What was your inspiration for creating a class on improvisation?
I have always loved improvising! Ever since I was five years old, and I was just learning how to play music, I was improvising. However, as soon as I started taking piano lessons and studying classical music, I was taught from an early age that improvisation has nothing to do with the act of music making. So even though I learned a lot from studying classical music, I never got the chance to explore the more spontaneous side of music. Many years went by like this, until I was about eighteen years old, and I started listening to jazz seriously for the first time in my life. I was overjoyed to discover there is an entire genre of music in which improvisation plays an essential role, but this discovery also made me feel tension between what I had learned from my classical upbringing and this newly rediscovered desire to improvise. For awhile, I didn’t know how to reconcile this feeling, so I actually stopped playing music altogether for about five years. But I could never be happy not playing music, so around the age of twenty-three, I resumed playing the flute, only this time with an emphasis on learning jazz and learning how to improvise. Studying jazz helped me break down certain psychological barriers that I had about playing music not on the page. I had to spend some time struggling with myself before I could feel truly comfortable improvising, and this is why I created the class. I have direct experience of the kinds of problems and issues that classical musicians face when trying to improvise, and I believe I can help address those problems.
How do you help break down some of these psychological barriers that you mentioned?
I think the most important thing is to create a supportive environment where students can be comfortable experimenting with new ideas and not worrying whether something is a “mistake” or “correct.” What we often call “playing something wrong” is really just a part of the learning process. It is both necessary and important to go through this process, or else you will never arrive at a place where you are satisfied with your improvised playing. The problem is that mistakes are not tolerated in classical music, so when many classical musicians attempt to improvise, they immediately worry that they’re playing something “wrong.” I try to help them get over these fears by setting up a classroom environment that encourages the students to trust themselves and their ears. My class is about helping them remember that improvisation is about creating a space within yourself for new experience. As long as they keep that in mind, they will discover that it actually becomes somewhat impossible to make mistakes.
I also teach some basic yoga poses at the beginning of class to help students keep a relaxed posture when they play. This keeps them from tensing up, which can help alleviate some of their worries. It also trains them to be more in the moment, and improvisation is all about the moment you’re in. The yoga helps prepare both your body and your mind for creating improvised music.
How do you approach teaching improvisation?
One of my approaches is to place a heavy emphasis on rhythm. Rhythm is perhaps more of an immediate thing to grasp, so I begin by focusing on this aspect of improvisation before moving onto melodic and harmonic approaches. It is easy for a student to feel like they’re playing a wrong note or chord, since there are so many rules about harmony coming from music theory. Rhythm doesn’t have the same amount of restrictions. It is more of something that you can feel without thinking about it.
I also use call and response exercises to help students get used to the conversational nature of improvising with other people. So much of improvisation is about interacting with other musicians, but when we’re first learning how to improvise, we can get stuck in our own worlds from time to time. Doing the call-and-response exercises helps the students remember that the musical space isn’t just within themselves but is a space that all the musicians playing together share.
Additionally, I have worksheets that I designed to help developing an improvisational language out of a musical vocabulary they already know. This helps them take their classical technique and use it for improvisation. Sometimes when students are struggling with improvisation, they can forget that they already know how to play the instrument in their hands. The worksheets help them take what they already know about playing the flute and apply it to improvisation.
Another approach I use is having open discussions about the musical ideas we come up with while we play. The discussions are fairly informal and meant to address whatever questions students have about their improvising. The discussions usually have a wide range of topics. Sometimes we discuss the technical aspects of using an improvisational language while playing. Other times we may talk about the emotional or spiritual content of improvised music, or we may speculate philosophically on what improvisation means to us both as musicians and people and why we feel compelled to make improvised music. Whatever the student wants to bring to the table for discussion is welcome. Students get a lot out of this, because from the discussion they will have multiple perspectives offered to them, not just mine, on whatever they’re working with.
Why do you think the ability to improvise is important even to a classical musician?
It’s important, because classical musicians play composed music, and composers improvise! A lot of composed music has its genesis in moments of improvised playing. So if a classical musician can improvise, it will give him or her deeper insight into the musical language of composition, and they will get more into the minds of the composers who wrote the music they are playing. It is also important for any classical musician who is trying work in the new and contemporary music scene. Much contemporary classical music calls for improvisation in its performance, so the ability to improvise is mandatory for anyone wishing to participate in this kind of music.
Also, many sight-reading gigs that classical musicians often take require moments of improvisation from time to time. Broadway, pop, Latin music, etc. all require improvisation periodically even though a large amount of it may be written. Being able to improvise with confidence is a skill that translates into every genre of music. My class aims to teach improvisation in a basic and essential way, so the students can take whatever they learn into any musical direction they wish to pursue.