Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Tuning Slide: More About Composing

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Life is a lot like jazz.
It’s best when you improvise.
-George Gershwin

I’m going to start today with some thoughts from the book, Improvisation for the Spirit: Live a More Creative, Spontaneous, and Courageous Life Using the Tools of Improv Comedy by Katie Goodman. (Sourcebooks, Inc. 2008.) It is NOT about jazz, but rather a book on living a spontaneous life based on improv comedy. But, hey, improvisation is improvisation. So here are her suggestions for skills needed in living a spontaneous life.
1. Be Present and Aware
2. Be Open and Flexible
3. Take Risks
4. Trust
5. Surrender and Non-Attachment
6. Gag Your Inner Critic
7. Get Creative
8. Effortlessness
9. Desire and Discovering What You Want
10. Authenticity
11. Allowing Imperfection and Practice, Practice, Practice

As I look at these I see a number of the themes that I have covered in the past here on the Tuning Slide.
  • The “be present and aware” touches easily on the mindfulness we have talked about.
  •  “Gag your inner critic” is certainly a variation of the discussions of Self 1 and Self 2 in the Inner Game of Music posts.
  • “Desire and discovering what you want” and “authenticity” tie in with finding your story and song.
But as I pointed out last week with my improvisation stories, it is all easier said- or thought- and done. It takes work and determination to do it. It takes hours of practice. (That’s another whole series to think about for the next year!) One cannot want instant gratification - or instant expertise in improvisation or in life as a whole. So as I look at those 11 suggestions I want to simplify it. I want to make it sound easier than it is, live in my fantasy world that it is easy, or just throw my hands up in surrender. Which is NOT what surrender and non-attachment above mean. So maybe there is more to be learned in that skill than I am giving it credit for.

Surrender and non-attachment, as Goodman defines it on page 92 is about
…learning to let go of your attachments to expectations, goals, and perfectionism. … to cultivate a sense of humor, and to lighten up. [We] surrender the controls and allow life to unfold in a more joyful, free-flowing, and perhaps, unexpected way.
This does not mean giving up and going home. I have heard several times in the past few weeks that the #1 rule for improv comedy is the “Yes, and…” rule. That means you affirm what has come before you, the line or theme that has preceded the hand-off to you. Never negate it- that brings everything to a stop. Instead, accept it as an important bit of information or an unfinished sentence. What do you have to add to it? How can you give added value to the “musical conversation”? In order to do that use those skills of mindfulness, creativity, and giving Self Two the direction to go ahead and play.

Now, in order to do that you have to believe you have something to say. At first, all it may be in your improvisation is to hit the note of the chord with a certain rhythm. Remember, jazz is about rhythm. Then you might want to think about the structure of the song, blues, classic standard, funk. Keep those same chord notes and rhythm but give them a little something extra here and there. Don’t be shy. That doesn’t mean play fortissimo when the song is a nice quiet ballad. Remember, you are adding to the conversation, not stopping it or hijacking it. There are then legato and staccato passages, slurs and marcato. How do they fit together?

Now, don’t expect to go onstage in a public performance and know how to do this. Improv comedy troupes practice. Then they practice some more. Improv does not mean off-the-cuff with no thought or training. It means learning the words and sounds of jazz and making conversation with other musicians. I wish I was able to do this as easily as I write about it. But I am a slow-learner. I still have an inner critic that freezes when he hears that “sour” note. I still have the perfectionist that says he has to do it right or don’t do it at all. I still have the ADD dude who gets distracted by a a lot more than squirrels and then loses mindfulness, flow, rhythm and creativity.

So I go back to the practice room. I pull out the scales or find a song on iReal Pro and try to get the feel for it. I listen to Miles Davis’ solo on “So What” and feel the movement of an easy-flowing improvisation. I take a walk and refocus my mindfulness skills. I do some breathing meditation that gets me back in touch with me. Then I work on it some more. It is a much slower process than I want it to be. I can tend to get too busy. I have too many things to write or too many concerts or gigs to prepare for. So the hard stuff, like learning to talk jazz with my trumpet is set aside.

In other words I am writing these posts as much for me as for you. I am working on my Inner Game. I am reminding myself that I have a story and a song. It is mine and I have been writing it for many years. Back at that very first jazz camp I went to in the 90s one thing did become clear to me. I improvise all the time in my daily life. Things happen that I have to react to. As a preacher for years I would regularly “ad lib” in the middle of a sermon. All that was was just improvising. I pulled in all my knowledge and experiences, all the sermons I had written and preached, all the people I had talked to, all the books I had read. Then came the inspiration and I shared it when it happened. I can still do that. It is almost as easy as falling off a bike for me. I couldn’t do that when I started, of course. I wrote down every word of every sermon. I still work from a manuscript (the score of the music?) and take off when and where appropriate.

That’s all I need to learn to do with my trumpet. It is getting better. I am learning. I don’t believe I will ever be done.

Kind of like life!

You have to practice improvisation,
Let no one kid you about it.
-Art Tatum

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