Monday, October 24, 2011

Halloween: A Group Improvisation

When I got invited to play with Club d’Elf, one of my favorite bands, for a Halloween gig this Friday, I noticed I was extra excited about it, and it got me to wondering...

Even though Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and nothing is more fun than playing a Halloween show, it didn’t really seem to completely explain my excitement.  And why do I love Halloween so much, anyways?

Then it hit me.  Halloween is the biggest and most creative group improvisation that our culture allows!  Halloween creates an improvisatory structure that allows everyone to play together, improvising being anything they want.  Group improv on a grand scale!  It seems so obvious I’m surprised I never thought of it that way before (must be the influence of ImprovLive 365).  

But I guess that’s true of every holiday.  Holidays give people an improvisatory structure that enables them to create large scale group improvisations around certain culturally important ideas.  Whether you resonate to Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Years, (etc) or not, you gotta admit that’s a very cool idea.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

ImprovLive 365: Finding Connection Through Creativity

Besides my belief in the usefulness of improvisation in all the arts and in our daily lives (which I’ve talked about a lot in this blog), I’ve become more and more convinced that one of the most important ways that we connect as fellow humans, no matter where we live or what we are doing, is through improvisation and spontaneous creativity.
I know a lot of times musicians and artists, (especially those who work on the fringes of popular culture) feel like we are isolated on our own little islands of creativity.  I know a lot of times people who don’t self identify as artists feel disconnected from the idea of themselves as spontaneous creators.  I know there are lots and lots of people out there who love creating and making stuff up, and do it all the time, in all kinds of different ways.
But the truth is, despite all of our differences, despite what we do or how we think of ourselves, we are all connected by our need to spontaneously create our human culture and our lives together on this planet, every day, in every thing we do.  This is an individual creation, but it is also a group improvisation.  Becoming better at improvising, at spontaneously creating solutions to the challenges life gives us, enriches and enhances both our individual lives and our society as a whole.  
I believe this so strongly that I’ve decided to spend the next year of my life producing ImprovLive 365, a daily web series dedicated to exploring, documenting and sharing the spontaneous creativity of life.  It’s about all of us, and how we use improvisation and spontaneous creativity in our lives. It’s a way to connect the dots and see how we are all in this grand improvisation together.

I’ve created an IndieGoGo crowd funding campaign to raise some funds and help get ImprovLive 365 off the ground. So please, check out my IndieGoGo page, and help me spread the word about this exciting new project!  

Monday, October 3, 2011

Coming Soon - ImprovLive 365

I loving making up and playing melodies, but I only write them down if I really have to.  I love figuring out stuff about creativity and improvisation, and sharing it, but I'm not that crazy about writing that down either.  I only do it, because that's a way to share it with all of you.

I guess that's part of why I'm an improviser.   What really gets me going is real-time interaction - sharing and creating and understanding things with other people.

So I'm really excited about my new project, ImprovLive 365, a daily web series dedicated to exploring, documenting and sharing the spontaneous creativity of life.  This is just a teaser, to let you know I'm working on it, and you're going to hear all about it soon!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Improvisation is improvisation is improvisation..

Ok, I’ll stop repeating it, but it’s true.  I've been thinking about this since I read about a recent scientific study that was attempting to quantify how being a classical musician changed the brain and it’s functioning.  This article about it gives inks to the abstract and to the summary

I was particularly excited by one phrase in the abstract, that said “these findings are interpreted in light of a Unified Theory of Performance, which posits that effectiveness in any area is influenced by one’s level of mind-brain development... with higher mind-brain development supporting greater effectiveness in any domain.”   
A little research later, I figured out that there are many wildly different competing “universal theories” of brain functioning and consciousness.  And as much as everybody loves to hear about studies that show a measurable intrinsic value to music, there doesn’t appear to be all that much to sink your teeth into here.  And besides, I tend to get a bit itchy when somebody starts talking about “higher-brain" development, particularly when they are studying classical music, or are from the Maharishi Institute (as is one of the authors of this study).

