My First Experience with Free Improvisation
I recently started studying Jazz in Lucerne after having spent over four years on Cruise Ships performing mainly pop music. I knew it was going to be a musical shock and I had mentally prepared myself for the change. I didn’t expect what the very first day of school would bring though.
I remember I was in Cozumel, Mexico, already a few beers in, when I had to do my inscriptions for University. I had to choose between different classes, some of them mandatory and some of them optional. I didn’t really understand what I was doing as I never bothered reading the instructions. One of the many classes they offered was called “Rainbow Nation” and I thought this was going to be a class about Reggae music, its history etc. Having just watched a documentary about Bob Marley I thought; “Cool, I might as well learn something more about that music.“
I obviously never read the description of the class, neither did I have any idea what I was doing as I just wanted to get this process over with and go to the beach with friends. It was a super hot day and accordingly the beer consumption had to adjust.
Fast forward to the first day of school. My very first class was Rainbow Nation. I had no clue what I had to bring with me for the class, luckily I had my stick bag with me. Turns out it was a band workshop for South African Jazz! Haha, awesome! Also, I was the only one from the first semester, so I was really intimidated by the other musicians.
None of us had an idea what we were going to play until the teacher played the song. I just heard a really confusing unison rhythm and then NOISE. At first I was trying to count beats, keep time and try to find motifs. But nothing, turns out it was all freely improvised. Now, I’ve heard of this music before (Free Jazz) and I’ve heard one or two tunes, but I never made it to the end of those songs as I got annoyed or bored before the songs were over.
I was expected to improvise freely, me a first semester who’s never played any freely improvised music with seven experienced music students who improvise on a daily basis. Well, I didn’t do well. But everybody was super nice about it. It’s not that I played wrong parts but you could hear that I’ve never attempted to play that kind of music before.
The teacher gave me advice on how to practice free improvisation by myself. He told me to play everything I never play. He told me to set a timer to 10 minutes and just start playing. But to not play time, no rudiments, no backbeat etc. He told me that developing a sense of time is very important. That’s why the first few weeks I should practice to a timer set to ten minutes, then maybe one to 15 and then to one set to five etc. I can tell you, ten minutes of playing everything you don’t usually play feels really long. The first time I practiced this way I felt like I was done after two minutes!
I’m currently enrolled in an additional free improvisation course and am learning a lot there as well. In a the next few posts I will update what kind of exercises we’re doing, why free improvisation might be good for you even if you don’t enjoy the music.