When I make music, I like being intentional with my sound and having a clear idea of what to do when, and why.
Free improvisation turns all of that on its head, and it's glorious.
You start with not knowing what is going to happen, and end up with a piece that is created in real-time, as you perform it.
I first came into contact with this concept a couple of years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland. A renowned accordion player (whose name I forgot and who usually plays mainly polka) sat in the middle of a fairly dark stage and eccentrically opened and closed his instrument so that it would only emit husky sighs. He then proceeded to tap and knock the accordion for about 45 minutes, and it was altogether rather unfamiliar, but strangely meditative.
Rayka Wehner's free improv workshop on the 24th of June 2017 gave me a chance to try out how you might approach free improv when your instrument is your voice, including the exploration of sounds and words. It took place as part of The Art Of Improvisation Festival in Nürnberg. I had already had my first go at free improv for vocals a couple of days before the workshop and it was a very exciting experience. I mean, you get to be on stage with other musicians and there is no right or wrong! It's totally up to you what you do and how you do it. I immediately appreciated the air of acceptance, appreciation and curiosity. Both the audience and musicians seemed to suspend their judgement and just let themselves experience what is being performed with an open mind. What a breath of fresh air!
But it turns out that there ARE some things that you can do to delve deeper into the rabbit whole of free improvisation, whatever your instrument. Here are my top 5 takeaways from Rayka's workshop:
1. Tune into your impulses
Somewhere in your belly there is an impulse generator that - if you let it - tells you things like: "Breathe like those eskimos on youtube! Do it NOW!" You don't know why, you don't think about it, you just do it. It's fostering the connection to your inner creative well. There is so much stuff in your subconscious mind, so many connotations, experiences, memories above and below the surface. If you become still for a moment and give your impulse generator the instruction to please blurt ideas into your brain, you might surprise yourself. I know I did.
2. Celebrate silence
Your impulse generator also tells you when it is silence that resonates best. And often, the silence is where the actual magic happens. It is where the tension lives. Purposeful silence increases the emotional voltage in the room that is discharged with the next sound - whenever it may happen.
3. Stop when it doesn't feel right anymore
How often does it happen that something goes slightly wrong on stage, you forget the lyrics, you're out of whack from your fellow musicians, you just produced a less-than-desirable sound and everybody heard. Years of practice make you gloss over this with a smile as if nothing happened, whilst trying frantically to save the situation in any way you can, so that as little people as possible notice how you f***ed up. With free improv, you get the luxury of just stopping what you have been doing and letting the others continue. If it doesn't feel great anymore, just stop. No need to "save face", your face is quite safe. Have a breather. Listen to what's happening around you. Relax. Tune back into yourself.
4. Play with the others
I guess when I first saw a free improv session, it sounded a bit like everybody was just doing what they wanted, all at the same time. I suspect that that also exists as a genre somewhere, but I learned pretty quickly that when doing free improv, you are still very much communicating with your fellow musicians - maybe even more so than otherwise. You pick up who is currently leading the piece, you witness the lead shift from person to person, you support them with the sounds you make, you pick up on the subtleties of their play, you respond to their call, you mirror, antagonise or amplify them, you spin their idea along with your own thread of ideas. This sensitivity to what is happening around you is what gives the whole thing meaning. You feel a theme emerge, and it's like an invisible sand castle that everybody is building at from different angles.
5. Send your inner critic on a holiday
Most people I know are their own worst critics, and especially artists can pretty hard on themselves. Your inner critic has a time and a place, but free improv is not it. The sounds you may end up producing might not always be pleasant, and some of the things your impulse generator tells you to do may be outright ridiculous. But free improv gives you the chance of exploring what you can do with a body, a mouth and pair of vocal folds, apart from the things you are doing with them all the time anyway. There is also no need evaluate your performance afterwards. Maybe with the exception of answering this one questions: how well was I tuned into myself and the others around me?
Find out more about singer and free improvisation artist Rayka Wehnerhere.
Rumour has it she will lead another free improv workshop in Bamberg next year, so if you are interested in learning about free improv from her (which I can recommend), be sure to check back on her page.