BCP#9 Craft and Improvisation
I ended yesterday's entry with young Beethoven whittling at his art. The other word for this is practicing.
There is a framework that this kind of discipline and inquiry supplies to life, like the rituals of religious life, that is not only comforting, but grounding. When life gets shaky, when we realize we don’t have all the answers, when we lose things that were formerly parts of our identity, we can take the knife and the wood into our hands again each day, and we find that the shape we’ve been whittling away to reveal is actually inside our own selves, not inside the wood. This work of developing our craft turns out to be about making who we are, as much as it is about making a piece of art or music, and it is never finished—there is always more to be learned and revealed. As a teacher, my highest hope is to impart any hint of the contentment and resonance available through the discipline of music to my students.
In the last several years, I met a wonderful family of artists and musicians, when I taught violin to two of the children of the family. To my amazement, the kids and their parents practiced the art of improvisation together constantly. The mom would take out her cello and start playing a pattern of some kind, inviting her kids to respond to it or add to it, and magically that pattern would morph into a whole musical conversation that was quite lovely to behold. These kids were given a kind of confidence that allowed them to feel safe and secure in doing this, stepping out into the unknown and seeing what lay there. The more they practiced it, the more facile they became at it of course. As they have grown into young adults, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the beautiful lives they have created for themselves, out of this assurance and freedom to explore. What an incredible gift their parents gave them through modelling this behaviour for them, and inviting them to join in this experience together.
Artist improvising and practicing his craft on the street in Vienna
Although I haven't done much improvisation, I have allowed myself to experience being a beginner at times. I took an acting class at night school, and it was the exact experience of improvising with a partner there that shocked me with the vital energy that blazed up in the moment, unplanned. I found my character’s emotions sizzling through me, while at the same time another part of me sat back watching all of this unfolding with a sort of elation. There was such a feeling of freedom in stepping off the well-defined path of life, and letting go of the burden of being myself for a bit.
Is this a little of what musical improvisation feels like? I fear only being able to put forth boring cliqués in a musical conversation without someone else’s beautiful words to speak. But when I think about my real everyday life, conversations with people that feel scripted, where I know exactly what to expect from them and what the normative reply is, make me want to fall asleep. It’s those small unexpected moments of revelation in connecting with another, or of simple laughter, that wake me up and return me to my life.
Beethoven was able to improvise fantastical piano music in performances, according to audience members. He even won some raucous competitions for this (imagine an American Idol in the Age of Enlightenment)! But the more isolated he became in his life, the less he risked any kind of interpersonal spontaneity. The balance of safety and vitality in our lives is delicate. What risks are acceptable, in the name of love or art, and how do we navigate through such fecund territory?