I have always been fascinated with improvisation and, as it were, scared of it at the same time. And yet, I consider myself to be a creative person. Why do I have these feelings that appear to be contrary to each other? On the one hand I feel creative to my core yet frightened of “making a mistake” within that creativity. If you stop to think about it, feeling creative and hoping not to make a mistake are really at odds with one another. Talking to my guitar students about improvisation confirms that I am not alone in this thinking- in this conflict. Why does this conflict exist?
At least with regards to music making in general, and guitar playing specfically, I do have a few thoughts.
The cult of the expert does not seem to help this situation-especially now as more and more people have access to exquisite musical performances via the internet and social media. It’s very easy for anyone who wants to play guitar or currently does play guitar to quickly get the impression that “my improvisational attempts on this instrument will never be on par with those players- the so-called experts. While we might be plucking away on our guitar with all the good intentions of getting better at it, I think that, at the same time, there’s a little voice in our head telling us that we really should set our personal bar low because we will simply never be as good as the experts.
This little crappy voice stops many guitarists from even thinking about improvising-I’m constantly challenging my students to override this damn little voice. The experts know how to improvise and I don’t so I won’t even try! The experts are experts because they are special, gifted, magical and I am not. This is dangerous thinking that counters your intrinsic creative instinct. Here’s a thought experiment. If the only music you ever heard was created through the sounds you produced on your guitar, you might just have a healthier appreciation for what you can do rather than quietly or overtly comparing yourself to others- the experts. Being challenged to play at your best (sometimes pushed to do so through exposure to the experts) is a good thing but only as you remain confident in the path YOU are on. Your path is just as important. Leave the “expert” to his or her own path.
The Right and Wrong Universe has been very efficiently handed down to us through a traditional education system whose primary goal is to celebrate academic excellence. This is changing with a growing number of new educational models but the educational status quo is still very much alive. Essencially the more RIGHT you can be during your education, the more successful you will be (at least that’s the message we pick up along the way). And the more RIGHT you are, the more we, society, will celebrate YOU. What ever you do, just don’t be wrong!
This same thinking is present in the music making world as well, as making musical mistakes is often considered being “ill prepared”. There is certainly nothing wrong with striving for musical excellence in your performances but I contend that the manic need for musical perfection is also driven by the Right and Wrong universe handed down to us- just don’t play wrong notes. Even starting guitar students, let alone seasoned players, are painfully aware of the chill of playing something WRONG. Strive for RIGHTNESS if it feels good to you but please let yourself breathe some humanity into your playing when a mistake happens. Let yourself off the “right” hook once in a while and come hang out in the dark “wrong” side once in a while. Musical Improvisation gives you permission to creatively explore your guitar, the sounds you make (especially with other players) giving you ,at least, some reprive from the tyranny of the Right and Wrong Universe.
Trusting Your Instincts is something we tell people to do but at the same time acknowledge that we would prefer tangible facts instead. When it comes to musical improvisation, the weight of the RIGHT and WRONG Universe is still so everpresent within us that we simply don’t tend to trust our musical instincts – in other words trust our ears. If you let it happen, and are so inclined, the musical arts can quickly become overridden with rules, formulas and even (urrrh!) math to the point that the recreational guitar player would easily feel overwhelmed to accomplish anything let alone creative freedom within improvisation. And still this very simple truth remains in action…Learn to trust (or rather re-trust) your ears. You know what sounds good to you and what doesn’t. Why should we doubt this? The more you trust your own instincts and ears, the more you’re willing to take musical risks and discover cool new musical opportunities. The act of improvising should remain “as a child in a sandbox” simply lost in the possibilities. When was the last time someone said to you ” You can’t push the sand that way…that’s incorrect!”- sounds silly!
All this being said, I too have struggled with developing some confidence in improvising. I can tell you that if you are holding the playing standard of some other guitarist in your mind as you strive to improvise, you are being driven more by stress than by joy. Somehow, in your own way, you must return to that “child in the sandbox” and enjoy YOUR PLAYING experience by trusting your own ears. This is the beginning of returning to believing in your own innate musical abilities, however dormant they may be. Once that is in place, there will be enough musical devices, formulas, insights, scales, arpeggios, licks, schemes etc. that you can learn to add to your “bag of tricks” (and don’t be fooled-everyone has their bag of tricks- you will too over time).
And just to be clear, people who improvise well at any level are simply working with tools that have been practiced so much and thought about often. They are so familiar with these tools that they have complete control over them. Doesn’t sound like magic to me. You can do exactly the same thing. Do it! It’s not so scary afterall.
I invite you to leave a comment below.
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