Tips from a Shy Girl to Improvising Artist
I was in LA about a month ago, and got the pleasure of seeing an improv comedy troupe in action. If you have never seen one, it's quite a trick. There are rules of engagement they must learn, such as games and formulas for skits to give structure to play off each other. And of coarse, their goal is always to get laughs...but it comes down to being in the moment; really, really present there on stage. They must really listen to each other, not get trapped inside their own minds – by anticipating what's to come, or 'thinking' how to be funny. Their ability to be raw and vulnerable allows the scene to reveal itself moment by moment, to the actors and the audience in real time. If it doesn't sound easy, your right. It's actually even harder than it sounds.
You see, I was an incredibly shy girl and never even dreamed of being a musician till I was in my 20's. After getting exposed to improvisation music thru the Austin 90's music scene, I realized it was something I had to do - to live my authentic life. But I was SO very scared at the prospect. In fact, my terror was so profound that I'd literally RUN from any opportunity to share my music with others. And then hate myself later. I knew I had to do something to get out of this bad pattern.
Then I got a great idea.. I joined a comedy troupe. It was terrifying every week to get on that stage and perform these little skits. We relied on audience suggestions for scenes, so there was never anyway to plan out what we'd do. But honestly, I cared at lot less about comedy than I did about music so I was able to find the guts to show up every week and risk that imminent failure.
After about 6 months of doing the troupe, I learned a ton about about what it took to stay in the moment, be vulnerable and brave no matter how scared I was. At that point, doing music actually sounded way easier than doing this troupe, so I felt ready to tackle my stage fright head on with some small songwriter cafe gigs.
It's been 20 years since then, and I'm still tackling my stage fright little by little by little. I’m able to risk more these days, taking huge leaps. But each and every step up on my musical journey still takes so much courage as that shy girl is still me.
Seeing the comedy troupe in LA a month ago reminded me of some things I had forgotten about this journey. So by writing this here today, I'm reminding myself as well as hoping to encourage others who are facing their own fears little by little.
In my opinion, the comedy improvisation tradition is not that different from music improvisation. In these improvisation art forms, it can feel like you are jumping off a cliff with no parachute.
But it's the only way to walk the path to mastery. And by mastery in the musical sense, I don't mean that you can play every style virtuosically but as Kenny Werner puts it... “Mastery is playing whatever you are capable of playing... every time... WITHOUT THINKING.”
So here are few tips for those brave surfer souls who love the art of improvisation, and want to fearlessly ride the moment to their humble glory.
#1 – Minimal Effort for Maximum Results
We are all fighting our own need to control but trying too hard is the quickest way to disconnect and jam up the flow. Just think of the person who is trying too hard to be funny, it just never is.
Working hard of coarse is integral to being a great musician, or comedian. But it's not that simple. Just because you work hard doesn't mean you make great music. When it comes to improvisation, rhythm, and the voice – there is a proper balance of effort and trust that must be achieved. Efficiency, and patience are part of the equation. A wise, experienced player knows how to walk this tightrope. That leads well to the next point...
#2 – Embrace the Space
To quote Kenny Werner again, from his book Effortless Mastery - “You must surrender the need to sound good, otherwise you can't really let go.” It's this letting go that allows the space needed for the magic to flow.
I was rehearsing last week with my trio when my bassist reminded me, if I get lost, just stop and listen. I'm embarrassed to admit, it just didn't occur to me. My fear had been driving a barrage of notes, and I was playing in a solitary universe of my own mind. By reminding myself to embrace the space, a better sound amongst us will be created and I can let go of fears as well as my need to sound good. It almost feels too easy at times, but the music is cooking. So this coming week, my goal is to listen and trust in my fellow bandmates and we'll ride the waves together. This leads into the next point..
#3 – Play Nice with Others. This is speaking for group improve situations. Respect must be present for each and every player. And In order to participate, you must follow the rules of engagement. This can be very different for the each group and you want to respect that as well.
For example, in certain jazz jam settings, the players expect that you will have 200-500 standards memorized and easily transposable on the spot. For other jams, it's the norm to use your ireal from your phone, or call specific tunes you know - particularly true for singers. There are even have private groups I am a part of where members send out lists to prepare for each week. So It's entirely possible to find or put together an improve group to meet you at your level. With weekly to monthly sessions with musicians that support your growth, you will improve very quickly. And eventually be ready for stricter rules of engagement. Another way to play nice is...
#4 Unconditional Acceptance
Something else to learn from improve comedians is their golden rule: “yes, and” meaning whatever your fellow actor says in a scene, whether you like it or not, you have to go with it. It's complete and utter acceptance of everything that happens. Otherwise, you will be into the mindset of judgement, and no longer truly connected to the moment nor your bandmates.
This acceptance when applied to your own playing as well sets the stage for truly happening music. Kenny explains this unconditional acceptance was the secret ingredient to many masters such as Thelonious Monk... “ Behind every note was the belief that “This is the truth” He didn't believe in wrong notes. He believed that they were right notes because he played them.”
“Miles Davis as well was always making the next right note out of the last wrong note. “
Finally, whatever you play, believe in it whole heartedly. Great actors do this, they convince us because they are so committed to their role, their story. The same is true for the masters of great music. “Monk had so much conviction in what he played that while he was playing, he couldn’t conceive of anything else.” When you find yourself in the zone, it is this way. It can feel almost too obvious, but you know exactly what to play and it comes out effortlessly. Nothing else is true.
Being in the improvisation arts takes such courage. Akin to surfers, we wait for the right wave, spring into action and then ride the moment out. The hardest part is that there is more failure than success. So when I see so many people committed to it, it renews my faith in humanity. We miss the wave so much more than we nail it, but when we do nail it... it's something to behold!
These improvisation groups – jazz jams, comedy troupes that get together and work on this craft are perpetuating a very healthy and viable art form. We are gathering in groups to be creative, to learn to work well together and honing interpersonal skills like presence, patience and trust. Whether there is an audience or not, whether at the pro level or just starting, it all requires passion and courage. And it's time well spent in my opinion.
To Read more from Kenny Werner, I highly suggest his book Effortless Mastery.