Gino Robair is former editor of EM

Give Yourself Permission To Fail and Have Fun

[This blog was originally posted in April 2011, but it disappeared shortly thereafter. I've re-posted in preparation for the launching of Robair Report 2.0 in 2012.]
When I’m on the road, I’m quickly reminded that, instinctively, I embrace improvisation as a method of dealing with the uncertainties of life. Many of us do already, especially musicians and other creative types who have learned to pull information out of thin air. But there are times when it seems that there is not enough air to hold all of the info we need to grab in a given instant. While touring, for example.

I’ve been on the road in Germany and Sweden for about two weeks, concertizing and doing workshops on improvisation. The workshops, however, are not geared towards any particular level of musician, but designed for any person that has an interest in creative self-expression. While in Stockholm, for example, I did a residency at Fylkingen [www.fylkingen.se ] where, with two dozen people, I explored concepts such as support vs. opposition, solo vs. non-solo participation, and group listening (e.g., doing a specific task in a large ensemble, but being fully aware of everything that is happening around you). But the overall direction was in risk-taking.

Musicians, actors, and dancers who have improvised before are used to a certain level of challenge. But for people who have only been onstage in some fully directed or predetermined performance, it’s an incredibly frightening prospect—existentially so— particularly in front of your peers. And even some artists who have a lot of experience improvising in some form of idiomatic structure, such as jazz or rock, become very insecure when the framework of chord changes and rhythm is removed.

In this instance, we had a painter, dancers, singers, actors, and instrumentalists of every level, which meant we had to find some common ground in order to begin. It turns out the fear of failure is something we all share, so that’s where we began: we grant each other permission to fail.

In actuality, there is no failure, because this is a workshop and we’re here to explore. But at the end there will be a concert, which is one reason we need to agree that there is no wrong way to do things. That way, we can take risks based on our individual comfort level.

The focus is on free improvisation, although I use a variety of structures and game-like pieces to instigate things. For example, one activity is about differentiating between short and long events, grouping them into phrases, but paying attention to how your phrase-group fits with what else is happening in the room. The painter, for example, drew dots for short events, and let the paint drip or pour when she wanted to do a longer event. The dancers could move a part of their body quickly or slowly to perform their phrases.

But there are also moments of free improvisation, where we have seemingly unlimited possibilities. Moving between levels of structure and non-structure is what interests me the most in the workshops, because I learn a lot from the students as they find their own ways to deal with the concepts.

When I decided to try my hand improvising as a soloist about two decades ago, I came up with a list of conditions that I would periodically look at when I got uncomfortable—or when I got too comfortable. I brought this list with me on the tour and a number of people I worked with found parts of it to be useful, so I’ve decided to present it here in the blog. Some of these are based on personal experience (such as the part about the Ebow). Most of it is focused on music. The list was not created with pedagogy in mind, so bear with me. I think the conditions will be on interest to improvisers in any media.

12 Conditions for the Improviser:
1. Don’t be afraid of “failure.” In fact, dare to fail—go out on a limb. Focus on the process of improvisation and the long-term goals of developing your craft, rather than the immediate gratification of a “good gig.”

2. Don’t obsess about whether it was a good gig or a bad gig. Evaluate what worked and what didn’t, then move on.

3. Any player can play any instrument at any time in any manner they choose (as long as it’s not destructive to the instrument—unless it’s OK to damage the instrument).

4. Explore the “wrong” ways to play the instrument, and develop them into “techniques” that you can call up at any time. Example: forearm and fist rolls on the piano.

5. Music can be funny. When it happens, that’s OK. However, don’t force humor into music. Avoid trying to be funny.

6. A bow (violin, viola, cello, or bass) can be used on just about anything. Almost anything can be used as a bow, given enough rosin. Everyone should carry a bow with them at all times. Same goes for an Ebow.

7. Keep an eye out for things in the immediate environment that you can use musically. If you see something that you think cannot be used musically, take that as a challenge and make it work.

8. Test the extremes of the performance situation. Begin by not preparing for the gig (physically or mentally); just show up and play.

9. Allow yourself to be in the moment, without regard to past moments.

10. Avoid using anything that “worked” in a previous improvisation in the current situation. Chances are good that it will not work again if you are forcing it into this situation.

11. Avoid being self critical during the act of making music. Create music in the moment, then reflect on it when you’re done.

12. Enjoy yourself. Give yourself permission to have fun. You can create beautiful, deep, and passionate music while enjoying the process of improvisation.

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