The following is an email written to an actor in January of 2005:
I had a few more thoughts on last Sunday’s rehearsal which I wanted to share with you. These thoughts are based on my experiences while playing the piano for dance classes, where, as you know, I develop a lot of my ideas on improvisation technique. I think dance class makes a good microcosm of what we do in our theater pieces, because it is a simpler, clearer, more straightforward form of improvisation, yet the technical issues are all exactly the same, as are the challenges.
One of the things I’ve discovered after 18 years of playing for class is that there is one single approach to the task of improvising music for movement which always works best, under every circumstance. In class, a teacher will first demonstrate a short dance phrase or exercise, which I then have to play for while the students perform it. While the teacher is demonstrating the movement, I try to pick up the mood, energy, and feeling of the dance, as well as the rhythmic structure. While doing so, I often get ideas of what to play (a lyrical waltz, or ‘something in D minor…’) Sometimes I get several contradictory ideas (‘It should sound like Beethoven.’ ‘No, it should sound like the Eurhythmics.’) Sometimes I get absolutely no ideas at all. The approach which I’ve found always works best is this: I stay aware of all of my ideas (if I have any), but I don’t make any decisions about what to play. Then, when I start to play, I use my fingers on the keyboard to feel the rhythm, dynamics, mood, etc. of the movement. With each new phrase of music I try to trust the feeling and go deeper into it.
What happens to my original ideas, if I had any? If I had no ideas to begin with, the music I play is consistently excellent when I follow this approach. Occasionally, one of my ideas was very strong and what I end up playing comes out sounding close to the original idea. Sometimes I discover that my ideas were way off the mark, based on a misunderstanding of the teacher’s intentions, and so what I end up playing has no relation to the original ideas at all, but also comes out working strongly with the movement. Most often, what I play contains elements of my original ideas, but is about 10 times better than what I had originally thought of, provided I use this approach. It always amazes me how polished, refined, elegant and powerful music, well-suited to the teacher’s pedagogical intentions and to the student’s needs, just pops into existence every time I use this technique.
It sounds simple. One approach which always works best in every situation. The problem is that my conscious mind, the part of me that thinks up all those ideas ahead of time, is so convinced of how wonderful the ideas are that it has a million arguments as to why I should really try to play music based on one of my clever ideas, instead of trusting my feelings. (Understand the difference: my preferred method doesn’t involve discarding or ignoring my ideas. On the contrary, I try to be as aware of them as possible. What I actually end up playing often incorporates many of the ideas. I simply don’t decide what to play based on my ideas. You could say I decide what to play ‘by feel.’ It’s like when you’re climbing up a big, half-rotting tree, trying to prune it. You ‘decide’ which limbs are capable of supporting your weight by feel. This is how we make all our decisions in our improv work. Yes, it requires us to ‘go out on a limb.’)
There is a character in all world mythologies of ‘the trickster.’ ‘Coyote’ in Native American traditions. “Anansi the spider” in African traditions. I believe this figure in part represents the conscious mind with its endless seductive rationales for trying to distract us from what we know we should do.The only way I’ve found to overcome the temptation to follow ideas rather than feelings is to consciously remind myself of what the right approach is, before I start to play, every time. I still do that 20 or 30 times a class, 3 or 4 classes a day, after 18 years.
There are several ways I feel this applies to the issues of recent rehearsals. One is, obviously, the role of ‘having ideas’ while improvising. Its a common mistake to think that being intuitive means ‘not thinking’ or ‘turning off your brain and just doing it.’ What I’m suggesting is that being intuitive doesn’t involve turning off any part of your brain. You don’t suppress ideas, in fact, your whole work is made up out of your ideas to begin with. Instead, it simply means you don’t decide what to do (or say) based on your ideas. Ideas are a part of your input, what you’re aware of, they feed you. You actually decide what to do by feeling where the flow of energy of the whole piece is going, and by constantly letting yourself feel more and more.
I understand very well your temptation to give yourself agendas, technical problems to work on, extra things to try to ‘do.’ “Perform in the proper scale.”"Use the space fully.” “Relax.” Even “try not to do too much” becomes something you try to do. It is very hard to accept the fact that the work will always come out best, no matter what, if you focus only on doing one thing: (in the technical language we’ve been using recently) immersing your spongelike vocal line into the energy flow of each moment in the performance, and opening yourself up so you can become more saturated with it. I know that takes a lot of words to say, but as you know, when you’re actually doing it, it feels like one simple action. What it all boils down to is: use your voice (and your silences) to feel everything going on. If I could somehow convince you not to try to do all of those other things, and, each time you improvise, to dedicate the full force of your will power only to trying to get more and more saturation, you would achieve mastery of this technique so quickly it would make all of our heads spin.
Actually, there is a useful way of incorporating all of those agendas, other than telling yourself to do them. They are all things you can work on trying to feel. In other words, your only task is to feel more and more, but some of the things we are trying to feel are subtle and elusive, and we need training and practice in order to feel them easily. ‘Scale of performance’ is something you feel, not something you do. When you’re immersing your performance into the small intimate space between you and a video camera 4 feet away, it feels different from immersing your voice into the space reaching from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House to the back of the highest balcony. Your place on stage, inside the visual composition of each moment, is something you can train yourself to feel, not something to ‘do’. Even relaxing, or ‘not doing too much’ is something to feel. If, with each phrase, you could fully feel the exact size, texture, emotion, etc. of the energy of that moment, you would automatically be ‘doing’ exactly the right amount, with nothing extra. Hope that gives you some helpful ideas. See you Sunday.