Improvisation and spiritual connection

I studied classical trumpet as a youth. While I loved my horn and its sound, learning to play musical compositions perfectly eventually became a terror for me. The problem with performing classical music for me, is that everyone knows what the music is supposed to sound like, and if you make a mistake, everyone knows, and they can do a “gotcha” afterwards. It is extremely unpleasant and I know I developed a defense of pointing out my mistakes before anyone else could. It’s not a good way to enjoy performing.

I quit playing trumpet for about fifteen years, and I only got back into it through circumstance (including back injury from a car accident and a chiropractor who was also a trumpet player) and because I was then involved with groups that were pretty much entirely improvisational. When you improvise, I felt, there are no wrong notes. I could believe this enough that I was able to play comfortably for audiences.

I was brought up on perfectionism, and it has caused me great pain in my life. I am only able to play as long as I believe that right and wrong don’t apply. The key, for me, is to have fun, and now I live to teach others to improvise and to have fun — to listen for what they love in music, instead of listening to criticize or feeling that they have no right to make music because they aren’t good enough.

Composition is the process of inventing and writing down music. Improvisation is making up music in the moment. Unless someone listens to a recording of an improvisation and transcribes it into music notation, it is never written down.

The process of writing is quite different from the process of improvising. It’s the same as the difference between writing a story or telling a story during a conversation. When you write, you usually revise and revise many times over. When telling a story, you tell it once for the audience, and then it is gone. Whatever you bring to the performance is never going to be seen or heard again, even if you record the event, or transcribe the improvisation.

Each performance of a composition is unique, just as each performance of a play is unique or each reading of a story is unique, yet there will be a marked similarity in the performances, since they are trying to enact the composition as accurately as possible.

In improvisation, anything might happen. An improvisation can sound “wrong” but if you make a “mistake” you merely have to repeat it to make it sound like something you meant to do, and if you repeat it, then it becomes an acceptable part of the experience. There are no wrong notes. Wrong doesn’t make sense in improvisation.

Composition is not completely about setting music in stone, but, except for matters of interpretation, musicians are expected to play compositions note for note, without any room for improvisation. While jazz compositions do have room for improvisation, you are still expected to play the heads in a way that will be recognizable. You’re allowed to put it to a different rhythm or time signature, and even to modulate it, but these are variations, that must leave the melody recognizable. Even in the improvisational parts, you have to stay within the structure of the composition, because playing too far outside that composition can rattle your bandmates, unless they are prepared for free improvisation.

Free improvisation can start from anywhere with anything, and can become anything it wants. People often wonder how music develops in free improvisation, if there is nothing composed at all. This is possible because music is essentially about repetition, and you barely need to repeat a few notes, for others to pick up on what you are doing and help you build it. Free improvisation is about listening for the recognizable motifs, supporting them and building them into larger patterns. If you play with musicians who listen well and are generous in supporting each other, this is easy.

It’s also easy with people who don’t consider themselves musicians. Set a few ground rules, and people can learn to improvise quite happily with each other very quickly. See Improvisation Games for more about the Sonic Sandbox improvisational instruction process.

Improvising music is built into human beings, I believe. It is a part of our natural pattern recognizing abilities. We do it instinctively, the same way that birds can flock together in amazing formations with millions of birds, and they never hit each other in the air. We know much more about rhythm and melody and harmony than we are aware of. We have been unconsciously analyzing these patterns all our lives, and so if we are allowed to play together without judgment, we can do it easily and intuitively.

It is only judgment that turns musical improvisation into musical composition. Someone writes down music, and makes critical choices about how they want their music to be performed from here on. Others make judgments about how well performers interpret that composition.

After writing this, I now believe it is fair to say that improvisation is about working with what we know, intuitively. Composition is about taking intuition and making judgments about it. For me, that takes a lot of fun out of music making. Music making is for fun and play and for bringing people together in a way that connects us without using our linguistic minds. Some people call this spiritual. I don’t care what people call it, so long as we can share that experience and feel more connected.

