Improv to Improve

Improvisation used to be such a scary word for me. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. If someone asked me to prepare something to sing…I was happy to do it. If someone asked me to make something up on the spot… Are you kidding me? No freaking way. Where could I get  the music? I needed something to look at. I didn’t think I could be that vulnerable!! There was no protection for me if it wasn’t provided by that piece of paper with all the black notes on it!

And then my next thought, almost immediately, was, “this is ridiculous!” I have a two degrees in music education, two decades of teaching experience in a variety of capacities and singing is something that I absolutely LOVE to do. What was wrong with me?

I didn’t figure this out until recently…Growing up, the word “improv” was always associated with jazz singing. The scat-too-doo-loo-dats were foreign to me, even after spending hours rehearsing with jazz choir in high school. It felt contrived to me – unnatural almost. I never felt connected to it enough that I could express myself the way that scat singing is supposed to be. So improv? It just wasn’t for me…I didn’t know how to use those syllables to express what I wanted to say. It was easier (and safer) to use someone else’s music and add my own emotional intention. I could be pretty expressive, but I don’t know how to be creative.

Years ago, during in the beginning of Modern Band at my school, some of the high school kids asked if I could play bass with them in their jam session because their bass player was out that day. For a second, I froze. It was completely out of my comfort zone, and yet, I realized that I ask this of my students every day. I tell them (actually…require them) to do something new and different and be okay with making mistakes because THAT’s where the learning happens – right??? Sooooooo I took a breath and said yes.

This was a game changer for me. Not only did I let go of my hesitations, I fell into a flow that allowed my ears to take control of my fingers…instead of my brain worrying where my fingers were “supposed” to go on the bass, they just travelled naturally. Now, I’ve said this before… I am a proud type A personality and never in a million years did I think I would be jamming with a band on a bass (man, I felt cool!) But when I let go of trying to control my sound, I was able to trust myself and actually ENJOY the process. It was liberating.

While I can play bass, my voice is my instrument of choice. I immediately wanted sing and use my newly discovered skill. I felt like I was on fire – that something that was once hidden was finally uncovered: A newly found voice to express myself and actually be creative with the notes, rhythms, phrases (and sometimes words). 

I now find myself seeking out opportunities to sing in this capacity. I am lucky that I have some terrifically talented friends who are in bands themselves that let me sing with them once in a while. And of course, my students…they gave me the courage to rediscover my voice even when I thought I already knew it so well. I am so grateful for them. Take the leap – put yourself out of your comfort zone. Improvise – you’ll be great – and you’ll improve!!

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