I’m unbelievably happy to have a guest post from one of my favorite blog writers: Kevin Jacoby. For more about KJ, read and click the links in his bio block at the end of this post.
Picture yourself on a stage. The sun sets behind the hills as the sodium lights prepare to chase away the darkness. Ten thousand sets of eyes are pointed your way, looking for nothing short of an unforgettable experience. And there you are, at the door of the airplane, ready to jump out with only the idea of a parachute and the notion that you can spontaneously compose one on your way down. And if you do it right, you will not only have floated serenely back to earth, you will have soared through the heavens in a rhapsody of barrel rolls and loop de loops.
I’ll never forget my first jazz festival. So many people, such wide open spaces. And they had all come to see me do something I had never done before – because that’s what improv is. My head hurt, my stomach churned, my palms were sweaty and my fingers were cold. Until I walked out on that stage.
We pay to see people improvise because the art of pulling a rabbit out of a hat without a safety net (if I can mix metaphors) is a fascinating spectacle. I never got to see Miles or Coltrane do it in person. But having been on both sides of the stage, I can just imagine why people would come from continents away just to catch a glimpse of the masters.
Pick up a random book on improvisation and I’ll bet the author talks about things like key centers, guide tones, substitute harmony and all the other technical components vital to navigating the murky waters of this undiscovered country. But what they don’t tell you is that the war is won or lost in your head, not your hands. Improvisation is about courage; it’s about the art of losing yourself in the moment – no matter who’s watching – and reaching that place where the conscious mind lets go, leaving the unconscious to write a symphony in the vacuum.
Yes, you must understand the intricacies of Western harmony. And yes, you must have spent countless hours trying to figure out how Bill Evans made something so damn hard sound so damn easy. But all the books, classes, practice and preparation in the world mean nothing unless you’re prepared to walk out there and take a chance, come what may.
Is there a way to practice that? Yup, but you’re not going to like it. If I had a nickel for every time I got on a stage and made a fool of myself, my net worth would be higher than the GDP of Bolivia. I have failed spectacularly. In front of rooms that were full and rooms that were empty, I stood up, made mistakes and learned invaluable lessons.
Courage can be imbued, but it cannot be taught. And the courage it takes, not to get up on stage and fail, but to get up on stage again after you’ve failed, is the only kind of courage that will give flight to this, the most elusive perfection of performance.
And, should you be willing to take a chance – to wildly leap into the abyss and get drunk on the adrenaline and uncertainty – you might find there between the dimensions, the same passion and joy that gave rise to some of the greatest music of our time.
6 thoughts on “The Art of Improv, Part 1: Courage”
I enjoyed this. Especially the part about jumping from an airplane in front of 10,000 people–as a kind of entertainment. Crazy.
Fortunately, I’ve never been super “risk adverse” as they say, so I too am covered with the scars of failure; verily, I say, hobbled. Just to try and make art of any kind, and make a living out of it, takes much courage indeed, “thick skin”, or just plain foolishness. And I don’t assume the last possibility isn’t the more likely to be true for me, with a large dose of desperate egotism.
Being in theatre, improv is one of the primary tools we use to create new material or stretch old material, but we, as a rule, NEVER use it as a form of final performance. It’s not coherent enough, as a rule, to sustain the pressure of theatrical time. The physicality and story-demands of theatre make it easier to crash and fail the audience. We do sometimes perform improvisation within very set structures–planned sequences with the option for the performer to take a solo, bring in the audience or vary a particular sequence–always with an exit strategy in mind.
Thanks for the post. I’m looking forward to the coming passages.
Thanks for your awesome reflection on your own artful life, Bill. I know personally what a courageous performer and writer you are.
I have seen both theatrical and musical improvisational performances that I judge to be as artistic and “finished” as any preset form I’ve ever experienced. As Kevin notes, it can be a scary place to on stage with no score or script. And isn’t that just life?
Again, I’m very grateful for your feedback. I honor you for continuing to step into your own creativity.
This is a cool take on an interesting topic. Believing and bravery are two components to successful improvisation, but both can be bolstered by a solid understanding of concepts and solid ‘chops’. Having one or the other makes you good, having both makes you better. Then forgetting everything you know and channeling and trusting that greater creative spirit makes you something special.
I really appreciate the phrase “trusting that greater creative spirit”. This is something that has really formed my improvisation and when I remember/connect to it, I have a more solid sense of having played something that was musical and personally satisfying. Improv is (usually after the fact) a sort of meditation for me.
Thanks for the comment and the reminder!
Always take volumes away from your blog Stan. It’s like reading lyrics, set to a nice textured jam. Grateful my friend. Grateful.
I know you’ve been through a ton this past year or so; which makes me grateful any time I can contribute to you taking something away for yourself. Bless you, my friend.
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