enjoying the view.

Now, go and wash your hair.

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