Improvising: Why You Need To Be Comfortable Taking Risks

The phrase, “comfortable taking risks”, sounds a bit like an oxymoron. After all, if you feel comfortable doing something, are you actually taking risks?

The answer is:  “it depends”.

One the one hand, I think of my dearest friend, Mark, who for many years risked life and limb (literally!) as a lineman for an electrical power company. He was quite used to this work, and felt reasonably comfortable doing it, in even the most precarious conditions.

On the other hand, there are folks who do things that seem quite risky (not necessarily physically dangerous) to the uninitiated, when in reality they are taking almost no risks in carrying out the activity. Improvising music can fall into that category.

Ask most classical musicians about the process of improvising, and 9 out of 10 will probably tell you how scary the concept seems. Without a doubt these folks would be uncomfortable attempting to make music without the “script” of notation. Too risky.

Yet the world is full of improvising musicians who have consciously worked toward minimizing the risk of stepping into the unknown. They predominantly strive to “sound right” in a consistent way.

They manage this risk through particular techniques in practice coupled with a certain attitude in performance.  To me, these improvisers sound polished, clean, and to be honest… somewhat lifeless and uninteresting.

Lot’s of packaged ideas (licks, patterns, inflections, etc.) that fit neatly together, forged through lots of practice.

Yet the greatest jazz improvisers (the ones that the above mentioned folks admire most) were (and are) all about taking risks.

In jazz, if you listen to Lester Young, to Miles Davis, to Sonny Rollins, to Jim Hall, to Sal Mosca, to Ellery Eskelin, to….you’re hearing musicians who are comfortable with risk. You are hearing musicians who gave (give) self-expression higher priority than a polished sounding performance. Their music is full of life and (to me) consistently exciting.

Yes, even a “polished” sounding improviser like Jim Hall was risking it all the time. Why do I think this? Well, it’s because he was always finding new, unchartered territory in his solos. Endless development of beautiful, melodic ideas. You can’t simply fall back on a bunch of heavily practiced licks and improvise like Jim Hall.

And Sonny Rollins is always on the verge of getting into trouble as he plays. The other night I was listening to his classic recording, The Bridge, and I could here that tightrope-walking edge in his creativity.

But I would venture to guess that Mr. Rollins was as comfortable as could be playing that music. He sure sounds like it. His time, tone, melodic sense, rhythmic imagination….all there, all the time. And all being delivered with discovery, spontaneity and surprise (to both the artist and the listener).

I would say that the great improvisers all have this in common: They trust that their muse will take them where they need to go, and they don’t need to know where that is, moment to moment.

Like a cat, they greats always know they’ll land on their feet. And they always do.

And therein lies the conundrum: to improvise authentically, deeply and creatively, you have to take lots of risks; yet you’ll not be inclined to take risks if you’re not comfortable doing so.

If you’re not willing to risk, you’re not letting yourself fully emerge as an artist (as a creative human being). And then you do risk (no pun intended) sounding polished and clear, yet lifeless.

So how do you get comfortable taking risks as you improvise?

First, change your perception of risk by changing your aim.

If your main goal when you improvise is to “sound good” (whatever that might mean) you’re probably not going to be too inclined to stray too far from what you already know all too well. (There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sound good, by the way. It’s just that over-emphasizing this wish can put you into a fearful frame of being, and rob you of the opportunity to make some wonderful discoveries.)

But if you change your aim from, “I want to be right”, to, “let’s see what happens”, you open yourself up to possibility and playfulness (the quality of playfulness is of HUGE importance, no matter how serious you may be about your music; just listen to Sonny Rollins!) You’ll be less inclined to judge yourself harshly, and will even be more open to moving the music to places you never imagined.

Second, take care of yourself as you play.

As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, much of what I help my students understand is how thought affects bodily tension, and how this bodily tension in turn influences thought. It’s like a loop:

To play freely you need to be free in your body. To be free in your body you need to address the various kinds of unconscious habits of tension you have as you play (this is where the Alexander Technique is so helpful). Here are a few questions to ask yourself in order to check your own unnecessary tension:

“Is my neck free? Or am I scrunching my head downward into my spine as I play?”

“Is my breathing noisy and forced?” 

“Are my shoulders free? Or am I stiffening and narrowing them?” (Remember that your hands are connected to your arms and your arms are very much conditioned by how your using your neck and shoulders.)

“Are my knees locked?”

“Are my feet taking the weight of my body as I play? Or am I stiffening my feet ankles and toes, perhaps rolling my feet to the sides?” (If your sitting as you play, make sure you’re sitting in balance, with your head lightly poised at the top of your spine and directly over your pelvis.)

In particular, notice how you react when playing or practicing as you step into the unknown (unfamiliar key, sight reading, new chord changes, etc.) Do you react by tensing in the areas I mentioned above? If you notice you do, you can work toward consciously preventing that (again, this is where an Alexander Technique teacher can really help).

So as you explore your improvisational art, I encourage you not only to take risks, but also, to smile and release tension as you do so. Welcome and enjoy. If you practice this concept, you’ll be happy with what you discover.

I’ll leave you with this thought (paraphrased here) by the great pianist, Lennie Tritano: “When you’re improvising, the music is already there inside of you. You just need to listen for it and allow it to come through your hands.”

The music really is already there inside of you. And that’s ultimately why taking risks is really not risky at all.



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