If you look up the definition of improvisation, you may get this:
To invent, compose, or perform with little or no preparation.
To play extemporaneously, especially by inventing variations on a melody or creating new melodies in accordance with a set progression of chords.
I’ve been playing the piano for over 25 years now, and it’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve been improvising. But what does it really mean to improvise? Would the definitions above adequately explain what this means? Is it actually really possible to invent or perform with little or no preparation?
Before I looked up these definitions I already had a good idea of what it meant – or so I thought!
For me, I thought improvising meant that I was ‘making it up on the spot’, for want of a better phrase. And I’m fairly confident that if you asked any musician what the word ‘improvisation’ meant, then they would say the same. But is anyone actually really ‘making it up on the spot’?
I’m a keen blues and boogie woogie player, and have been for a number of years now ever since I decided to switch from classical, and it’s my main passion in life. I have played many a gig in front of a good crowd who enjoy a bit of blues on a Friday night in their local pub, and I’ve seen their faces of joy (could be drunk) when they hear an attractive solo being played in the middle of a song. But do they actually realise that I’ve played these notes before? Does the audience realise that I’ve practiced these melodies for years, and have developed many variations of these melodies to entertain the ear?
So how can we state that improvisation requires little or no preparation when it comes to playing an instrument? I’ve had to play for over 25 years in order to improvise to the level that I’m happy with, so I’d like to think that a lot of preparation has certainly gone in. But maybe we are referring to the fact that I can sit down with any band and play along to a blues song, without any prior knowledge or preparation as to what the song would be. I would only need the key and to listen to a couple of bars, and I would be able to jump straight in and play as if I’d been in the band for years.
So again, I’m confused as to what I’m actually doing. Am I improvising, or am I just playing a sequence of notes that I already had stored in my musical brain, that fit in perfectly with the rhythm and key of the song? For me, I would steer towards the answer being the latter.
However, when I cast my mind back to some of my best gigs where I’ve really fell into the music; I do recall playing stuff that I’ve never played before. It could have just been for one song, or even just for a few notes in a solo, but it was there none the less.
So was this true improvisation? Clearly, it must have been. So does this mean that I’m not always improvising? I don’t think so. I just think it means there are two different kinds. One whereby a musician regurgitates a series of melodies that they have already practiced and rehearsed, and makes them fit perfectly into a song; and one whereby the musician invents new melodies that they have never played before, right there and then.
To all you musicians out there – which one are you…?