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".


  1. I love the post. I play piano in a church. It's all about reading music and playing/singing just as it is. I am trying to have them sing a song with only giving them words to go by and create the harmony the way they want. I think it will be fun. Not really improv but a move in a different and more creative direction.

  2. anonymous: That does sound fun, and it's absolutely improv!! Don't sell it short - every time someone gets a chance to experience that delicious moment of spontaneously creating something is a precious moment, and you are giving people that opportunity!

  3. Hi Tom,

    "But unfortunately, to the general public the phrase has come to basically mean 'deliberately unpleasant sounding and/or boring music'."

    I'm curious about this general public. When I speak about musical free improvisation to the general public, in the vast majority of cases they have never heard of it and need me to explain what it is, and isn't. I'm curious what your experience is that leads you to the conclusions you've come to.

    Also I would love to hear you define some of your terms, for instance "the traditional boundaries of free improvisation as a genre." I'd like to know what you think those are.

    Many thanks,


  4. Hi Rueben,

    Thanks for reading, and especial thanks for commenting! My general public consists of people and musicians I know in the New England area who are not free music aficionados. Not a huge sample, but it's the public I got!

    Sounds like I'd rather have your general public - then I could play them the stuff I think is fun and great and that they would like, and tell them that's what free improv really is...

    By your special request, I've created the first five commandments for the traditionalist free improvisation:

    1) Thou shalt not groove (unless it's a groove no one can tap their foot to, like an extremely odd meter or extremely fast tempo).

    2) Thou shalt not play a singable melody (if melodies cannot be completely avoided, they must be complex enough that they are difficult to hear, understand, and/or remember).

    3) Thou shalt not repeat (either anything you have already played, or through imitation, anything your fellow improvisers have played).

    4) Thou shalt not be obvious (if you suspect the audience or your fellow musicians may be able to predict what you are going to do next, you must immediately act in such a way as to thwart their expectations).

    5) Thou shalt not improvise anything that sounds like another, more traditional style of music (unless you are doing this in order to comment on it through odd juxtapositions, distortions, or mutations).

    That was fun - thanks for the suggestion!
    Feel free to add your own!