My husband is sitting at the piano, arms crossed, elbows to finger-ends pressing down the keys, forehead resting on his arms, dead tired after a long, stressful day. “That’s a great sound,” I say. “Do it again.” He does–several times. He gets interested. Sitting up, he experiments with elbow, palm, and forearm sounds in different places on the keyboard. I sing with him. Before he realizes it, he is engaged, his fatigue forgotton, and we are having fun talking to each other in tone and tone-cluster syllables.
Most of us have had the experience of listening to music which, if it has not profoundly moved us emotionally, has at the least put us in a better mood. Making other people’s music also affects us, whether it be singing a tune in the shower or chanting in meditative practice. But making music of one’s own, spontaneously improvising authentic sounds, alone or with others, can be a powerful tool for self-healing and self-actualization which is available to us at any time, no matter what our level of musical training or perceived ability.
Though a professional musician for most of my life, I had never improvised or played by ear until three years ago. An excellent music-reader, I achieved success without the need to develop those skills. However, through the process of finding, acknowleging, and expressing ideas and emotions from my inner musical world, I have found a spiritual connection with music that was absent. Improvisation has forged a link betwen my center and the sounds I produce. The more I improvise, the more this link is strengthened. Improvisation has become a source of inner power and brings me levels of pleasure I had not experienced before.
The impulse to sing, play, and communicate with others musically is basic. All of us possess it. As children we engage in these activities naturally and without self-consciousness. But the idea that everyone is musical is not common in our culture, and as adults we live with a deprivation of music- making, a division between the performer and listener. We are hungry for connections with music that are comfortable, inviting, and communal.
In some parts of the world, music-making is an integral part of daily life and offers the unskilled, as well as the skilled, the opportunity to express themselves and participate in the community. In this country, we glorify the professional and the specialist, and our recordings emphasize the perfect performance without mistakes. When asked if one “does” music, common responses include, “I could never do that” or “I’m not musical.” Even professionals are sometimes deeply affected by the pressure of avoiding “wrong notes” and producing on demand, which may repress their original joy and passion for music and stifle creativity.
So how do people make music when they have little or no experience with traditional musical language, and how do they learn to improvise if they have a music vocabulary, but have little or no experience with improvisation? The first step is to realize that everyone already has a musical language, and it is more than enough to start with. “If you can talk, you can sing; if you can walk, you can dance” may sound simplistic, but it is true–if one can let go of models like Pavarotti and Fred Astaire. Almost eveyone can tap their knees, snap their fingers, say or sing “ah.” Even someone who is uncomfortable singing can use the inflection and rhythm of her voice to great effect in a vocal improvisation. And is this music? Absolutely! For those more experienced in listening, one’s own music may be a composite of favorite styles one has absorbed throughout one’s life.
Second, it’s important to realize the value of authenticity. Regardless of the level of expertise, authentic expression is central to effective music- making, improvised or not. How often have we witnessed a performance admirable for its technical proficiency, but lacking intention and emotional intensity? To have as one’s goal the honest expression of one’s inner life in the moment, being ready to accept whatever sound may come out as a consequence, frees our innate musical ability. The nature of improvisation makes this process easy, because there is no expectation of a specific product; the intent is never to create it again in exactly the same way or to preserve the result except in the memories of those present. For professionals who have spent their whole lives as interpreters of other people’s music, trained to serve “the other,” this connection with one’s own intention can not only boost confidence in one’s own interpretive ideas, but can also enhance one’s understanding of a composer’s intention.
Third, remember that the value of a performance does not depend on the training or experience of the performer, or the quantity or complexity of the sounds they produce, but on the extent and ways in which the listener is moved. Even one tone, produced with conviction, is immensely significant if it has moved the performer or listener. It is sometimes difficult for experienced musicians to accept their simple, unique sounds as valuable, with an extensive technical and musical vocabulary waiting in the wings.
