Tuesday, May 17, 2011


Every time I start a piano lesson with a student, we make up a song. I start by playing some chords, and my student makes up a melody on the high keys. We also play a lot of duets. Playing music together teaches cooperation as well as fine tuning rhythm skills, creativity, and intuition. It is always my favorite part of the lesson.

All of my social interaction is surrounded by music these days. I spend most of my free time with musician friends, my songwriting partner, and my concert going companions. Collaborating with friends is becoming my favorite way to connect. Last week, a friend's original country song inspired me to dust off my banjo to see what I could do. It was so much fun! I get a high off of playing music with others. It feels magical. You start with silence, one person begins to play, and the musician who is following has to use her intuition to see what she can add. I use the word intuition quite seriously. When you improvise music, you have to become a little psychic. You are always just a mili-second into the future, predicting what will come next, but there are also scientific aspects to it. There are formulas in music. Certain chord progressions happen over and over again, and once you play for a while, your ear becomes used to knowing what may come next. I find improvising with others to be a good workout for my brain.  Like meditation, you must stay completely focused on each moment as it goes by. If you don't, you will either make a mistake or just play something totally boring, and I would rather hear a mistake than something boring. Improvisation teaches you how to work creatively with others.

Do you ever find yourself in a social setting where someone says something that makes you uncomfortable? What happens? It depends on many factors: the other personalities in the room, the physical environment, the conditions that brought you together, how much sleep everyone had the night before... 

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who said something that stuck with me. In terms of relationships, he said that most people do not act but react. We react to the way others treat us. We react to their tone of voice, their words, and their body language. If someone is nice to us, we are nice to them. If someone is a jerk, we are a jerk back. In music practice, if someone begins a song in a sad minor key, we all begin to feel the same mood as the leader and we all work to create an environment based on what we feel from each other. I have been an audience member at shows where a band member makes a mistake, and the other band members react with anger, as if the imperfection of this one person is reflecting their own musical skills. When I improvise with students and they hit a bad note, my first instinct is to just keep playing. There is no need to point it out, because chances are that the player already feels a little uncomfortable with realizing they are not perfect. If someone misses a beat, it may just be an opportunity to change the rhythm and merge into a totally different type of song. Improvisation is all about staying present and going with the flow.

When someone makes an inappropriate statement or treats me in a questionable manner, I have found that it's important to check in with myself and see what I can do to control the situation, just like music practice. If you are in a jam session, and someone messes up, getting angry will not save the song. You can save the song by improvising and using your own musical skills to take the song somewhere else, possibly somewhere completely unexpected. Isn't this true in life? You are late to an appointment because of a traffic jam. Frustrating, but what can you do? You can become all worked up, red faced with raised blood pressure, or you can just accept your fate and enjoy the song on the radio. You can improvise with what you actually have control over in that present moment.

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