Sometimes the best things happen when we don’t plan them.
Once I asked a student who was getting tight with his playing, and also very bored and restless, how he could play a little more crazy.
He thought for a moment. “I know!” he said, eyes lighting up. “I’m going to start with one piece, and end with another one!” He did it with Song of the Wind and Twinkle Variation A. His playing became more lively and more focused.
The best part is that I never would have thought of that.
When I asked him what he could do to “play more crazy” I was taking a risk. Would he just scribble on his strings? Wiggle around? I don’t want to waste time in the lesson (what teacher does?) and perhaps giving him this much rope was not going to work.
But for this student, it did. After doing this little bit of invention, not only was he re-engaged with the music, he was playing with better technique, with none of the previous stiffness.
The Story of the Bear
One student was stuck in a bland version of Hunter’s Chorus. No amount of correction seemed to work. Until I asked her to invent a story for it. What or who is the hunter? “There is a bear,” she answered, “and he jumps out and surprises the people!” She said. “Then they spray him with pepper spray!”
We laughed. Then I asked her to play the music in such a way that I would know when these parts of the story happen. Suddenly she played accents, fortes, and bolder articulation at the frog, without me having to harp on technical points. All because her imagination was focused in a better direction, one that I could not have expected.
There are many benefits of improvisational moments, but two in particular stand out to me for performance:
1) The brain is more alert when it must pay attention because something is happening in an unpredictable way, and
2) It decreases fear of making mistakes, which in turn increases fluency and comfort with playing.
Sports performance experts know that to get the body to perform in the game, when it counts, it must be relaxed and in the flow. Often we can’t get there with students because they are worried, anxious, even on a subconscious level. But when we focus on something that excites our imagination, the body often comes along, giving us that very relaxed alertness that was so elusive a moment before.
Dangling the hook
But here is the key: in order for our imagination to come of hiding, we have to give it permission to be open-ended.
A pre-programmed outcome will kill that spark of possibility that is the lure for creativity. Think about this for music: the notes on the page are a pre-programmed outcome! Doing all the pieces in order in the Suzuki books is another pre-programmed outcome. I’m not saying it is a bad thing (I tend to follow the Suzuki book order to the letter) just that we need to be aware of just how much we pre-plan outcomes for students.
Asking for improvisation is like dangling a hook out there, we are hoping to catch the big fish of a student’s best playing. The bait is improvisation, an open-ended invitation to create. But it involves risk on our part as adults.
The unexpected is risky, but what if we can’t have their best playing without it?
How willing are you to let some unexpectedness happen? Time to get a little bit crazy?