ne of the most important aspects of and lessons from musical improvisation is the journey of ever-greater trust: trusting the process, trusting one’s colleagues, trusting the Source, trusting oneself. It is both a byproduct of the improvisational journey and a central aspect of its practice. For improvisation is, by definition, a stepping-out into the unknown.
Although an improvisation may have guided parameters or structures that incorporate gestures or references to the past, improvisation is the expression of the now – the present moment, where anything is possible. This does not mean that the nowness is without shape: in her workshop at the 2014 vs. Interpretation Festival, Joëlle Léandre welcomed the idea of an improvisation whose development and end fulfills or expresses the seed of its commencement;1 similarly, Joyce Kouffman reminds us of the possibility that “notated music should be performed with such a sense of spontaneity that the listener thinks that it’s improvised; improvised music should be performed with such a sense of inevitability that the listener thinks it’s composed.”2 For me, this “sense of inevitability” may involve the intellect but does not originate there. The freshness, the newness of the present moment lies in the quality of awareness itself – something that is channeled through the heart, the soul.
In order for the awareness to take place, there is a tuning process, a readiness to be a vessel – for music, for light, for healing, for whatever intention an individual or group chooses to embody. The flow that results can be experienced in three stages:
1.) tuning one’s individual/collective instruments for inspiration/guidance/music to enter;
2.) allowing the inspiration/guidance/music to enter;
3.) trusting the music/inspiration/guidance that comes, and acting on it...
Besides tuning the physical instrument(s) that one may play, tuning involves warming-up/balancing the body and connecting deeply with the breath. It is our bodies that receive and express musical energies – both from ourselves and from that which is larger than ourselves – and it is our breath that connects us deeply to the inner and outer worlds beyond the visible, the Source of the music that flows through us. There may also be a mental tuning – an adjustment of our energetic antennae to the frequency for which we wish to be a vessel.
Conscious choice of intent can be extremely powerful at this stage, as can asking for help in fulfilling this intent. An archetypical example of such intent-setting is the prayer attributed to St. Francis: "Lord, make me an Instrument of Thy Peace." Even for improvisations that are not explicitly or implicitly sacred in character, the setting of a specific intent as part of the tuning process can provide focus and clarity for the improvisation that follows.
Above all, the tuning process is a preparation for listening – listening with different kinds of attention to the soundscape around us (including our fellow-musicians), and to the potential music within us. With a relaxed body and quiet mind, we are more able to practice “inclusive” and “exclusive” hearing,3 to be able to sense our natural place in the larger soundscape, the ongoing, ever-changing symphony of all Beings...
Having tuned ourselves to be clear vessels, allowing the inspiration/guidance/music to enter is a form of active surrender. It’s a wonderful way to practice releasing the patterns and habits of the ego, of saying to the music, “Do with me what you will.” One lets go of the need to control, even while stepping up to the response-ability of sounding what needs to be sounded. Sounding or being silent in accordance with the unfolding of the present moment is an act of both courage and humility: being willing to allow something larger than ourselves to guide the momentary and total experience, and following that guidance, that intuition, that grace. The process of allowing is not necessarily a suspension of intellect; however, the immediacy of the flowing musical impulse is faster-than-thought. The mind may notice, wonder, or marvel at the music which is arising... but when energies are flowing smoothly, it is a feeling of co-creation rather than narrowly-planned agendas. Allowing the music to enter and flow is a continuing act of vulnerability and intimacy, whether in a group setting or as a soloist harmonizing with the vibrational Universe around us...
Acting on the music that comes is a demonstration of many kinds of trust. There is trust that there is a vibratory cosmos and intelligence larger than ourselves that we can connect to; trust that we have and can rely on our sensory systems to allow and receive vibratory information via our different ways of experiencing intuition; trust that we are clearly hearing the true promptings of our intuition; trust that we can freely act on our intuition, no matter how much our limited intellect or ego or habits or fears might otherwise censor or impede the flow of authentic be-ing. The process enters a feedback loop, as the more one acts on the inspiration received, the more the relationship with Source is strengthened, and the more inspiration comes; the more one has experienced the joy of being a vessel, the more one is able to trust the process.
