There are very few moments in life when work and pleasure combine seamlessly. These sessions are those moments for me. As a musician it can be difficult to find environments where you are totally free to improvise and be creative. Other musicians will often have their own agenda, as will the score, the musical director or the audience. A bit of context:
· Take 16 people with no specific musical or acting training
· Spend the day making up songs in the moment
Now there are a few other key elements in making days like this happen. I should not speak for my own musical ability, but a musician with plenty of experience in accompanying improvised songs is a must. Also a highly skilled facilitator such as Heather Urquhart, who can judge when to support, when to back off, when to gently push and when to kick firmly up the backside is essential.
The flavour of the day is supportive joy. Nobody is made to look stupid or feel embarrassed. The only way to fail is by not joining in. All other failure is impossible as everything is made up on the spot. How can a song be “wrong” if it has not existed until this moment?
The day does start gently so as to reassure those who are nervous about singing in front of other people that nothing bad will happen to them if they try. We soon find however that the group dictates its own pace and that by lunchtime everyone seems to have lost their initial reluctance and is jumping up from their chairs, even if they do not know what we are going to throw at them next. We have a few favourite exercises and songs that we like to use, but also we like to throw in some new, random and sometimes totally “pointless” moments too.
We do not begin with an outline of the day, nor do we finish with a distilled set of “take-aways” or “What did you get from this day” feedback forms. The priority when improvising is to be in the moment. The more pre-planning that takes place, the less surprising, creative and beautiful the results tend to be. It is fairly simple to practise singing a verse that has two rhyming couplets and to trot those out with a musical flourish but they can be unsatisfying. Far more interesting is what comes out when you think you have nothing more. We never having nothing more. Even singing, “I have nothing more” will lead you into something.
It is just as important for myself and Heather to be in the moment also when playing and facilitating. I often find myself planning what I am going to play before even hearing what the song is about. That means I am not creating music that fits the here and now, but something based on judgement and insecurity. I never have nothing because as soon as I play a note there is something there.
We do make a plan for the day but we always end up meandering off and exploring new areas as the day goes on. Some of our favourite exercises and songs have come from an idea from within a workshop, or as a result of something not going to plan but ending up far more interesting anyway.
We are often advised to be more “in the moment” or have a “childlike fascination” or to “enjoy the journey” but these qualities can be elusive and fleeting. The good news is that we can practise these skills as we would any other skill. Improvisation and music is for me the most direct way of being able to practise mindfulness, creativity, spontaneity and listening and we aim to provide a safe and non-judgemental environment for other people to practise too.
Heather Urquhart and Joe Samuel have over 15 years experience performing, teaching and writing about Musical Improv. Based in the UK they have facilitated workshops and graced stages around the world.