Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Training vs The Universe

Switch off.

Sometimes I work to learn how to play a song. Perhaps a real song that I'm trying to copy, or perhaps something that I've composed and want to get just right. First you need the discipline to work out the music. (Geez, that would be easier if I could read music.) Next you get the fingering right, and work out how to repeat it. Then you play it as many times as necessary to really concrete the song in your head and in your muscle memory.

It's been a while since I've had to learn a song for a cover band, but learning so you can integrate with others adds an extra layer of complexity. First you learn your part, then everyone gets together and you try to gel your individual parts. It should be easy, it really should, but it can take a fair amount of effort and negotiation to integrate those pieces together.

Then you're performing - and until that song is really committed to muscle memory, you need to concentrate. Really think.

I find impro to be quite the opposite. Whether underscoring a scene or providing accompaniment, you're not using the same part of your brain. You're not reproducing a piece that you rehearsed earlier. You're completely in the moment, cooking up something brand new based on what is going on around you. (Well, perhaps you are reusing well known chord progressions. That's just music.)

When you're improvising music, you have lots of freedom to create what you want. You can't make a mistake, and no one is ever going to hear it again anyway. If you're integrating with others, you're all putting it together on the spot.

I've started to wonder what the real source of creative impro brain energy is.

Is it training?

You know how you can drive somewhere, get there, and realise that you weren't really concentrating the whole way? You were speeding up and slowing down and indicating and turning and negotiating with other cars... but without having to concentrate. What happened before, what happens next... they're not important. You're just in the moment, driving. It just becomes second nature once you've been driving for a while.

I guess you could say this is the product of training. You practice your skills, over and over, until you can call on them without thinking. Second nature.

By day I'm a development manager at a local software company. (And by night - the masked avenger, bringing order to chaos on the mean streets of Brisbane city. OK, maybe not.) I had a few days of project management training last week, and the instructor told us a story from his military days. Back in his youth, after several weeks of intense paratrooper training with his company, he and the boys had a night out on the town. After a few tasty beverages in pub #1, they journeyed on to pub #2 on one of those old London buses with the landing at the back. My instructor went to the back of the bus, hung out over the back railing, and pretended that he was going to jump, paratrooper style. Ha ha, very funny. Then one of his friends shouted "GOGOGO!!" and his training kicked in - he leapt from the moving bus and landed on the road. OK, so, maybe not the best application of training, but it illustrates the point: he was trained so he didn't have to think about what to do, he just did it. He reacted without conscious thought. Extremely important in the military.

Is that what you're doing when you do some good impro? Calling on your training? Or...

Is it the universe?

This is going to sound pretty lame, but... I'm starting to come around to the idea that a really great impro performance sort of comes from the universe rather than the performer. The performer stops thinking, commits to being in the moment, and they open up a conduit to... something... and out comes brilliance. I have stage-improvising friends that have observed that sort of phenomenon, that the stuff just seems to come out without a whole lot of direction from them. I suspect this is just as much the case with music; listening back to gigs, I swear up and down that I could never have put that progression together or played that particular thing, but there it is in all its 128kbps glory.

The Zenprov podcast frequently touches on this sort of idea, that a performer can tap in to a source of brilliance external to themselves.

What do you think?

When you're at your improvising peak, is the universe calling the shots? Or do you think "the universe" is just code for "the subconscious"? Since you know your craft and have built up those mental pathways to speed it along, is your brain just handling it the same way it handles driving somewhere? Or have you surrendered control to something else?

Photo by zen

1 comment:

The Wah said...

I believe that a good improviser hones their skills so as to be able to find the best situation in any random scene. An impro scene is a slew of variables. It is impossible for any performer to take all these mercurial variables into account. You have to go with the flow. But sometimes the variables fall into a pattern the performer recognises, either from past impro scenes or drawing from outside knowledges and interests. Then, if they are talented and skilled enough, they draw those disparate elements into a surprising and cohesive whole. This is when the audience gets the "WHOA! How did they know what to do then? IT MUST BE SCRIPTED" feeling.
In short, I think a good improviser use their training and life experiences to realise the maximum potential of random, unknowable situations.

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