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Rod Paton
from: Rod Paton
Category: Improvisation

Improvisation and Trust

Most trained musicians are scared stiff of improvising. This fear is amplified when they are offered the chance to improvise on their specialist instrument, preferring to use a percussion instrument or something unfamiliar. What creates this fear and how to overcome it? 

I have been teaching improvisation and using it regularly as a workshop and therapy tool for many years. I have noticed that the seat of inhibition around improvisation in trained musicians is the fear of being judged whilst among untrained musicians it is fear of ridicule. Performing music from scores, especially if it is the music of long-dead classical 'masters' enables musicians to hide their true selves behind the socially and culturally canonised figures of the past. Even the lesser composers fulfil this function and goodness knows, there is plenty of demand even for the music of the least interesting historical musicians, so long as they wrote it all down. So part of the fear is lack of trust in the Self, especially the creative Self which is engaged whenever a person is making music from scratch.

Lack of trust in Self is compounded, in group playing, by lack of trust in others, fear of judgment or ridicule. We make a national sport of the dynamic tension between praise and ridicule, especially through reality tv and shows like X-factor and Britain's Got Talent. Often, in these contexts, music is a spectator sport and no doubt many viewers enjoy the possibility of failure, so long as it is someone else who is on the ducking stool yet equally love to identify with success, indulging in the buzz and uneasy thrill of praise.

Yet, put people in a room and offer them them the chance to improvise together and they are likely to blush, or freeze, or run away! They do not trust each other or themselves. The trained will say, "I never could play without music" or, "I'm not a composer" or, "I can't improvise." Others often say, "I don't have any talent" or, "I've no sense of rhythm" or, "I can't sing in tune". Blushing I love! As Jung pointed out, it is the Self rising to the surface of the skin, an instinctive response, a warning to others not to come near, not to invade my space, not to tamper with my soul. So it always tells me that someone is alive, it gives me something to work with. "A chocolate bar for the one who blushes deepest red!"

So how to break down this barrier, how to overcome the blushes or accept them and play anyway? When I explain to my groups that "every one is musical" and "there are no wrong notes in music" there is usually a palpable sense of relief because they know that I really mean it. Some may want to argue the toss ("of course there is out-of-tuneness" etc.) but the arguments are always based on musical "norms" and it is so easy to ditch these! A musical norm tries to dictate how something will be played, what notes to choose, how the rhythms have to blend and so on. The moment people are allowed the freedom to improvise without reference to ANY previously agreed norms it never ceases to amaze me how quickly they tap into their natural creative selves to produce exquisite and always structured sounds.

But the most important outcome of group improvising with this total freedom is how it develops trust between the players. This does not mean "harmony", musical or otherwise: indeed, it is a mark of trust that people are able to be open and honest with each other even if there are some uncomfortable truths swilling around. I would even gon so far as to say that trust is not really present until people are able to express their anger and be dangerous with each other. The music making will reflect the dynamic of the group; the structures of the music will mirror the structures of the relationships and when the music stops, people often find themselves confronting each other in stronger and more honest ways.

Music has this power, but only I guess when we find a way of releasing ourselves from the comforting (and suffocating) embrace of tradition and open ourselves up to the renewing force of our true Selves, our group feelings and our collective instincts, tapping into previously hidden depths and trusting that, even down there, in that wonderful labyrinth of spontaneous creativity we will not get totally lost! We will survive and be stronger.

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