What might this process feel like when producing sound? While we each have different ways of perceiving the sensory and subtle worlds and different ways of accessing intuition, some common patterns may occur. When improvising music and listening attentively, one may inwardly hear the next notes or chords to be outwardly sounded; upon inwardly hearing the new note/chord/gesture to be played, one trusts the process and outwardly plays it – and then the next note/chord/gesture comes. This process is the same whether in a slower meditative mode or in a more dynamic, ecstatic mode. Alternatively or concurrently, intuition may be expressed through arising visual images, which one may acoustically accompany as they develop and change. Sometimes words spontaneously arise, to be sung aloud or uttered/thought silently as the music unfolds. Whether the cues are auditory or visual, the experience is one of discovery, letting go and letting flow.4
A curious paradox arises when following and acting on the intuition that guides our musical soundings and silence. On the one hand, when improvising in flow, there’s a kind of feeling that there is a “rightness” to playing/singing/being silent at a particular moment – following where “IT” is leading us to that which needs to occur; on the other hand, as Sarah Benson reminds us, “there are no wrong notes”5 – there is no failure in music, in life – every experience is workable, and the Now is ever-open to elevation and harmony. The experience of “rightness” is that of trusting the outer and inner flow; the experience of absence-of-wrongness is that of trusting ourselves.
Attitudes and lessons of trust and fearlessness from the domain of musical improvisation can be applied to a broader definition of music: the vibrational essence of being alive, in all our varied arenas and activities. In this music-of-life,6 we are given the opportunity to balance independence and interdependence, free will and surrender to the Music-ing flowing through us. Trusting ourselves and our co-music-ing Beings, we can practice appropriate boundaries even as we interweave, harmonize, inter-be.7 We can tune ourselves to be in alignment with that which brings ourselves and others joy.8 We can tune ourselves to work in conscious collaboration with Nature.9 We can allow the gifts of both intuition and intellect to receive the music-of-life-promptings that arise within us. And as we trust and act on the promptings that arise within the soundscape-of-life, we open up new possibilities for ourselves and others. Whether or not we are acting in consort with others, we are never completely alone, but are part of a larger music-of-life community. Trusting ourselves and trusting our fellow-beings helps us celebrate this community – in collaboration, respect, harmony.
There is a letting go of the egoic patterns of protecting one’s turf,
Releasing the habits of the known;
Understanding through the heart, where
Silence and sound arise, manifest, and change;
The evanescent meets the Eternal
Ultimately, the practice of improvisation is about trusting where and how we are. Regardless of what might have happened in the past, regardless of what might or might not manifest in the future, the present moment is available to us. We have agency in the present moment, when power and grace meet. Gratitude and appreciation of the present moment provide the spaciousness for a joyous sounding-process. We have enough and are enough to exquisitely contribute what we can, just for the moment, to the magnificent symphony around us and within us.
As we are universes for the microbes inside us, so are we grace-notes in the larger soundscape; as our awareness of these soundscapes deepens, our actions and be-ing become more collaborative and balanced. As our understanding of who “we” are becomes more inclusive, the process of tuning, allowing, trusting and acting can help guide us in our complex, wondrous journey of music-and-life-improvisation.
*Reprinted from vs. Interpretation: An Anthology of Improvisation, vol. 1 with permission from The Agosto Foundation
1 Joëlle Léandre, Workshop. vs. Interpretation Festival, Prague, Czech Republic, 17 July 2014.
2 Guest lecture by Harvard Music Department Teaching Assistant Joyce Kouffman, May, 1982
3 Pauline Oliveros, Workshop on Deep Listening, vs. Interpretation Festival, Prague, Czech Republic. 19 July 2014. Significantly, this workshop started with extensive bodywork as part of the tuning process.
4 As Luise Vosgerchian points out (personal communication, 1999), discovery—letting go and letting flow—is the awareness-principle of embodied connection: from sound to sound/silence, from energy to energy, be-ing to be-ing.
5 Sarah Saruah Benson, Presentation at the conference “Science, Spirituality, and Sound,”
New England Sound Healing Research Institute, November 17-19, 2006, Rowe, MA
6 Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Mysticism of Sound and Music. (Boston: Shambhala, 1996)
7 Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace. (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1992)
8 Esther and Jerry Hicks, Ask and It Is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires. (Hay House, 2004)
9 Machaelle Wright, The Perelandra Garden Workbook. (Perelandra Center for Nature Research, 2012)