Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Close Your Eyes

One of the most significant skills you have as an improv musician is being able to compose music on the fly in your mind, often in response to the happenings on stage, and realise that music through your hands and your instrument. All improv musicians will have cultivated this skill – without it, you aren't doing the job. Discussions on this skill come up very frequently in this blog.

I've found a technique that helps me with this is to practice with my eyes closed. I'll sit at the piano, close my eyes, centre myself, then put my hands on the keys and start playing. Sometimes I'll play real songs to see how well I can translate them blindly. On the flip side, I do find just sitting and improvising pieces to be tremendously satisfying, and I like the extra challenge from composing eyes-closed.

When you're improvising. this blind playing can provide unexpected catalysts for the music. You don't know where your hands are going to fall; you might start on something wonderful and strong, or something unsettling and discordant. There are no mistakes here – don't say "Oh, wait" and start again. Use it and build something out of it! You're creating music, and you should take the universe's suggestions (aka 'accidents') on board and use them to build and extend your composition.

Perhaps this activity is beneficial because it makes you focus, to really concentrate on the music and nothing else. Part of it is just getting familiar with keys and scales, learning to visualise where your hands are falling. This is the sort of familiarity with your instrument that you really want to cultivate.

Unfortunately, it means you are even more likely to play air-piano when you're walking along or driving, so apologise to your friends/passengers now for the stupid looking gestures you will be making.

One unexpected benefit I've found is that I can play in pitch black now when required. In our long-form shows we will usually go lights down in between scenes. Often the music wants to continue in the darkness to segue in to the next scene; if we are doing a directed show, there might be a voiceover to cue the next scene. Perhaps one scene ends with a bitter confrontation between two powerful characters, the lights go down, the VO indicates the next scene is with a lone, despairing gentle character. That offer specifically directs the music to change, and the change happens in the dark. I've found I'm often able to take the music from the old scene, find a resolution to close it, key change or otherwise morph, and begin something new to suit the direction coming from the VO. By the time the lights come up, I'm playing something different, and (most importantly) hopefully providing a nice platform for the emotional character of the next scene.

I know the idea of closing your eyes and playing sounds like a strange exercise to try, but have a crack at it!

(Next crazy thing I want to try: Composing without headphones or monitors so I can't hear what I'm playing at the time, and recording it so I can listen back to it. My expectations are low. I'll let you know how it goes :) )


Photo by e m ♥ i l y. Written by .

1 comment:

Dan Beeston said...

I close my eyes and I accidentally play the keyboards instead of the guitar.

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