But the idea of a Unified Theory of Performance stuck with me.   It just seemed to resonate somehow, and I realized that I have always operated from a Universal Theory of Improvisation: Improvisation is improvisation is improvisation...
That’s why I get annoyed at the divisions between people who play different styles of improvised music;  at the pretension that there’s all that much difference between playing a blues, or jamming on a killer groove, or playing Stella, or playing free.  Yes, I know, the boundaries that we are improvising within are different - that’s obvious.  But the process of improvisation is the same, and the sooner we all recognize this the sooner we can start really exploring and understanding improvisation itself, apart from whatever genre of music we play.  
The Universal Theory of Improvisation says: Improvisation is improvisation is improvisation, and whatever you learn about it supports greater effectiveness in any improvisation that you undertake. 
I've always felt this is true, and my experience teaching improvisation ensembles bears it out. Students in my improv classes often say that learning to improvise music together affects not just the quality of their music making, it’s a transformative experience that enhances all the improvisations in their life.  

Let's share that experience with as many people as possible!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Why Not Dance?

A few weeks ago, I was playing a gig with Your Neighborhood Saxophone Quartet.  We were playing outside, at the SOWA art galleries in South Boston.  People would wander by, listen as much as they liked, then move on.  One woman had a four year old girl, and a baby. She said they heard us through their window and had come to find the music.  The girl was dressed in a pink tutu-ish outfit. She listened for a moment, then started dancing, and as long as we played, she danced.  No matter what kind of music we played, she danced.  In or out, grooving or textural, we played and she danced, until the baby started crying, and, very reluctantly, she had to leave.  

Awhile later, two little boys came, and they laughed, and danced.  And I started to wonder, what happens to us?  How is it that we all start out as children who freely dance and sing and cry and laugh, and then we stop.  Something happens, we internalize a voice that tells us to behave, to be still, to be quiet.  To listen, and afterwards, clap.
I wish we could all dance, as freely and joyously as the girl in the pink tutu.   That’s really why I do what I do.   

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Old questions, new again

This blog has been sorely neglected for the past month or so – too many gigs to play, and grants to write!  But now I’m back, and I promise to be here regularly for the next cycle (and yes, to get to compiling that list of improvisation related links I’ve been promising!).
I was on a panel during Jazz Week in Boston, called On the Edge: Exploring the Creative Music Scene with Dave Bryant, John Kordalewski, and Neil Leonard.  I did a short lecture and audience participation session about improvisation.  Afterwards, I was taking questions, and someone asked me “How do I practice getting better at Improvisation, not improvising on my instrument, but improvisation itself.”
I didn’t have a very good answer to that question.  Thinking about it, and talking about it with other improvisers created other questions (which I also don’t have good answers for) and it all kind of cascaded into a wonderful confirmation of the direction my inquiries about improvisation have been and should be heading.  What a gift! 
I know the process of improvisation is engaged whenever we create something, but what is that process?  How do we engage it?  What about it stays the same, no matter what we are creating?  What changes?  What are the core principles, and how can one communicate them to others in a way that facilitates their personal connection to improvisational creativity, no matter what it is they are doing? 
Book number two in there somewhere, but there’s lots of research and cross discipline improv work to be done before then!  I’ll keep you posted...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Not alone Part 2

While I was writing my last blog “We Are Not Alone” there was still a tiny voice inside,  whispering that I was overstating my case, (and rationalizing that the overstatement was for a good cause).  After a couple of weeks of google searches and link clicking, that voice has been stilled.  The Age of Improvisation is well underway.  Not only are we not alone, it's getting positively crowded out here in the improv universe.  

I was going to write a quick series of blogs about how people are researching, writing about, talking about, exploring, and practicing improvisation, with lots of examples, but I have found out I was hopelessly optimistic. There is SO MUCH out there that it’s not going to be quick.  But I promise you I will keep doing it, and sharing what I find with you in the links section of my website, and on this blog.
I love seeing all these people doing research into every little aspect of improvisation.  I love reading about all the different ways people are thinking about improvisation and researching it.  A mere 30 years ago, I could hardly get anyone to talk to me seriously about improvisation as a subject of practice and serious study, so every one of these papers and research projects seems precious, and I find myself wishing I could be involved with each one.
But the fact is, I’m a nuts and bolts kind of researcher, a get your hands dirty improviser, and I really belong on the front lines, where people are actively improvising and figuring out how to improvise.  My book is not called “A Practical Guide” for nothing.  My real love and talent is in figuring out how all this academic stuff translates into real world improvising, and how to communicate that knowledge and insight with other improvisers, in language we can all use and understand.
Just to give you a taste of how much improv stuff is out there, here’s a quick couple of links - much more to come!

