Thursday, September 23, 2010

Improvisation and Form Part 3: Memory

The second important skill for creating form in improvisation is memory.  Except for through composed improvisation (ABCD, etc.), every form involves returning to something that was played previously in the improvisation.  But in order to return to something, you have to remember it.  You have to remember what you played, what the other people you are improvising with played, and the relation between the two.  Awareness exercises like those in Part 2 help you be more aware of what is going on while you are improvising.  Now how do you remember it, so you can use it again later?

Remembering what is played during an improvisation does not come naturally, because the kind of present moment consciousness so vital to improvising stores what we are doing in short term memory.  This memory is what allows us to create continuity in our moment to moment existence, to remember the beginning of a sentence by the time we get to the end.  But it only stores information for a short time.  Unless something happens to transfer the information to longer term memory it is quickly discarded to make room for new information.

Everyone has to figure out for themselves the best way to make that transfer, how best to tell the brain to mark a musical event for longer term memory storage.  This involves not only memory of the music that happened and how it sounded, but also muscle memory of what you were doing and how you were doing it.  It is a learned skill set, and the only way to learn it is by doing it. 

You can practice remembering with any simple improvisational exercise, as long as part of your intention is to remember what has been played.  Here’s a few, off the top of my head, to get you started.  Although you can do these exercises with melodies made up of notes, you can also use any group of sounds as the “melody”

Improvise a simple melody.  Stop.  Now play it again.

Once you can do that easily, try this:

Improvise a melody.
Continue improvising, using the material of the original melody as the source material for your improvisation.
Play the original melody again.

Once you can do that easily, try doing it with other people.

One person improvises a simple melody, while the others provide accompaniment.  Stop.  How many people in the group can remember and play the original melody?

One person improvises a simple melody, while the others provide accompaniment.  Pass the melody around the group.  Play it with all different kinds of accompaniment, in all kinds of variations. After improvising with it, play it again.  

The simpler and clearer the intentions of the group are, the easier it will be to remember.  The more the group has worked on understanding and naming the relationships that occur in improvised music (but that’s a different subject, for another day!) the easier it will be to remember.  The more you have practiced remembering, the easier it will be to remember.  After awhile, it will become a habit to recognize the parts of the improvisation that may be useful in creating longer forms, and to remember them.

Once you have gained some individual and group facility in remembering, then you can start applying that skill to spontaneous group composition, which will be the subject of Part 4.


  1. Awesome. I will have to try these exercises. Are these in the book?

  2. Hi Darren,
    There are a number of different exercises in the book that are good for practice in remembering, but these specific exercises I just made up for this blog!