Harp Improvisation (3) What is music improvisation?


Improvisation, composition and arranging are all creative process. The biggest difference between these three processes is the amount of time available while creating music. When we are composing and/or arranging music, we can take time to research, think, experiment with trial and error. When improvising, a lot of things need to be decided and actualized in the form of  music in the given moment. In the process of improvisation, intuition and reflection play most important roll. In order to improvise music, fast reflection of intellect, intuition and emotions need to be trained.

To play a piece of classical music very well, we tackle difficult passages one by one and finally connect everything we practice into a whole piece. And then we work on artistic emotional aspect of music by verifying if the way of our playing would extract the beauty of the piece sufficiently. This complicated process of learning music takes time, effort and artistic sensitivity. It is hard, but at least we know what needs to be done in the process of learning the piece well. In other words, in classical music playing, payment-reward relationship is so clear that we can experience the direct result of our effort in short period of time in our performance. Generally speaking the more(not only in quantity but also in quality) we practice the piece, the better we can play. Of course, it is little more complicated than this in reality, because of other factors such as our own body, memory, knowledge and so on.

The main difficulty of discipline in improvisation is that we can’t see the result of our effort reflected in our playing as dramatically as we can with classical music. We can practice patterns and phrases as a building block of improvisation in almost same way we learn passages in classical music. Then we also need to learn how to put them together as meaning-full music by adding other building blocks such as passages, chord and rhythm patterns spontaneously created in the moment. The later part of discipline is particularly hard, because we have to learn how to improvise by improvising.

Some people think we can’t practice improvisation because the logical paradox exists, that is “improvisation can’t be practiced because something previously practiced and prepared can not be called improvisation”. If the way of learning classical repertories is the only way of practicing music, this hypothesis can be true. We can’t “practice” improvisation. But in reality, we can practice improvisation. It is necessary to apply specific training method for developing improvisation skills, which are different from traditional way of learning instrumental technique to be able to play written music.

I would like to discuss practical ways of practicing improvisation in later chapters of this blog series. Here I would like to share my experience in martial art practice, since I have studied Judo, a kind of Japanese martial art, for many years, and hold a 2nd degree black belt and I can see a lot of common factors between music improvisation and application of martial art skills to sparing, a competition or a fight.

In traditional Judo training, we spend most of our time on learning fixed forms of various techniques, which is called “Kata” rather than free fighting practice “Randori”. Practicing Kata is like classical music training. You learn the movements step by step until you can perform it from the beginning to the end fluently. As we interpret classical music piece, we can modify the form according your strength and physical structure. Randori, on the other hand, is like improvising with another musician where you need to pay attention to what is happening between you and your partner(in martial arts, adversary) to find a timing to do right thing and actually do it. As in music improvisation, good Kata alone doesn’t guarantee good result in Randori, but without Kata, you can’t over come the limitation of your physical strength and inherit talent. Kata is accumulation of valuable knowledge and techniques of past masters, so without mastering Kata, you are merely wrestling intuitively, not practicing Judo. If you learn Judo well, you can take down the person almost twice as big as you are.

This is same in music. Without learning existing music and the theory behind them, we have to rely on just our own personal knowledge and intuition of music. This way, we hit a limit very quickly and end up with composing or improvising same limited way all the time. As a result, even if you write and improvise many different pieces, what you play sounds very similar all the time.

I have practiced with beginners of Judo who have natural strength and talent to be able to break the balance of their adversary quite efficiently, although their attempt works only for the first time with a trained Judo-ka. If they know another 10 ways of taking me down, it is much harder for me to prepare for their attack, but since they have only one way to attack me effectively, it is easy to anticipate what they are trying to do. Since those talented beginners tend to beat other beginners by using just what they already can do, they tend to become too confident to learn authentic Judo Kata and stop improving at the early stage of discipline. I think a lot of “creative musician” can be trapped in the same place. Being creative and original doesn’t mean not using proven and tested methods from the past.  Using just what we know and what you can do already is a mere laziness rather than being creative.

Who has more talent and knowledge than sum of thousands years of human practice on music? So it is much smarter choice to learn from what our ancestor developed first and then add something personal on the top of it.

I have met an American Judo instructor who told me that practicing “Kata” (fixed form) is waste of time because adversary moves so unexpectedly that you never have a chance to apply your techniques as you practice.

It does sound right, doesn’t it? But this is wrong! Why?

“Kata” of throwing techniques and ground techniques repeatedly practiced with the partner who doesn’t resist so much, that we can understand all the basic movement and logic behind them. Then we practiced those techniques in a sequence of movement choreographed. Then we try to use those techniques in free practice.

In free practice “Randori”, we have to develop the sense of being aware of what is going on in the moment through trial and error experience. We have to know and/or feel if your adversary happens to be in a good position to attack you, if you are in a good position to apply one of the techniques, which technique is the best to use, when to apply, how to set up body position between you and your adversary’s for your advantage, how to modify the form you learned as “Kata” to apply to this specific adversary, etc. During processing all these continuously incoming and changing information and making numerous spontaneous actions, you need to feel the ‘right moment’ to apply the technique with intuition and act simultaneously with reflection.

Without repetitive “Kata” practice, you can’t intuitively feel the right moment to apply the technique and act with reflection. With out “Randori” practice, you can’t develop the keen awareness of finding the chance and making opportunities to use your techniques you mastered at “Kata” practice.  This kind of awareness is something difficult to describe. You just do what is right in the moment without intellectually knowing.

This principle of Judo practice can be applied to improvisational discipline in music. We need to practice fixed forms such as patterns, phrases, chord, motives and so on as well as we try to improvise by putting those materials together with intuitive modifications and reflection. By developing the keen awareness of what is there in the moment and the ability to process and respond to numerous factors relating to music, we finally become able to give birth to improvised music.


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The Harp Column Staff has been bringing you great editorial content, interviews, features, and reviews since 1993!

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