Sunday, January 10, 2010


I have always loved this word. To me, I think it has become a guiding principle of my day-to-day living. Although it is often associated with music, I think it is a life-skill that we all need to utilize, and it is certainly a skill I hope my students learn.

So… a short essay on music improvisation, and then how it applies to our creative worlds.

Music Improv…

I was trained to play classical piano, taking lessons from the ages of six until eighteen. I achieved what is known as Grade 10 at the Conservatory of Toronto. The Conservatory was a system setup throughout Canada that allowed for a very systematic approach to studying and progressing through levels of music study on the piano. To help finance my college education, I even taught piano to children, and for a short stint, played during the Happy Hour in the Faculty Lounge of the University I attended (now as a student, THAT was interesting).

I would not say that I am amazingly talented, but I happen to love classical music and have gained a pretty rounded knowledge of the various composers over time. After many years of setting the piano aside (in the years my children were growing up), I finally came back to it, and now have renewed my love of playing. But… I play for me and few others. I simply don’t have the time to practice as would be necessary to perform for others. Still, I spend many wee hours of the night playing for my cat. She is my greatest fan.

I have always wanted to be able to sit down and just ‘play’, but sometimes when you are trained to read music, it is hard to have the ‘ear’ for it. A few years ago, I took some lessons from one of my son’s friends… he ‘simply played’. That was a new starting point for me, and now, I think finally, I am starting to get it. I am learning to improvise. I have been learning new things… chord modulations, the IVth and the Vth, the minor fall, the major lift. (it reminds me of a Leonard Cohen song… Hallelujah, also sung by K.D. Lang). It is exciting, to say the least.

As I sit at the piano, making music, and not knowing what will come next, (yet somehone most of it sounds decent), I marvel at the word Improvise. I think it is one of my favorite words.

When do we as creative people improvise?
• we accidentally cut a hole in the garment we are in the middle of making.
• we run out of yarn for a project and must figure out what to do about that.
• we are cooking something and realize we don’t have one of the ingredients.
• we lose a pattern piece and have to figure out what to do about that.
• the project didn’t turn out as planned, and yet we want to wear it.
• we forget what we started to say… and have to finish the sentence.
• we don’t have all the right tools for a task, we must figure out what to use instead (like the time I used a bowl to cut out the opening for my head in a hat.. I tried on various bowls in my kitchen until I found the right one).
• you don’t have a pattern for something, but you want to make it.. (maybe you simply lay down your hand and trace it to create the glove pattern).
• the iron is too hot and you either scorch or melt the fabric.
• you accidentally shrink something in the laundry... and it becomes the latest fashion.

and I am sure, you readers can come up with more.

Please share.

No matter what the technique, or the art, one of your greatest assets will be the ability to utilize the art of improvisation.

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