The Cycling Pianist on Improvising


Perhaps its best to take a step back from time to time. To see the bigger picture, as it can be all too easy to see minor glitches as insurmountable problems. Very often the minor glitch becomes a blessing – affecting change with surprisingly little upheaval. I have found that opportunities often arise when initially things seem difficult, both personally and musically. This is very important to remember when improvising. There is the old jazz joke about how if you play a wrong not in a solo, keep repeating it over and over & it’ll soon sound right. Like lots of tounge-in-cheek aphorisms this one has a resounding knell of truth about it. And this element of chance, inherent in so much improvising, should be embraced. This last week or so I’ve been trying to add some new elements to my playing, but not really known what I wanted: some new harmonic ideas, perhaps a return to some interesting scalic ideas… And whilst going through this process of discovery things seemed a bit tough. In determinedly trying to not play anything usual or familiar I felt that I was making a lot of errors: wrong choices, poor fingering, sloppy technique etc. Of course, in reality classes went on as usual around me and people enjoyed my music, but getting from the seed of an idea so something fully formed can be tough. But it is no reason to give up.


In the same way that you can only learn the Rach. 3 Piano Concerto by practising it, so you can only really learn to improvise by doing it. The parallels with learning a large scale concert work do not end there. Whilst you may scramble through a number of pages of a piano concerto for fun, and to get a sense of the whole, to actually get to the point where you have mastered every note on every page takes slow, thoughtful, repetitious work. The same with learning to improvise. And probably any number of other things. Whilst I might cycle up to 200 miles in a week through Central London, I wouldn’t particularly suggest trying to do so if you’ve barely ridden a bike before. You would learn how to ride and handle the bike; ride in parks and other quiet environments; gradually increase the length and challenge of the routes you take; learn about traffic flow and junctions; improve your strength and stamina. The parallels with learning music are many. Perhaps that’s why so many of my fellow musicians ride bicycles. You have to work with your instrument and the music, not fight against it all the time. Same with riding a bike. You have to let the wheels do the work, yet still be in control. You can’t excel in playing an instrument if you are still conscious of  the instrument. You must move beyond that to a point where you and the instrument, the music, and you are one.

That said, stick with it through the tougher times, do not get upset or frustrated when something doesn’t work. Try it again. Analyse it after you’ve actually experimented with it for a bit. Do not write it off before even attempting it. Listen. Listen. Listen: to yourself, to others, to recordings and videos. Let errors guide you, not frustrate and anger you. As I am fond of reminding all the fabulous people at Tottenham Community Choir, if we could all do it perfectly first time round we’d never have to practice, and achieving something you couldn’t previously do is half the fun of the challenge.

Finally, some more music to get you going. Spent New Year’s day at Reel Rebel’s Radio with DJ Kamikaze. Here’ s my hour of effort via the magic of Mixcloud. Enjoy!


Reel Rebels: New Year’s Day 2013 by Ferretboy on Mixcloud


One Response

  1. Grant kennedy

    Brilliant thoughts on improvisation!

    March 12, 2013 at 7:41 pm

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