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Part 3 - Fear and Improvisation

What if I play a note that sounds horrible or even worse, a series of notes? What if I am exposed as unmusical? These are deep fears some of us feel about improvising and they stop us from being our best. Take a deep breath and let’s look at fear.

Thirty years ago, I was a classical pianist and educator who couldn’t improvise. I wished I could, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know where to start, who to ask, what to do. My feeble attempts were not satisfying and sounded bland or worse, they sounded wrong. They sounded like I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t!

Then fear crept in. I feared there was no interesting music inside me, I was void of any creative music. The only thing I would ever be able to do is to do is copy and play what the masters had written. Not a terrible fate, but an unfulfilling one, for me. I wanted to experience music creation, and improvising. I wanted to express my emotions with my fingers and a piano. Would I ever create beautiful music that sounded like Beethoven or Mozart?

Then I put my hand on my heart and took a deep breath. I could feel my heart beating a nice steady beat. There was rhythm inside me 24/7. I noticed there was also a song in my head that matched the rhythm. I felt my breath. It was steady too, until I thought some more dark pity-party thoughts and then my breath got shallow and the song in my head disappeared. No, not disappeared, it had become a low hum, like a section of cellos drawing bows slowly across their instruments. I thought about holding my daughters’ hand the night before as she was gleefully discovering how to walk. My breath quickened and deepened. The music in my head changed too. Hmm, different thoughts, different body rhythms, different sounds.

Saying goodbye to FEAR

It was then I realized, Mozart didn’t sound like Beethoven and Debussy didn’t sound like Bach (although he was inspired by him). Maybe I could focus on sounding like me (whatever that was). I could move past my fear by asking better questions. How can I create music that expresses what I’m feeling? How do I use chords to express those emotions? What chords create emotions beyond happy (major) and sad (minor)? What does rhythm have to do with emotional expression? Who are the artists and composers I love and what chords do they use to express their feelings?

My life was different from Mozart and Beethoven (they didn’t get to hear the Beatles) and I would use my own life as inspiration. We all have a unique selection of music floating in our brains because of unique life experiences. Fragments of the music of our life come out in new ways as we start to improvise and create.

Here are more simple ways to get past fear:

FOCUS. What you focus on becomes your reality. When you act out of fear, your fears are more likely to come true. I was out riding my bike the other day and I focused on a rock in the path and tried to avoid it. I rode right over it! Why? Because that was what I was focusing on. I noticed the next rock in the path and focused on the smooth path beside it. I glided by the rock like it was never there. Focusing on fears give those fears power and fears prevent us from doing our best work. Focus on the path of being a good improviser. Smile and think fearless thoughts as your fingers explore the keys!

PRETENDING. I had a transfer student who played very timidly. He was 15 years old and had recently grown to 6 feet tall. I tried to pull him out of his shell and project until I came to realize he was expressing his shell. He wasn’t used to his 6-foot-tall body yet. He was still a child hiding inside and was a bit afraid of his new body. When I suggested he pretend he was me, and play the music like I would, the change was dramatic. His playing projected and was expressive! He stopped, smiled a shy smile, and quietly said “but I’m not you”. He was right. I had to be patient as he became comfortable in his new skin and I took from it a valuable lesson. Fake it till you make it. Pretending you know what you are doing will get you to where you are going faster than fear.

TALENT. Talent is “what comes easily”. We all have talents and most of us slough them off. They are easy to us so they mustn’t be valuable, right? When we try improvising, and it doesn’t work… YES, just as we feared, we aren’t talented. Accepting you may not have a talent for improvising, and that’s OK, is a big step towards becoming an improviser. Focusing on lack of talent isn’t helpful, its a big energy waster. Talent isn’t important. Energy and drive are.

After FEAR

When we benefit from something, we are all in. Tell me something will make my life better and where do I sign up? Let’s look at some improvising benefits to focus on:

  • Learning to improvise make it easier to memorize classical music

  • Improvisers can sit down at a piano and play Happy Birthday or holiday tunes … in any key

  • No need for music when you feel like playing the piano. Pick a key that matches your mood and noodle over some chord changes

Here’s a story about that last benefit. I was a sub for the church pianist one Sunday and was given a hymnal for the service. No problem, read the music, accompany the choir and the congregation. Then the rector asked me to ‘play something’ while the collection plate was passed around. I had no music other than the hymnal but I had been learning to improvise. I took one of my ii-V-I exercises and started noodling about. The sermon had been very inspiring, and the congregation was enthusiastic. This all played into what was coming out of my fingers. It was THE FIRST TIME I had improvised in public! When the service ended, I received compliment after compliment about what I played during collection. They heard my emotions. They didn’t hear my fears. They heard me and that was deeply satisfying.

Coming up next week… getting in touch with your inner improviser!

(This blog is the third in a series on teaching improvisation)


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