Why Everyone Needs a Little Improv

The word "improv" is kind of like "dancing" or "singing". It either strikes the fear of death into people's hearts, with thoughts like, "I can't do THAT! No WAY!", or it inspires a twinkly-eyed look of enthusiastic recognition, something like, "OH YEAH...when can I come??" I was more in the former category for most of my life. I saw improvisation as something Other People did. Those Other People included Jazz People, People Who Could Play Anything By Ear, People With Talent I Don't Have, or People Who Have The NERVE To Be Joyful And Free.

In other words, I secretly wished I had what it took to be one of those Other People.

I found out, first a couple of years ago and then again last year, that the only thing standing between me and being one of those elusive Other People was just trying. The very first time I ever played anything on my violin that I hadn't heard before or that hadn't been written down was in the recording studio with a dear friend, in 2008. I'd hired him to make a recording of my students, and he came away from the session convincing me to come play for him. My heart leapt at the invitation, but I did the usual, "Nahhhh...I could never do THAT" routine.

Luckily he was persistent, and I was curious enough that I actually tried. The very first melody I improvised now appears on a CD he produced and distributes (listen to the clip "Johnny's Blues" from the CD 900 Miles). In many ways that first time was the best, most spontaneous and pure session I've recorded. I'll never forget the sheer terror of getting in front of the mike, headphones on, and nothing to rely on but my ears and my command of the instrument. I'll also never forget the importance of the support, encouragement, and non-judgment that my friend provided during the session. There I was, free falling, flying for the first time, and he loved everything I did! Even when I didn't. It kept me going, which is what led to the creation of some great moments, now appearing on that CD.

A few months later I left the improvisation behind to focus more on the "real work" I had created for myself, which really amounted to staying busy and constantly having something to show other people. The safe, predictable route. The consistent, long-term buy.

But last year taught me again how important it was to keep improvising. And this time it wasn't in the recording studio. It was in my life. I found myself stunned by a depletion of enthusiasm and energy around the job I had created for myself. I denied and resisted it at first, but then recognized the need to understand it, to get closer to it.

I started to listen to my body. I started to do nurturing exercise instead of spinning my wheels on the Spinning bike.

I started looking for new models of how to live. I connected with freedom, joy, and creativity.

I started to tell the truth...slowly at first, then gradually with more clarity and confidence.

And I found music improvisation again. I entered a whole new realm of intention with my music, surrounded by teachers and fellow students seeking ways to bring healing sounds into the world. I learned to play the hand drum with Glen Velez. I was opened by the pure love and range of expression shared by cellist David Darling. (And now I can say I've studied with two different Grammy-winning artists.)

I discovered my voice. I didn't need my violin or any fancy instruments to make music. In fact, it's been through voice, breath and simple sounds that I've felt the greatest freedom to play. And I discovered that it's through improvisation that we uncover our own true voice. There's something about the combination of safety, love, encouragement, listening, and playfulness - all within the special boundaries created by the medium of music - that unleashes our deepest longings as human beings.

We long to connect. We long to be free. We long to express. We long to move. We long to create something together. We long to share moments of spontaneity with other human beings.

All of this is why we all need a little improvisation in our lives.

Join me this Saturday, February 6, for my second public workshop, "Music Improvisation for Everyone". Give it a try...you might hear the sound of your own joy.