Like most drummers currently in their 20ies I grew up listening to pop, rock and electronic music. Composed music. Since I started studying music I got in touch with free improvisation. A playing style I was never really fond of until I realized what it could do for me as a musician.
It’s a conversation
It’s free. You can do whatever you want to and express yourself however you want to. It’s helpful to think of free improvisation as a conversation where you just started talking to each other without having decided what topics you’re going to talk about. And just like in a conversation you can; listen to the others, agree or disagree with them, encourage them to say what they feel, support them, interrupt them, steal or copy their ideas, think about and develop their ideas, being bored of the conversation and introduce a new topic etc.
Thinking of it as a conversation really helps. It’s always important to listen to the other musicians and to yourself. You can’t be actively involved in a conversation without knowing what the others or you yourself just said. Also, nobody wants to be in a conversation with somebody who only talks about his opinions and views and never let’s others talk.
Improving listening skills
In all styles of music listening to yourself and the others is a crucial part of the music making process. In some styles though that kind of listening is not as emphasized as in others. Just think of a pop production where everything’s timecoded, backing tracks are playing and the clicktrack is running. There’s still a ton of listening going on, because you still have to listen carefully and attentively to those elements. But because some of your attention is held there, only a part of your attention goes to listening to the other musicians. Also, in those situations not much interplay or improvisation are required.
In free improvisation there’s nothing that’s precomposed. Listening becomes the absolute only way to knowing what the others are doing. There’s no sheet music you can look at, no 12 bar blues form you can hold on to and most of the time there’s no time signature or even a tempo.
Now you can’t only listen, you also have to react to what you’ve just heard. Listening is a means to an end. The goal is to react to what you’ve just heard, adequately to your feeling. For every action there’s a reaction. Every reaction is an action. Caution though! A reaction (or action) doesn’t necessarily mean you have to play. Playing a break (or not playing) is also a statement, therefore it’s also an action (or reaction).
Reaction time is important. Quickly picking up what is happening and reacting to it quickly (doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change anything) is crucial to make music. A lot is involved in reacting: I need to pick up what’s happening and understand it, why did the other musician play this and where does he or she want to move the music, then I have to decide how I want to react to it and then I have to execute. This process can be optimized and can be practiced. Reacting to the music quickly and adequately play what you want to express is a crucial skill to all improvisational music.
Discover new techniques
Free improvisation is a great place to discover and apply new playing techniques. It’s amazing what a seemingly infinite variety of sounds each instrument has to offer. We usually stick to traditional playing techniques and perfect those. That’s awesome, but I encourage you to look at your instrument from different perspectives. Small tweaks and adjustments can change the sound of an instrument completely. You’ll get to know your instrument on a much deeper level.
Knowing some alternative techniques will expand your vocabulary on your instrument and therefore everything you express through the instrument will have a deeper meaning and more impactful statement. Let’s say you have a vocabulary of ten words and you have time to use five; deciding which ones you’re going to use is not that hard because you don’t have that many options; thus what you’re saying is limited and it doesn’t reflect accurately what you want to express. If you had 1’000 words to choose from you’d have to be much more careful which ones you use. Even if you used the same words as when you only had ten words to choose from, each word gets more meaning because there’s a lot more going into deciding which words you’re going to use.
As you can tell there's a lot going on in free improvisation. I think there's a lot to learn from this kind of music even if at first you might hate it. More posts on this topic are coming. Posts will include: Improvisation vs experimentation, Isn't it just noise, freedom & vulnerability.