Improvisation Podcast

Enjoy my latest podcast transcript about improvisation. Check out the home page for links to all audios of this and many more podcasts!


Hello, and welcome to within the musician podcast. This show is a place of discovery for all students, performers, educators, and future educators. My name is Monica Williams, I’m a flutist teaching artist, recording artist, performer and lifelong learner. Today, it’s just me on the podcast, there’s no guest and I wanted to get on and talk about the subject of improvisation.

 I thought we would talk about my personal journey into improvisation what that looked like. What improvisation really is, anyway, and then why I like introducing it into my teaching, and how I can find that helpful. We’ll also talk about why I think it’s beneficial to start this if you’re a classical musician that hasn’t quite dabbled into improvisation. And then I’ll go over some exercises or ideas to get you started if you’re a musician who wants to explore this on your own. 

Perhaps you’re a teacher that wants to begin introducing this into your own studio. So first, let’s talk about my personal journey, the music that you hear that’s going to fade out in just a second is off of one of my albums called journey of tears. 

As I was thinking about this episode, I thought of this piece, normally, I go into the studio, and record all of my music, but this one track that you’re hearing or heard, was actually recorded in my home. And I did it just kind of listening to some background inspiration of a storm. And I was feeling in the the mood and the moment and I threw on the recorder and it. I really liked it. And so this ended up on my CD as an improvisation. I wasn’t intending to record it for my CD. And while I couldn’t recreate it in the studio, I thought, you know, I really like it as it is right now. And I have an amazing producer and engineer, I said, Can you restore this to a level that is acceptable that I could publish this. And it’s done really well. This particular track has done really well on playlist. And I think it’s even on airlines being played. And it was an improvisation that I created in my own home. Just what I was feeling like I wanted to create, and I didn’t want to 

necessarily read the music. So I thought that was a nice segue into what improvisation is or my experience with improvisation. Let me go back to my beginnings and talk about improvisation. 

Unfortunately, in my upbringing, I didn’t have any exposure to improvisation. My first experience with it was well, after graduating college, and I was working with this person then and she said, I’m going to play this piece that I’ve been working on and just kind of improvise a line. And I remember like, just standing there going, Okay, I wonder when I should actually stop her to let her know I don’t do this. This is not what I do. I need music and I need a structure, I need something I just can’t like play. And instead of doing that, I took a moment I closed my eyes, I listened. And I responded. And that was my first improvisation. It was awesome. And as a matter of fact, that particular person, I didn’t even tell her you know, at that moment in time that like, I’ve never done that before that really worked. And it felt great. It felt great to not be reliant upon the notes on the page, and just express. Just create. And so that was one of my first experiences with improvisation. And ever since then, it’s been a big part of my musical experience, both in my performing recording and teaching. So let’s now talk about why I think it’s important and really what is improvisation. 

So the simplest definition, I think of improvisation is just creating sounds or music or notes without reading notation on the page. You’re either listening internally and coming up with a line a musical idea. via a phrase, or you’re listening to another musician and having a conversation, musically, that is not on the page, basically you’re improvising together. And the reason I think this is kind of cool. And another experience is because you’re creating with out reading the notes, you get to immerse yourself just a little bit more into the experience. You get to listen to your sounds and think about where it wants to go. You get to listen to the other ensemble players if you’re playing in an ensemble, or with a recording, and you get to listen to them, and then have a conversation. So what one person says, reflects what I might say, just like in a conversation, and because of that, it actually feels like it’s coming more internally, it feels like it’s coming from my heart center, and a little less from my analytical sense or side. And they’re both important. I mean, like, you know, of course, when we’re creating music, we want it to be emoting. And coming from, you know, the place where we’re actually doing correct notation, and rhythms and notes as well. 

But by removing that technical analytical aspect, and just focusing on the sounds in the line, you do get a deeper experience that you can bring into classical playing. So one of my favorite things to do is to start with one notes. And when I start with that one notes, I asked myself, how can I make it go forward? How can I make this note travel? How can I use my vibrato in such a way that makes that sound travel, so I’m going to show you a little demonstration of that. Okay, so I pulled up my flute never done this on the podcast, but I thought this was the best way to explain what I’m talking about here. So I am going to play one notes, and then start with one additional note and then add one other note in. And I want to keep it as simple as possible, just listening to this nice drone track that I’m going to play. And off of that note, I can then be inspired to meld with that sounds, to breathe with that sound to vibrate with that sounds and really be responsive rather than having a plans motive.


