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.