My practice is to find something to love in the sounds people make together. This helps me suspend judgment, and reach an altered state of consciousness that is not possible when my critical mind is engaged. This altered state helps me accept myself and others, and perhaps most importantly, it helps me feel connected in a way that I crave most of the time.

How I will use this Blog

From time to time, I will post my thoughts about playing in the Sonic Sandbox. The charter membership is made up of three or four of us. We all met in the “recovery rooms,” which is jargon for the rooms where people meet at twelve step meetings. Because we met that way, we may or may not actually know each other’s names. The key to twelve step recovery is anonymity. Most of us only feel safe enough to talk about what is really going on inside when we have some measure of protection about our deepest shames becoming public knowledge.

For that reason, I only know the first names of the people I play with in the Sonic Sandbox. I will also not be able to provide any more details about what kind of twelve step group it is, nor what troubles we are dealing with that brought us together. I hope that won’t matter. What is important is that playing in the Sonic Sandbox has become a part of our recoveries. It is a coping technique that helps us learn to change our habits from ones that are destructive to both us and the people we love to ones that, we hope, will be a lot healthier.

The idea of making music together, I believe, was first discussed by Bob and Kurt. Bob plays electric violin and Kurt plays electric guitar. Bob also told me that Kurt was a singer. When I heard they were going to do some music together, I decided that I wanted to crash that party. I wanted to play with other people, because I had stopped playing for over a year, as a punishment to myself for harming people I loved. This was an opportunity to get together in a way that wouldn’t contribute to my problems. In the past, music had opened the door for me to get into trouble.

I knew I needed music because of what it does to my brain. I helps me access my sense of connection to others. As such, it directly counteracts the feeling of loneliness and isolation I was living in. It gave me respite from despair and hopelessness. It provided a few moments of relief from what felt like a black hole in the pit of my stomach, that was slowing down light as well as weighing me down. My life, for a time, felt slow and miserable and impossible — except for those moments when I was connected to others, primarily through music.

Then, I decided I was such a bad person, that I didn’t even deserve any relief at all. I stopped playing music. I stopped dancing. I stopped socializing. I stopped talking to friends and family members. I stopped working. I stopped using the phone. I simply couldn’t.

Finding people I felt safe to be with and to make music with was a miracle for me. It started at my house. Kurt and Bob and Ralph started coming over on Tuesday evenings to play together. Not all of them every single time. Sometimes it was only two of us.

I used my background in improvisational music to come up with games that would help us develop a practice. At first, we didn’t know what we wanted to do. We thought about writing music or songs. We thought about being a rock band. We’re still open to any ideas that anyone wants to bring to our practice, but mostly we started playing together using these improvisational games I either borrowed from others I have learned from, or that I made up myself.

I started recording our sessions, and then listening to the recordings, and after a while, I started thinking that maybe we had something that other people would enjoy. Maybe we were developing a process that could help others gain the benefits we were gaining. Maybe we could play for others and with others in more public situations.

To date, we’ve played for others in a formal way three times. We’ve given the workshop once in a formal setting (a twelve step group retreat). We enjoyed ourselves on each occasion, and we also got some positive feedback, which felt good. The workshop went over very well, and our last performance generated an amazing amount of energy. It got a group to get up out of their audience roles, and some played music with us, while others danced. It was a regular party!

I am beginning to see a future for this play for us. We can do the workshop at parties, or for people interested in learning how to make music together (no experience required). The workshop is also good for people in recovery, both from addictions and from mental illnesses. It provides a coping technique that gives people relief from the pain these things can bring.

Performing also brings people together, both as audience members and participants. It provides another way to connect with others, and, I hope, it helps to break down judgmental barriers that often come between us. It is great fun for us to be the spark plugs that generate the energy of connection within groups of people we do not yet know.

So, from time to time, I will post my descriptions and reactions to these events — our practices and our outreach to others. This may primarily be my thoughts, but I hope that other members of Sonic Sandbox will also want to post their thoughts, too. Until next time… I hope we can play in the sonic sandbox together one day soon.