So those are a couple of phrases inspired, in this moment, and I did include a couple more notes than three. But you can see that I was just figuring out what the key center was. Now if you’re a classical musician, you actually are ahead of the game, you can find out that D was the drone and I felt called to start in kind of a D minor mode. If you’re not a musician that has studied like that you can explore your instrument and find the best home position to make that note your home note and start with that one notes and then add more notes. In addition to that, you know, in my teaching, I have to mention that one of my favorite classes that I taught was Native American inspired flutes for adults, and most of these adults came to me with no musical background, some did but it was An amazing experience to get adults just to tap into the music without having to learn the notation. Because I started with improvisation, I started with the sounds with calls and responses. And to be able to create that from day one was kind of inspiring to me so that I could begin including this to younger players. So that is one part of my journey in my teaching that I really was able to see the value of introducing improvisation early so that players didn’t have to just learn the tablature the fingers, they could start with just understanding the scale, and understanding that they were an artist and could create really from the beginning.


Monica Williams


So that was an inspiring journey. Native American flute, by the way, is an awesome instruments to introduce to adults that really wants to get into a musical instruments, and have a rewarding experience. with not having to learn too much music theory notation, or any of the background behind it, you can delve into that instrument a little bit more than I find you can with concert fluids, or even guitar and piano, you could just you can create a little bit easier from the beginning. Okay, so now why it’s beneficial. I think I touched on this a little bit. But you know, if you can learn to create from within, you can then create lines with more intention. When you do read notation, because you’ve created from scratch, it’s like making a recipe from scratch. And then when you have a recipe in front of you, you have more control to modify it and put your own artistic license into it. Because you are taking more control of your color palettes, your expressive ness, you are really creating from within. So that is one benefit that I find classical musicians can tap into.

 Now I want to mention this because this is one of my personal understandings, going to a conservatory when I thought of improvisation. And I look back at this, and I’m horrified that I even thought this but I kind of thought that improvised music or if you were improvising was kind of like cheating. It was kind of like for musicians that weren’t so serious. And I don’t know why I or where that came about. in me. I would never vocalize that, of course, but I think it was. And I mentioned to my students that one of my first experience with World fluids because I’m big into world fluids, if you follow me was at the National fluids Association, their convention, it was in San Diego in 2005. And I came across this little booth amongst this field of silver and concerts, beautiful concert instruments, there was one table at the time that was a native american flute booth. And I played and it was just the pentatonic scale, I had no music that I could like, you know, play. It’s not like if you if I went to all the other booths, I’d probably be playing Mozart and for those flutist out there, it would probably be laughing because like you hear a lot of the same pieces being played because people are auditioning the instruments and we go to our, our standards there. But of course, I had no standards to play this instrument. I didn’t know this instrument, I was just meeting this instrument. And it was amazing. I really connected to it. And I was maybe you know, one of the not my first time improvising, like I mentioned, but you know just a little bit later. And that I purchased it at random spot. I’m like I need this instrument.

 But I’m sidetracking here back to the benefit of classical musicians is if you can get away from the notation on the page, then you have a bigger, broader deeper connection to the music that you do play when you play the notation. So I like to include this in my music teachings early. And just a little plug I do use the Catherine Blocki books, my beginning flute students and I’m sure that there’s insert or methods like this and other instruments as well. But I like that she had a section early early on when they just learn a couple of notes to play a pentatonic scale and then she has them do an improvisation with that, and then write out their favorite combination of notes. So they actually make a structured composition. And I think this is immensely beneficial to a young student, I wish I had been taught like that, that you’re empowering your students that they have a voice not only to play other people’s works, but to create themselves. And I think that is a great thing about improvisation is the empowerment of creation, and the ability to play off the page from an early time period. So I’ll do another little demonstration here. Once I grab my flute again, so hang tight. All right, got my flute out. So I’m going to do a super brief demonstration of what you can do with students. So I’m choosing the pentatonic notes, or pentatonic scale, D, D, G, A, B. And what you can do is have a student write those notes down, play that scale, and then begin to mix up those notes. So some students will be really timid and tentative when coming to this exercise. So I might encourage them to just play one notes, and then two notes, and then three notes. So for example, one note,then I would choose for them to maybe do two notes.And then I’d have them alternate, okay, play one quarter note, and then two eighth notes. And you get the idea. And then I would have them skip some notes. Okay, let’s skip over a little bit.


And it would just keep them happy and keep a really steady tempo. Again, this is for the student that’s like really resistant that will not go on their own and they need a little bit of hand holding To start off with, then what I do is I have them do different durations of those notes. Okay, choose to do some half notes and some quarter notes, and still come up with maybe something like this.


And then, of course, you sit that’s a beautiful song, you know, sometimes the sound is not as good because they’re playing very timidly and they need a little bit more encouragement. No, that is great. You’re making your own music. And I love to see a student’s eyes light up when they realized that they did that they made up a song, they are a composer now, because really, improvisation is the beginning of a composition once you put it down on paper. Now it’s yours now it’s you’ve actually written something and other people can now play your work. So what explaining that to them is is amazing. The other thing I will do and I have to address zoom right now because we are all teaching on zoom, if you’re listening to this, I’m recording during month 10 of the pandemic. So, column responses work really nicely in introducing improvisations, because we can’t play together, we can’t to do what’s right now, right? So I can put a drone like I had earlier on for Sonic inspiration and have that be going the whole time. Or I can just be playing and then ask them to answer me. So for example, I might play something that was fast, and then ask them to do a slow answer. So for example, I might go. And I’d have them answer something slow with vibrato, for working on vibrato.


