Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Improvisation Master Class: Letting Judgment Go

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Laura's Note:  Today, I'm pleased to welcome Doug Hanvey to The Piano Studio as a guest blogger. Doug is a pianist, piano teacher, improvisor, composer, and author who blogs about piano teaching at Portland Piano Lab. I've already  had the opportunity to put some of these suggestions to use in my studio, with successful results! Thanks for sharing these tips with us, Doug!

If you're a classically-trained piano teacher who is new to teaching improvisation, you may benefit by becoming aware of and letting go of the fears and judgments you have around playing music that sounds unpolished or "mistake-filled." If the previous sentence resonates with you, it's probably because you've been programmed for musical perfection. Are you ready to let go of some of that programming?

Improvising demands that we let go into the musical moment. This is actually no different than when we are performing a composed piece. The best performances of composed music, after all, happen when we are so caught up in the musical moment that we are in the state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow."

All classical pianists have experienced flow as well as a lack of it when self-consciousness or self-judgment pop in for a visit.

Before considering how to better teach improv, perhaps we should first become aware of anything that disrupts the flow of our own musical creativity. If we are burdened by fears and judgments that keep us from falling into the creative musical moment, it will be harder for our students to trust their own sense of flow. Try the following:


Explore Your Judgments About Improvising

Ask yourself:  How do I negatively judge my own improvising skills? Do these judgments interfere with the process of improvising? (If you find a stressful judgment like "I'm no good at improv – why do I think I can teach it to my students?" ask yourself if you can absolutely know that this thought is true. I like to use Byron Katie's four questions for dissolving stressful or limiting judgments.)


Explore Your Emotional Reactions to Improvising

Feel into your raw emotional experience as you improvise. (A good way to check in with your emotions is by bringing awareness to the body.) Is there anxiety? Outright fear? Whatever emotion you find, open a space for it and allow it to be. This is more powerful and liberating than judging an emotion or repressing it.

The more we bring awareness to our judgments and fears, the less power they have over us. Our personal experience of spontaneous musical creativity will be enriched and our confidence and willingness to be musically imperfect – essential for true musical flow – will increase.


Practical Tips for Teaching Improvisation

When you begin to teach improvisation in piano lessons, you may notice yourself critiquing your students in unconstructive ways. After all, while a given improvisation may be musically better or worse, it can't be changed or corrected like a composed piece. There are no mistakes in improv!

To help new student improvisers avoid self-consciousness it is better to err on the side of too much praise. While you don't want to offer empty platitudes, giving specific positive feedback about what you liked can empower students and give them a deeper understanding of the magic of improvisation.

To help students develop as improvisers without a verbally corrective approach, demonstrate instead. (The greatest jazz improvisers learn by listening to and mimicking the previous greats.) Tell your student that you will improvise for a minute or two while they listen intently. Then they will continue, and so on, back and forth. To make this even more effective, learn at least a few principles of improvisation that even beginners can use to sound "better" and develop more musical confidence. Here are three principles that are an essential element of effective improvising (and for that matter, composed music too):

Repetition: The use of repetition can be as simple as repeating single notes, or a two or three note melodic or rhythmic pattern.

Phrasing: Just as singers sing a phrase and then breathe, improvising pianists can learn to play a phrase and then "breathe."

Singing: A player's improvising skills can take a quantum leap when they tune in to the "inner improviser" and begin singing while playing – just as many of the great jazz improvisers do (some under the breath, a few quite perceptibly!). The ear and voice guide what the fingers play. Then the music truly begins to come from within.

By challenging yourself to go beyond your own fears and judgments, and by applying a few essential principles of improvisation, you can take your teaching of improvisation to the next level, while enjoying it more!

Doug Hanvey's Piano Lab Blog, hosted on his Portland Piano Lab website, provides tips for teachers on improvisation and other aspects of piano pedagogy.

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