Seth Alexander - February 6th, 2011
One of the first memories I have is of my mother in her basement workshop cutting different shapes out of colored glass. She was a stained glass artist. Not blown glass but cut glass, like you would see in a church window. As you might guess, glass isn’t the most forgiving medium. It’s not like you can make a mistake and still make it work. No, you’ve got to stop, do it again and again until you get it right, or go crazy trying. Each individual piece has to be exact otherwise the overall work literally won’t hold together.
As improvisers, we enjoy the art of experimentation. We thrive on taking risks with the architecture of song. And we revel in that moment when those risks develop into something much more potent.
Music Theory 101 will tell you any great song or improvisation has three legs to stand on; melody, harmony, and rhythm. Each leg is made up of individual phrases, or shapes. Sometimes one or two of the legs are vaguely abstract, completely nonsensical, or even absent all together, but that third leg should still be strong enough to keep the piece standing upright.
In my practice, I usually digest a song in bite size pieces; phrase by phrase, shape by shape. Often times, I use the more interesting shapes to build dexterity across my instrument and as creative inspiration. Consequently, my composition and improvisation are generally reflective of this segmented and thematic approach.
So often, when we improvise, we let our instinct to fill empty space overpower the development of an idea. This Sunday, try to take a simple shape, theme, harmonic progression…any group of notes, and develop it, knead it, roll it, stretch it, put your favorite toppings on it and bake it.
Try to take that one idea as far as you can before you let it go.