Guest post by Alexandra Westcott
There is no judgement, only permission
So said I, in a lesson to a student about improvising. And it got me thinking.
I wasn’t taught to improvise. I don’t even think it existed back in the day I started learning. It hasn’t been something that has come naturally to me either, even though when I started teaching, my prime motive was to get people exploring the piano! (It became apparent very quickly that I was a normal teacher, with the usual things to teach, so that’s what I did, and do). However, I’ve always used creative ways to explain and explore ideas with my students, including improvising with them; with little ones as a way of exploring and discovering the instrument, and later as a way for students to get to know their scales and chords. For myself, since learning jazz I’m more and more enjoying playing standards, altering as many chords as I can get away with, and noodling different melodies over them without even recourse to the original head.
Due to the coronavirus this year things have changed again and I have found myself more and more encouraging my students to improvise, in all manner of ways (free/jazz/structured/etc). It has been so hard for everyone to concentrate, including me, that improvising has been a way into the music without necessitating the use of the brain. Plus, having lessons online has encouraged us all to be more creative, both in how we teach and what we teach.
Over the lockdown I found myself needing music for my students that was attractive but fairly immediate; pieces that didn’t need much, if any, ‘work’, and it was after playing one of these one day I suggested that the student took the piece as a ‘prompt’ and improvised her own piece based on the ideas of music we had just played. I stressed that these ideas were merely a starting block; she could use the same ideas, but also not. She loved it, and I’ve been doing the same with all my students since. A lot of contemporary music is based on repetitive ideas but is attractive none the less, and it has been useful to point out that just because something isn’t complex, it isn’t attractive. In a lesson we take an idea, or motif, or chord sequence, and use it to improvise, but if things develop differently then so be it. In fact, excellent. We’ve also used chords from Chopin, or jazz chords over which to improvise. Or used photos as a prompt. The main point about whatever is playing being there is no wrong, there is only permission. I think some might call it a ‘big yes’.
I have always also used ‘free’ improvising in my lessons, whether with very young children to make up duets describing a thunderstorm, or with more advanced students. If one wants to explore a new technique or new way of playing, much better not to have to concern oneself with notes, it leaves concentration for the ‘how’. I was also curious when hearing a contemporary piece on the radio recently; it sounded just like something I might have improvised! I personally didn’t like it; I think random, or intellectually written music (like 12 tone etc from 100 years ago) has had limited shelf-life and popularity because it is literally not connected to us (scales are a natural phenomenon, not man made), but if I am improvising, it isn’t permanent, and neither does anyone else have to listen to it, so it doesn’t matter if I don’t like hearing it if I like playing it.
Improvising is instant and also brings us into and keeps us entirely in the present (something much needed right now when everything around us is uncertain and unsettling). We can explore ideas, and express ourselves through the colours and sounds of the piano and our physicality with the instrument. But only if we withhold judgement and criticism of the result. Our music is concerned entirely with how we feel, physically and emotionally. I love how I relate physically to the piano (what I mean is I literally love the physical needs and movements it takes to play it. Conversely I hated playing the flute – too much breathing!) and sometimes I want to play fast – playing fast improvising doesn’t have to depend on knowing, or being able to play the right notes! Just play. Equally, sometimes I want to play slow, still clusters and melodies, or at other times loud, full toned chords and clusters. Sometimes lots of pedal, or sometimes no pedal but quiet, delicate pizzicato like notes. We can express our full selves at the piano without knowing a note of music. And this is one of the most wonderful things about the piano; it suits, along to be played. The sounds are within and yet immediately available to the merest touch.
Personally I will never stop playing Chopin and Debussy, or jazz standards; my musical tastes are pretty conventional. But the world of the piano is huge and so much more is available to us if we allow it, even if we ‘know’ very little. All it takes is no judgement, and full permission to explore it.
Alexandra Westcott, BA, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London.