If you're looking for written materials, here's a good place to start - Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen’s  annotated bibliography of  Experimental  Improvisation Practice and Notation references over 650 writings from 1949 to the present.

 Wanta play Games?  The Improv Encyclopedia has tons of neatly categorized games from the improv comedy realm.

How about improvisation as "a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action"? See the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice research project.

Scientists are researching how improvisation effects the brain. See a fun Ted Talk about the study called  "Your Brain on Improv", or read  the full research article Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance

Improvisation is truly everywhere. I've seen articles, blogs, and books on improvisation from the viewpoint of business and business management, therapies of all kinds, engineering, the practice of law, decorating, philosophy, cooking, and just plain living a better and happier life.

Along with my usual musings and articles about group improvisation, I'll be sharing some of my favorites with you in coming blog postings!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We Are Not Alone

Improvising musicians often think of themselves as a lonely, unpopular, and misunderstood minority, who have little hope of ever being understood and appreciated.  We each sit on our own little creative island, bemoaning our fate as cultural castaways.  

At one time, there may have been some truth to this attitude, but now it couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are now at the point where improvisers need to acknowledge that we are no longer on the fringes of society. We are smack dab in the middle of it.  

For the first time since the invention of the printing press, the way we acquire and transmit information and knowledge has fundamentally changed, and this has sparked a fundamental change in the way that people process and utilize information.  As a result, people everywhere are turning to improvisation as a vital and inescapable part of the answer to the questions posed by digital media and information technology.   We are entering the Age of Improvisation.

What does that mean for us improvising musicians?  It means we have to stop thinking about what we do as some weird thing that nobody except for the other people who do this same kind of weird thing are interested in.  It means that there is longer any excuse for pretending what we do is exclusive, and every reason to make what we do as inclusive as we can – to welcome and encourage everyone to take an interest in and to participate in this glorious process of improvisation.  It means we have to accept that we are the repositories of a vast amount of knowledge about the process of improvisation, knowledge that is direly needed and sought by many people.

Over the next month, I'll be writing about some of the many ways that improvisation is being used, and places where talk about improvisation is showing up.  I'll be adding links to my webpage, and a blogroll of improvisational allies.  It's all connecting up, and improvisation is at the heart of it. 

We are not alone.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Free Improvisation is dead! Long live Free Improvisation!

I think free improvisation is the best thing to call what I play, practice, and teach - has been my website for over 10 years.  To me, free improvisation simply means that I am free at any moment to play whatever and however I want.   

I know free improvisation is really, really fun - both for the people improvising the music, and the people improvising the audience.  I truly believe it's something that everyone does and intuitively understands.  But unfortunately, to the general public the phrase has come to basically mean "deliberately unpleasant sounding and/or boring music".  

I want to invite you to join me in reclaiming free improvisation, in re-branding it, so that when people hear the phrase they assume the music and the event surrounding it will be interesting, intriguing, beautiful, fun, enjoyable, stimulating - name your positive adjective!  To that end, I will continue to:

Create events that are beautiful and special, even if that means using more resources on less events throughout the year.

Give my audience the respect they deserve, as fellow improvisers of the event.  Pay attention to them, and perform in a way that invites them to understand and love what I am doing.  

Make music that goes beyond the traditional boundaries of free improvisation as a genre - music that embraces more musical and improvisational possibilities.

Communicate with improvisers from other mediums, learn from each other, and share audiences.

Take improvisation to schools, businesses, and communities, to give everyone an opportunity to appreciate and experience how, as my favorite quote by Mr. Rogers so simply and profoundly says:

"It just feels good to be alive, when you're playing and making up things".