Interstellar improv! STS-56 Mission Specialist Ellen Ochoa plays the flute in space shuttle Discovery’s aft flight deck in April 1993. Image: NASA.
Why? Practicing notes on a page can be anxiety provoking – you are constantly measuring yourself up against technical and interpretive ideals. This is even the case with simple scale or tone exercises, but is especially intense when you have difficult repertoire to master. It can often be enough to lead to avoiding picking up your instrument altogether.
When talking to others about my practice avoidance, I’ve often been told that “starting is the hardest part”. This is very true, although not the full picture (what about re-starting, again and again, as is necessary? what about tension and strong feelings during practice?). Some days when I’m really struggling to start, removing the stress of notated music can help me not only to make this all important start, it can also greatly improve my connection with my instrument and lead to new sound discoveries.
Try improvising for five minutes and then, if you feel like moving on to ‘actual’ practice, set a timer and start your warm-up routine or repertoire work.
What? Improvising is a very personal thing. Just take your instrument and start to make some sounds. It honestly does not need to lead anywhere, which is what makes it so freeing. On the other hand, too much freedom can itself be limiting – where do you start?? Here are a few ideas to kick things off:
– Choose a note that generally feels good for you and just start playing long tones or repeated soundings. Play with colour and quality of attack. You’re not aiming so much to ‘improve’ your tone, but to explore the possibilities. Don’t be disturbed if it doesn’t sound the way it ‘should’. Move on to notes around it and make slow moving melodies. Experiment with intervals.
– Search for strange sounds like multiphonics, colour trills (bisbigliando), ultra soft sounds, buzzing or bamboo tones. Use whatever fingering comes to mind and see what comes out. Use normal note fingerings and see if you can find strange sounds by over- or under-blowing. I like to find two similar sounds and then move back and forward between them.
– Play or hold your instrument differently, i.e. ‘incorrectly’, and then make gentle sounds, keeping your body as relaxed and comfortable as possible. Move between this and your normal playing posture. Stand, sit, walk around. Focus on the feeling of contact between you and your instrument.
– Meditate on an idea and play some music to match it. Find some text scores as starting points. Pauline Oliveros (American avant-garde composer and improvisor) has some available for free download. Look at a picture and try to play the scene. Be patient with yourself – play for a while before settling on your materials.
– When you find a nice sound or idea, write it down however it makes sense to you. This can serve as a really nice starting point for future improvisations, and can be useful material to draw upon if you’re ever asked to improvise in a class or other public situation.
Play scale or harmonic patterns you’re familiar with if you want, but I would encourage you to go further into the sound possibilities of your instrument more as well. Pentatonic scales are always really nice to play around with, because you basically can’t go wrong!
Always try to be light with your self-judgement. This doesn’t need to sound ‘good’, you don’t need to meet any expectations. Just let yourself actually play.