And then I would do something fast. And then have them do something slow. And that’s a way of getting a conversation going with zoom lessons. And also working on whatever skills you’re working on and notation. So if you’re working on vibrato, you can work on vibrato, if you’re working on articulations and getting that to be clear and clean. You can throw that in there. Let’s do a call in response where we’re doing double tonguing. Let’s do a call in response where we’re doing this bowing technique, whatever it is, and you can take them off the paper. Sometimes just taking students off the paper gives them an opportunity to listen differently and experience it differently. And light bulbs will begin clicking. So those are some of my favorites go to his for for zoom teaching common responses love them. And it’s something different to work on, you can even do it as a warm up. 

So let’s talk about that. So as a classical musician warm up is important, right? We all know that you’re supposed to be doing scales, you’re supposed to be doing long tones, you’re supposed to be doing exercises and whatever is the kind of the standard in your instrument because we need to warm up. But throwing in an improvisation at the beginning of your practicing can be a great way to open up your minds a little bit more right to just settle down. And let’s face it this year has been stressful. So if you are finding that you’re not as charged, or maybe your students aren’t as charged, as they were maybe doing something new and different, like an improvisation as a warm up, just for a couple minutes before getting into the other exercises and repertoire you’re doing can just be a new way of thinking of it. And sometimes just by doing something new, you’re opening up your mind to new possibilities, again, I go back to then you can put it into the notation as well. So you can actually have a really a breakthrough moment. For wind players specifically, I sometimes acknowledge the fact that we can do meditation, and 

I talked about this a little bit with Sherry Finzer we can do meditation, with breath and sounds. And it doesn’t have to be like where you’re seated and you know Zen and not thinking of anything, you could have a sound meditation and improvisation because you’re you’re using less of that analytical side of your brain. And just expressing what you’re feeling at that moment, especially if you can let go of judgment. I’ll talk about that in a second. But that is a part of actually creating a meditation because you’re just letting all the thoughts go away and concentrating on the sound you’re creating, concentrating of how you’re feeling at that moment, and then expressing it that you know, can be mindful music that can be meditation in and of itself, which can be really healthy right now. Because we are all really, really stressed. And I don’t know about you, but we’ve all encountered these students that just are at the brink, you know, we’re on month 10. And just to give them some mental health ideas, is another great reason to include it into your teaching practice. 

I want to go back to what I said about judgment. And this goes to the tentativeness that I was explaining earlier, is that sometimes it can feel really vulnerable to play. And you can feel almost embarrassed about this, like, you know, is what I’m doing like valid. And although that shouldn’t be the case, it’s it’s a very common experience. And you can help your students and yourself get through this by validating that some of your improvisations are going to be not masterpieces that you’re going to want to put on a CD like my first one, I have improvisation moments that was like, Well, that didn’t work. But at least you put yourself out there. And you experienced that and you tried it. But however, if you go into the improvisation experience with that tentative, judgmental place, you’re going to be more reserved and not as much of your expressiveness is going to come forth, in my opinion, because you’re already judging it, we should try to get rid of judgments as much as possible when improvising You know, I think of it I tell my students that even Mozart and Beethoven they were crumbled up pages on the ground garbage, that I would love to see. And I’m sure you would as well you know, what the carpets for Mozart and Beethoven and Bach really was what but


but improvisations can be the same way. Some of them you’re gonna just literally crumble up on the ground and throw away. But it doesn’t matter that was for you as an experiment, and it was an experience that you had. That is parts of being vulnerable part of creating.

 So that’s my thought on improvisation. I hope you find some of these helpful I could go on and on and on, but I want to keep this podcast short. There are lots of resources that you can look into for improvisation ideas, there’s lots of sound tracks that you can Listen to that are specifically background tracks like the one from reading tears that I did that earlier one and I’m going to start playing it right now. That one that I did earlier was just inspired by the rain, hence raining tears. And you can find something that is to your calling in that moment, whether it be a drone, lots of drone apps, or nature, or maybe you just take your flute outside occasionally. Or you can do it of course with nothing and just you Everyone has their own preferences, and you can experiment it until you find yours. I’m happy to answer any questions about this if anyone is listening and really needs some personalized help and how to go about including it in your practice or your students practice. So I’m gonna wrap this up. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please like share, subscribe and review if you’re on Apple podcast and helps us reach more listeners. And until next week,  bye.

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