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The Importance of Improvisation

February 27, 2019

John William Trotter serves as an associate professor of music at Wheaton College and was recently awarded the Leland Ryken Award for Teaching Excellence in the Humanities. In this Wheaton Experts blog, he shares how important the ability to improvise is in music and our daily lives.

John Trotter 380x253When I was young I went to a classical music camp for a few weeks. I met a German student there and he showed me the minor blues scale, which I had never seen before. Because it was a brand new scale to me I started learning it backward and forward and up and down, but it seemed like the best way of finding out what was inside of it was to improvise with it. This was not a way I’d learned scales before. You learn dozens of scales as a pianist, playing them up and down, back and forth, but I began to improvise with this one. I found improvisation so attractive as a process and as a practice. I also found it to be a wonderful therapy to have a wordless expression of things I couldn’t say. 

Improvisation is something we do all day long, but we don’t think about it that way. Every time you have a conversation, you are improvising. Some things are agreed to ahead of time. For example, in conversation, you set up what language you’re going to use, but the context may be constantly changing. Maybe you’re going to interact with a stranger at a bus stop for two minutes or with a friend at a coffee shop for two hours. Either way, you start with what you know and what you are. You don’t use words you don’t know--the words you know are good enough. If you know 500 words, you use those; if you know 2,000 words, you use those; if you know 20,000 words, you use those.

As we live our lives, improvisation happens all the time. As a professor, I get up in the morning and go to school. How much of what happens in that day is what I expected? Classes have surprises, between classes there are surprises, there are surprise meetings, conversations with students, scholarly work, reading, listening, planning, brainstorming—most of that is not planned in a strict sense. But improvisation has no wrong notes, no wrong timing—it’s all about how you respond to the notes and the times. 

You can’t always plan responses ahead of time. Jesus said this would happen. When the disciples were brought in front of the authorities, He said, don’t worry ahead of time what you will say--I’ll give you words when the time comes. In improvisation, you have to open yourself up and listen and explore the realm of trust. 

Musical Fluency

Everyone can improvise musically. If you are a teacher or musical leader, the way to get people to do that is by going first even if you aren’t an expert, and even if you are terrified. I've run improvisation workshops in the wider world with a number of singers and instrumentalists with different levels of training. Some people have never taken a music lesson, and others have music degrees but have never improvised. Often times professional people who haven’t made mistakes in their career are more afraid to make mistakes than those who have never taken a lesson, but you’ll never become fluent without courage. It’s the same with foreign language. If you are afraid to make mistakes, you’ll never learn.

There are two halves of musical fluency. The first half is musical literacy: learning to read, write, and play. The second half is improvisation. When musically trained students get experience working out their musical selves in improvisation, the learning process goes quite quickly for them because they already have technique and theoretical knowledge.

For students or musicians seeking to become professionals, being able to improvise vastly increases the amount of professional opportunities available. There is a lot more you can do when you can improvise than when you can’t. You get more gigs. Every great composer during the common practice period—Bach, Brahms—were first class improvisers famous for their improvisation skills.

Improvisation is also great recreation. You can improvise with people you don’t know. You can reach across people groups with whom you don’t share a verbal language if you have some chops, some experience, and if you use your ears. Improvisation really helps your listening skills. It's one thing to play an instrument, and it’s another thing to really listen to what you are doing.

A Biblical Call to Improvisation

Biblically, everyone is a musician. It’s an important part of our humanness. Music is also highly spiritual--or else, why would the Bible keep telling us to sing songs, Psalms and spiritual songs together, or that God is singing over us? What does that mean for worship? We should obey the biblical command to sing together in worship, and to sing with some measure of freedom. This is what many people find when they’re invited to improvise. Many worship genres involve a lot of improvisation.

In improvisation, everyone feels a bit closer and gains a better understanding of who’s standing to their left and right. In improvisation, you have to listen with charity and participate together. Singing chorally is maybe the most generous art form. You’re giving part of yourself away in those situations, and you do it not knowing what the response is going to be. You can’t ask the person next to you if your voice is good enough before you start singing.

This has bigger implications for the wider world. If artists are to do work in the world, there needs to be support from the wider community. It’s easy for us to forget the magnitude of what we have to offer, but through improvisation, a non-trained musician can contribute substantially with something important to them. There aren’t many practices in community that involve that sort of deep sharing right away. In coming years, more studies showing how healthy and useful it is for people to sing together, make music together and improvise will come about, and that’s useful—but based on how the Bible talks about it, we shouldn’t need those studies. The Bible tells us what to do, so we should just do it!--John William Trotter