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Fear of Improvisation - It’s Time To Let It Go!

Updated: Apr 19

A picture of Irene Feher standing in the middle of a circle of musicians during an improvisation workshop
Irene with Music for People participants

Improvisation is a challenging concept for many, including highly experienced musicians. Knowing where to begin is the first huge step. 

We have all heard the expression “Music is a language”. If we reflect on how we learned to speak and communicate, we followed this sequence: we began by imitating the sounds around us, these sounds became words, these words became sentences. We learned through trial and error. Our relatives applauded each vocal baby step we made. Reading and writing came along later. 

We improvise every time we speak with someone. No matter how hard we might rehearse what we want to say to someone, we have no control over how they will react. 

When we write an email, a letter (yes, some people still write those and I LOVE receiving them!), or an entry in a diary, we are putting our thoughts into words. 

Why not do the same with music? 

With the exception of jazz programs, improvisation has not been a part of most music curricula until very recently. At long last its value as an essential element of musical development and training is being recognized. Students have told me that they never imagined how much they could learn through improvisation, and how gratifying it was.

Those with little to no musical training can feel the beat when they listen or dance to a favorite song, or when a song is happy or sad, and chime in with their favorite artists singing a popular chorus from a song and they instantly recognize a song they love. 

My dear friend and mentor Mary Knysh always says “we are full of music”, and I will add that we are wired for music. 

Why does improvisation seem so daunting to so many? 

For many of us, our relationship to music is charged with emotion. Improvising is like looking in the mirror. You see yourself and where you are at that moment, whether you like it or not. There is nowhere to hide, you have no choice but to lift the veil, put the music sheet down, and be yourself. Questions and fears arise: what if I’m not good enough? What if I’m boring? I don’t know how to play an instrument. I can’t sing. I’m not musical…etc. When we set our expectations too high, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

A diverse group of people standing in a circle with their stretched arms, vocalizing.

I strive to facilitate improvisation, to make it accessible. In my training I experienced this vulnerable state, and I know what it’s all about, I learned radical acceptance. I still learn something new every single time I improvise alone and with others. Music has so much to teach us about ourselves and all aspects of life. Here are some examples: listening, patience, flexibility, communication, cooperation, support, humility, curiosity, timing, and care.

For those who experience it for the first time, improvising with others is surprisingly fun. Take it one step at a time, let the ideas of others inspire you, and use your intuition and skills to co-create  - every person finds their place and purpose in an improvised ensemble. 

Like everything worth doing in life, it takes time, a willingness to try and tenacity.  

I have come to a place where playing spontaneous music can be really pleasurable. What I am referring to is not working towards a specific goal but simply playing music for the sheer pleasure of creating sound. 

Playing just because I want to? Yes, taking time for ourselves to simply disconnect and enjoy is not as highly valued as productivity. Even when we are enjoying ourselves, we are compelled to share it on social media so we film or photograph what we are doing and who we are with. Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath, an expert on memory says that when we are busy photographing an event, we are not fully present and as a result our recollections of that event will not be as vivid. I am working on being more present.   

In our overly scheduled lives, you might think this all sounds a little unrealistic but this kind of unstructured play is so good for us. It calms me and rejuvenates my spirits. 

 This is a snapshot of my favorite way to take a break from work. At Concordia University, there are some wonderful pianos! The piano is more than a teaching tool for me, it opens the door to a whole world of sound! When I have a free moment between voice lessons and emails, I just love to play. These two free improvisations are played on the black keys only. I play the black keys when I need to disconnect for a moment and relax into sound. The second improvisation was just after a student’s dress rehearsal at Oscar Peterson Concert Hall.

I love improvising with others, and I experience the joy that less experienced players and/or improvisers feel when they find themselves making it up as they go in an ensemble. They naturally connect with other players through imitation, holding a steady pulse, or offering some precious nuances with a rainstick or soft humming. They are surprised that they can actually improvise. 

Let’s return to the opening statement: Improvisation is challenging concept for many, including highly experienced musicians. Knowing where to begin is the first huge step. So where do we begin? Open your beginner’s mind, allow silence, listen, breathe. and offer one sound, repeat that sound, how much can you do with that one sound? Groove on it - hold it, crescendo, slam on it, decrescendo, caress it, add texture, change how you articulate it… the possibilities are endless. 


Sit at the piano and play the black keys! 


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