I was getting into a bit of a rut in my job, which is playing improvised music for dance classes. This happens occasionally because I have played for the same dance teachers in some cases for many years. Some of these teachers teach the exact same exercises in the exact same way, class after class, year after year, and I find myself playing the same kind of music for them time after time. Moreover, the music feels like it has a “stuck” quality, and isn’t fully alive any more.

Improvising actors could find themselves in a similar situation if they are in a long-running show, working with the same group, in which they always use the same structures and set-ups. Non-improvising actors who are in a long-running show, naturally, always have the problem of how to make the play feel new again. (If you’re performing completely open-ended improvs, like I do in my Lake Ivan work, you don’t tend to run into this problem, since it is part of the nature of a completely open improv that you are always free to discover something new.)

I solved the problem for myself in a rather spectacular fashion by simply getting back in touch with the proper motivation for playing the music.

I have had enough experience as a professional improvising musician to know that I should avoid the mistake of trying to make it new by “trying to make it new,” that is, by consciously attempting to think of new ideas or to force myself to play something I’ve never played before. This conscious attempt to play something “new” would take me away from the intuitive, emotional sources of the music, and always results in music which sounds weak and half-assed. The underlying mistake is that the problem I was experiencing was not really that the music wasn’t “new” enough. The real problem was that the music had become fossilized. By coagulating into a well-worn formula, one that I know works particularly well for a given situation in dance class, the music had become cut off from the intuitive sources which keep it alive, and it had become an empty shell instead of a living, growing piece of music. It didn’t need to be “newer,” it just needed to be Better Music.

So I returned to the basic motivation for improvisation. That is, Saturation. (See the entry on “taking the audience on a journey” for my full explanation of the concept of Saturation.) My goal, I reminded myself, as I place my fingers on the keyboard and begin to play, is to feel the flow of the music in the fullest, richest, most robust way I possibly can. I want to get completely soaked in the sensation of the music. I want to have every part of my body filled with the feeling of the music. As I go through the piece, I crave the sensation of being filled with the feeling of the music, and I want more and more of this feeling with each musical phrase. (Since, in this particular case, I’m supposed to be playing music which supports a very particular set of dance steps, what I’m really saturating myself with is the sensation of the Dance.) My whole effort is focused on opening myself up and getting more and more richness of feeling.

As soon as I reconnected with “saturation” as a goal rather than “newness,” it quickly solved a lot of problems for me. I no longer had any problem with “trying to think of something new to play” or even “trying to think of something to play” at all. My job was no longer to “find something to play.” My job was only to put my fingers down on the keys and use them to get as rich and full an experience as I possibly could get. I could begin to play even if I had no particular ideas. And what kind of music did I play? In almost every case, it was something startlingly new, an approach to a very familiar dance exercise which I had never tried before. And not just a haphazardly “new” idea, but something really good; simple, clear, functional, and powerfully expressive. In a few cases the music was not particularly new, it was still a variation on a very familiar approach, but it was much better than it has been in a long time; more passionate and heartfelt, as well as clearer and better-executed.

The effects were immediately apparent to others as well. Teachers began exhorting their students “listen to that great music he’s playing. Why don’t you respond to it with your dancing?” Students came up to me after class to say they had especially enjoyed the music I was playing. Not only the students of course, but I had also enjoyed my own playing more than usual.

In other words, if you get stuck in a rut, how do you make it new? Answer, it doesn’t need to be “new,” it needs to be good. Remember that you have only one goal for performing: the goal of experiencing what you are performing with as much richness and fullness as you possible can. Stick to this goal, and the results will be new and fresh every time.