About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Dave Brubeck
On Fathers' Day, we went to Ravinia to see and hear Dave Brubeck and his four sons perform. I don't listen to much jazz, but this was clearly an extraordinary, inspiring concert. And Dave Brubeck is 90 years old! The Chicago Tribune review by Howard Reich has all the information. (Dave Brubeck riffs with his sons on Father's Day)

Like many superb artists, Brubeck draws on many different musical sources, including Darius Milhaud, with whom he studied, and Disney. As someone not conversant with jazz, I wondered how much of the music was improvised and how much was planned. His sons live all over the world, so there was little time for extensive planning, but every piece made perfect sense. So I asked my husband, who has more jazz experience than I. He explained that jazz musicians relay on patterns, but the best jazz musicians use them only as a structure, not the meat of the improvisation.

All this led me to thinking about improvisation in my own playing. I will never need to do any jazz improvisation, but many teachers strongly recommend including improv as part of one's practice. In particular, Jeffery Agrell, who blogs at Horn Insights, frequently writes about the importance of improvising. According to him, the benefits include avoiding routine and encouraging flexibility by having to think rather than play off the page, gaining a deeper understanding of music by creating music as opposed to only interpreting, and weakening one's reliance on the written page. I found these posts to be especially interesting and helpful: Spicing up the Routine, mainly about incorporating improv into warm-ups; 10 Step Program for getting off the Ink, about how memorization deepens the performer's connection to and understanding of a piece;  and  Start your Day with a Daily D.A., a strong argument for including improvisation in all musician's education. 

Improvisation is scary if you've never done it. Just recently the parents of a fine young trumpet player commented to us that their son would never play jazz because of the improv. He needs to know what's coming next, which of course doesn't happen when you're improvising, especially with other people.

A few years ago I decided to sign up for the beginner's Improv Program at Second City. This had nothing to do with music - I wasn't even playing horn at the time. It felt scary, but I thought it might improve my teaching and communicating. This program is five courses, which take a year to finish. Graduation is performing a show with your class on the mainstage at Second City. Taking the classes was scary, but it was also amazingly good fun. I never became anywhere near adept at it, but I had a blast. Most of the folks in my class, including me, reported being able to talk to people more easily. We also worked on thinking on our feet, responding positively to our partners, and getting past our fears. It also gave me a heart-felt appreciation for what the actors at Second City and other improvisational theaters do.

I had never tried improvisation in music, though. In thinking about  summer when I have more time to practice, I decided I wanted to set a few goals to stretch my playing. I decided it was time to try improv, so I purchased Agrell's book, Improv Games for One Player. The book is filled with suggestions that are easy to try, and you can make many of them part of your warm-up. I have created improvised long tone pieces on various intervals and made up tunes using the pentatonic scale. It is not so scary to try these in your practice room and they sound pretty good! It is a very different way of thinking about music than I have been doing for years. I expect it will enrich my playing; it's already fun.