Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Improvisation season

Does the Christmas season ever feel just thrown together to you?

Obviously there are the pageants. Not enough practice because the kids didn't show up half the time and don't really know what they're doing; also, many of them are too young to be able to do anything but just look dumbfounded and cute. Is it surprising that our species continues to survive? That sheep did look really adorable, though. And the kids did more or less know how to sing their songs this year.

The concerts are often the same way. While leaving the rest of the year to professionals, at Christmas everybody has to get in on the act, and God bless them all, but amateurs frequently don't seem to be much for preparation. They don't think the professionals need any practice, so why should they? If only they knew.

I don't mean to sound like a grinch. We're all busy, overbooked, overloaded, and under-prepared this time of year, and that includes those of us who do this for a living. The difference, besides knowing how to prepare when it is at all possible to do so, being that some of us have gotten better at being able to fly by the seat of our pants and not make that too obvious.

What I'm getting at is that improvisation is not simply an art, with a long, serious, tradition. It is not simply a way to stupefy people into admiration of where all that music just suddenly came from. It is a survival skill. Being able to sit at an instrument and suddenly create music with no preparation whatsoever because it is suddenly required of you or you had no time to practice--is a real gift. But like any gift, you have to purchase it first. That takes time.

Over the last several Christmases I've actually managed to play a lot of written out repertoire. This usually works because I practice it in the summer. The recordings I post during Advent were most likely made in July.

But I still improvise during December. For a start, it is very difficult to find time to capture a creative impulse if you have to find the time to put it all on paper. I still have a few pages around here somewhere with only two measures of music on them--ideas I had for settings of Christmas carols that I tried to write down while I was walking down the hall to the next service or rehearsal. That's as far as they got. So a recorded improvisation, while it may be crude, can be a good start on something I'll write down later. And if I was having a good day, I may be able to simply write what I hear without editing anything.

There are other good reasons for the match of December with improvisations. Beside the high demand for a lot of music for a number of different occasions, even before those demands materialized in my life, I improvised, even as a teenager. I've been doing it now for a long time--for a while, every year I would make a series of improvised arrangements of carols. The first year was 1987, the year my grandmother died (see Dec. 7 blog). For some reason, Christmas seems like a portal in time from year to year as I reflect on Christmases past and present, and ponder mankind's uncertain future. Dickens' ghosts need something to do, after all.

And improvisation in general is a good way to truly connect with musical art. It is a way to THINK musically; to try ideas, and to digest the musical universe swirling around you, to put some of it into your own words, to converse in music. And you can connect in the moment to what is happening, musically and otherwise, all around you. There are a hundred good reasons for doing it. I'll be sharing some of them next semester as we dive into the subject and swim around. Just remember, no musical gift exists in a vacuum. Improvisation  isn't just about improvisation. It is about (and requires, and strengthens) a number of other musical gifts. We'll get into that, too. For now, I leave you with a tiny example of the sort of thing I might do at a Christmas party, or a Christmas service, or a Christmas concert. It's a short improvisation on the carol "Go, Tell it on the Mountain." It was right after lunch, I was tired, less than ambitious, but still this very contained, simple setting has something interesting about it. And it's not like the way I've ever played it before. Like any great story, there is something different about it each time you approach it. The same can be true of a musical source: a hymn, a tune, a folk song, a carol. What did it say today? Or last Friday? Or two weeks from now?

Have a Listen.

And if you're in a listening mood, the homepage at now has the annual Christmas program. Some two-and-a-half (?) hours or piano and organ music you can dial up anytime through January 7th. Enjoy! and Merry Christmas.

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