"Creativity takes courage."
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ~Lao Tzu
Letting go. As a recovering perfectionist I find this particularly difficult. For the longest time I thought that Making Music was the same as Playing the Right Notes. But I’ve learned that living with the fear of being wrong or making a mistake will shut down creativity faster than just about anything. What continues to liberate me from that mindset is improvisation. In classical music improvisation there are no wrong notes. Or right ones. Just Music.
My first musical improvisation experience was terrifying. In grad school, I was unexpectedly pulled into the middle of a master class to play for the guest artist only to discover that there was no music at the piano. As I sat on the piano bench waiting patiently for her to give me her music, she turned to me and said, “Play an intro please.” I whispered to her, “There is no music.” She turned to me and calmly repeated, “Play an intro please.” I could feel the audience staring at me so I played two quick C major chords and waited. She turned to me again and said, “Play another intro please.” Feeling completely inadequate, I started to play something that sounded terrible to me – wrong chords, disjointed phrases, no harmonic flow. Surprisingly, she began to improvise a dramatic aria. Hearing me struggle, my teacher came up behind me whispered, “Play something pointillistic.” In my panicked state, that meant “play a lot of single notes around the keys and it didn’t matter if they sounded good or not.” Her suggestion instantly freed me from my fear of making a mistake or sounding bad. The guest artist continued to sing away (beautifully) as I played my version of a pointillistic accompaniment until finally, mercifully, we ended to rousing applause.
It has been a long journey since that episode, but once I let go of my fear of being wrong, I began to discover “my voice” and improv has become a lifelong passion. My experience is not unusual either. In the final wrap-up of OperaWorks’ Advanced Artist Program last week, a number of the singers admitted they were initially afraid of my improv classes. But once they pushed past the fear and tried it, they said they felt an exhilarating freedom, and that improv was actually fun! You can hear some improvisations from an OperaWorks class here.
What always amazes me is the musical and dramatic sophistication of improvised scenes that singers are capable of creating spontaneously. They sing notes that, if printed on the page, would take several months to work into their voices. Yet, in the spur of the moment, they are able to soar to extreme heights with clear, perfectly placed tones. They sing phrases that are shaped and caressed – spontaneously. And texts that are poetic, imagistic, and powerfully deep – spontaneously. And if that were not enough, their bodies, faces and voices unite in uncanny dramatic performances.
What excites me about these improvisations is that no coach, teacher or director - no matter how fabulous - can coach these kinds of performances. There are too many details, too much subtlety, and too much of each individual’s own heart in these remarkable pieces. Even if they were written down and coached, it wouldn’t be as rich as what singers are able to do instinctively. Instinctively. It’s already there inside of them. The impulses, the passions, the vulnerabilities, the courage. Improvisation opens the door for us to discover our own music. There’s no other feeling like it!