Monday, March 15, 2010

Finding the Way In: Part II

The second part of my conversation with Carl Bergstrom-Nielson (

Tom: I have found that for others, being silent is not the best initial method. These people may respond better to other instructions.

Carl: Oh! Like what, for instance? (One thing coming to my mind is John Stevens exercise of making "flurries", anything easy-to-make-up-and-down - I do something a bit similar with students, "Exploring Instruments" - stressing that the sounding outcome is completely unimportant. Only later they are required to listen and do something about the sound...)

Tom: Yes, I use similar kinds of exercises too. Particularly with people who are blocked because they have strong ingrained ideas of what their instrument "should" sound like, or are afraid to make a "wrong" sound. I ask them to allow an impulse to movement to control them, or that they think of it as making a gesture instead of as making a sound (similar to "flurries") , or I impose some physical restriction on them or their instrument so they can't play it in their habitual way (turn the hands wrong way around, play with fists or a smaller number of fingers, play with only some parts of their instrument, etc.). Sometimes just telling them not to play any notes breaks the ice.

I've found some people respond to playing while moving - somehow being in motion unsticks them. Some people I use surprise - playing a game where I dramatically and suddenly cue different people to play and stop (putting the focus on me and not on what they are going to do). That sometimes helps them learn they can play from impulse, without thinking about it, and that it's fun. Some people will "get it" if I first do a fun theatre exercise that allows them to improvise with movement and/or vocalization, then pick up their instruments and do a simple exercise, with the instruction to be as playful and have as much fun playing on their instrumensts as they did without instruments. Sometimes I have to go back and forth between the two to get the point across.

At the beginning of the semester I will often participate in an exercise and do something very dramatic, overexaggerated, silly, and fun, (either as part of a theatre warmup, or on my instrument). This often seems to relax those who may be worried about appearing silly - no matter what they do after that, they could not possibly appear any sillier than me!

Some people seem to respond best as part of the group - they will do things while other people are playing that they would not do by themselves. As they get comfortable responding freely as part of the group, I gradually put them more in the spotlight, until they feel as comfortable with the attention focused on them...

Some people respond to emotion. If I can get them focused on intensely feeling a particular emotion (either one that seems very familiar to them, or whatever emotion it is they are feeling that moment), then say "Now - play that!", they will make spontaneous sounds.

Some people respond to the idea that no matter how hard they try, they cannot disguise themselves - that how they really feel will come through one way or another. This approach works best when someone makes an accidental or unintended sound that is obviously expressive of how they actually are feeling - I bring it to their attention, and use it as a "way in" - by having them repeat and exaggerate the thing they just did. Sometimes, just the knowledge that that little weird accidental thing they did was totally expressive and made sense is enough to help them relax and begin to play more freely.

Some people I can unblock by unblocking their bodies. Sometimes you can see how the way they are holding themselves physically is a way of blocking themselves. I point this out, talking about how we improvise music with our whole selves, not just with our mouths and hands and instruments. Then I demonstrate it on them in various ways - sometimes having them exaggerate their habitual pose and play from that place, sometimes encouraging a different pose, sometimes directing their attention to various things with actual touch (making sure to get permission before doing this!!) while they are playing.

Mostly though, all it takes is my sincere and dramatic attention to them, what they are doing, and what it feels like when they do it, along with a heartfelt understanding that we are all here, doing it together. This is a chance to really, truly be ourselves, with no filters, and what we all want is to experience is an revelation of real self, expressed in sound. I can feel and hear the difference between when they are improvising something that's real to them, and when they are just playing stuff on their instrument, and with a little attention those that have difficulty with the concept learn to understand and appreciate the difference as well.

Finding the Way In: Part I

Here are some excerpts from an e-mail conversation with an esteemed colleague of mine, Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen, about some of the ideas and exercises in my book. Carl is a composer, music coach, musicologist, and music therapist based in Denmark. His wonderful website, chock full of insights and information about improvisation, can be found at:

Carl: It's interesting how you describe your basic point of departure as being silent first and listen both outwards and inwards. Very close to what I do, but interesting to see this formulated as a general advice. Did any of your students etc. ever comment on this instruction?

Tom: As you say, it is a basic point of departure, and it is a good way to start for most people. Being silent and directing their awareness inwards allows them the opportunity to experience their initial creative impulse, and the improvisation exercises give them a safe framework in which to express it. I have found people experience this impulse in many different ways, some can "listen" and hear it, some "see" it, some experience it as a feeling, or as a impulse to movement.

For others, being silent is not the best initial method. These people may respond better to other instructions. Almost always, once they have experienced even one conscious moment of freely expressing a creative impulse, they are able and willing to duplicate and build on that experience. Establishing a safe group environment is essential. Having an experienced teacher (who understands when they are blocking their free expression, and who knows different methods they can use try to get around that blocking) is very useful.

In my theory, everyone already knows how to improvise. For some, it may feel like a huge step to connect that understanding to improvising sounds together, but creating sound is actually a very natural way to express oneself, and everyone already does it, to some degree, every day. For people that have difficulty making that step, I spend time with them one on one, trying different things to guide them to a recognition of what that experience feels like to them. Once they have that ""Aha" moment of recognition, it becomes much easier.