Whatever the sounds, the process of letting them come from an inner place, hearing those sounds, and having that inner music be received non-judgementally by open-minded listener(s) can be spiritually transforming and empowering for both creator and listener. And experiencing these sounds as MUSIC–cohesive, sensible and meaningful patterns that effectively communicate to others–can not only motivate one to acquire more performing skills and musical knowledge, but contribute immeasurably to self-esteem and communication skills in general.
I am sitting with eight people in a circle, a mix of professional musicians, skilled players, and novices. Going around the circle in pairs, each person explores the sound possibilities of their instrument or voice in a short improvisation, and ends with a held tone or repeated rhythmic pattern for their partner, who improvises her own music over it, then holds a tone for the next person in the circle.
I am intrigued by an older man who is holding an aluminum pan in one hand and a rubber stick in the other, expectantly waiting his turn. The cellist next to him finishes and holds a low tone. He taps the pan with the stick, first hesitantly and irregularly, then more agressively, with varied rhythmic patterns and an assortment of bangs and clinks. At the first thud, I think, “What a raw sound in comparison with the cello–it just isn’t working.” But as he continues, we all become engrossed; as the piece emerges, it makes sense, and it becomes evident that its creation would not be possible without these particular instruments, these individuals, and the intent listening of the whole group.
He sets up a regular tapping for the flutist next to him. As she moves from a muted dance in time with his tapping, to a high soaring melody, a sly smile appears on his face. He grabs the pan on the inside, and at just the right moment, touches the edge with a precise stroke. Magic happens. The sound of a most beautiful Chinese gong intersects the tones of the flute to make one magnificent sound, and its echo lasts a full 20 seconds. They continue, with each sounding of the gong perfectly timed to enhance the flutist’s melodies. We are all united and humbled by the moment, overwhelmed by the power of human creativity and the miracle of connection.
I have witnessed this scene many times, and I never cease to be awed. The effectiveness of group improvisation, no matter the number of participants, is only limited by the listening sensitivity of the players; those who are trained musicians simply bring a different character to the result. And group work brings up many issues which apply to everyday life: how to express oneself and still be part of the whole; when to act and when to listen; when and how to lead or lend support; how to listen while participating; how to be accepting of oneself and others; how to follow an impulse–all in a wordless context.
There are circles of sound in music-making. Sound flows between the ear that hears sounds from the outside, the inner ear that hears sounds from inside, the emotional heart/center that feels, the muscles (fingers, breath, body, vocal mechanism) which produce sounds, the intellect which analyzes and organizes either the sounds heard or the sounds to be produced, and the eyes which read symbols for sounds. Sound connects these elements in one large circle, or in many small circles at once.
As I work, I play with the order in which these elements are connected, observe how much of each is called into play, and how important balance is in their usage. For me, and I find also for many others, the intellect is often overactive; a seeming miracle occurs when the inner ear, the outer ear, and emotions are allowed more presence. When I am immersed in listening to my own sounds, my inner ear is fed and inspired to invent more creative sounds which satisfy my outer ear. In the process, the muscles and emotions are stimulated and act without effort. Improvisation strengthens these connections because the composer IS the inner ear, instead of an additional element (another person’s music) to be incorporated into the circle.
The next time you hear a sound or tune in you head, vocalize it, tap or whack your feelings out on the next available object. The next time you hear a sound outside yourself, or someone humming or whistling, answer with your own sound. Listen to the result. Appreciate your own musical soul. Feel the rewards the sounds send back to you.
About the AuthorJane Buttars is a classically trained performer and teacher and a Fulbright Scholar, with a Doctor of Musical Arts in piano and harpsichord performance. She directs Music From the Inside, a program of group improvisation classes and workshops for all levels, beginners to professionals, based in Princeton, NJ. She is a graduate of Music for People’s MLP Training Program. A CD of her improvisational music, Keys to the Inside, is now available.
Click here to read an article about Jane Buttar’s work at www.zwire.com.