Fingers and arms as improvisational guides
One of the most fascinating conversations had between improvising musicians is the balance act between one’s own “vocabulary” (one’s phrasing, sound, ways one develops motifs or other musical materials) and the musical ideas that we inherit (“traditions,” what one has learned from teachers, previous players, originators of a musical approach).
Less often discussed is another question of balance: between thought, and memory—during the present performance by oneself and by others, references to compositional elements, to history—and muscle memory.
We improvisers prefer to consider what we do as intentional translations of thoughts into sounds. And there is something to that. This year, for instance, I have been thinking more in terms of harmonic structures when I play at home, just for myself. And there are people who imagine, conceptually, what they will play, doing what some have called composing in real time. Previously in these blog postings, I’ve discussed the dynamic of active, close listening between improvising partners. The interplay between those dynamics and issues of the body, our muscles, is worthy of discussion. But its not today’s topic.
Honestly, I think that much of what we improvisers do is unconscious. Often, we play before we are even really cognizant of what we’ve played. Among the modes of improvisatory cognition is muscle memory. Some may define this as “habit,” and sometimes it is. But there’s an element to playing, at least for me, that is substantially physical. It arises in the ways we shape or move our fingers, our lips, mouths, feet, doing so in ways that our body knows are right. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as habit; it is simply another way of intuiting and knowing. I find that what I play is more often what my body wants to do than is usually acknowledged by musicians (including me).
Placing trust in my fingers and arms does not come easily since I was rigorously trained to trust only in sheet music. So much so, that it was hard for me to even trust my memorization of sheet music. Only in mid-adulthood did I rediscover my early childhood free abandon at the keyboard, before ever starting lessons.
One of the gifts I discover when trusting my body’s judgment is that I allow great latitude to making mistakes. By mistakes I mean places where my fingers or hands go when I had intended them to do something other than what they’ve chosen. This can be akin to jumping from rock to rock while walking in the woods, but missing and finding myself on a different rock than I had intended. The results requires me to change how I balance my body, to lean in a different direction, and sometimes, to tread a different path entirely. This is improvisation based upon a chance occurrence. Herbie Hancock often tells the story of how Miles Davis made something musically meaningful from a “wrong chord” that he (HH) played early in his time with the Quintet. The “error,” rather than leading to a disastrous mess, was allowed to lead the way and suggest new possibilities. Such is where my hands sometimes lead me and I am learning to treat these representatives of my body as a guide and teacher.
Where does muscle memory – as guide – diverge in a positive way, from muscle memory-as-habit? Habit can lead one to combining and recombining the same overly-tread motifs. There are musical traditions (for instance, with many rock guitarists) where improvisation is defined as recombining a favorite collection of motifs. I place this on one end of a spectrum, across town from constant invention and non-repetition. But everyone has their vocabulary, their favorite ways to shape lines, to build textures, to craft rhythmic constructions. This is true however freely we understand ourselves as playing. This realization leads me to better appreciate (on good days; feel compassion on bad days) recombination.
It is my body and its, sometimes, unknowable wisdom that leads me away from overly wearing my favorite habits. These are the instincts akin to editing a composition, where our favorite parts can be what most needs paring for the music to really “work.” Isn’t it ironic that the same body can enforce musical habits through muscle memory – that also generates mistakes, leading me to take notice and break those habits? I’ve built versions of software-based improvising partners that operate on various levels of chance. But none of them ever made quite such surprising mistakes as human beings can do, causing me to listen as deeply as my arms demand when they go their own way.
Again, these thoughts sidestep the multitude of fascinating questions about listening to fellow ensemble members. One of the joys of my life is having opportunities to play with terrific listeners. Imagine sitting in a room, playing with abandon while listening closely, realizing that each of the musicians is following their own bodies, leading them to musical gestures they never cognitively intended.