Improvisation: A union of mind, body and music

Improvising on the saxophone has transformed my life forever. It has awakened me to a completely new level of spirituality – hard words for me to type, as a rationalist. Improvisation is a religious revelation. It is meditation, red mist and the soul. Playing music without a plan showed me the full dignity of the human consciousness and the hot power of the mind. It made me question everything that had gone before, and opened up unlimited possibilities for everything that lay ahead. It very nearly never happened. I want to share my story, and my elation, about how it did. Somebody showed me how.

When I was about 11, my parents made me start taking lessons once a week for 30 minutes, together with another kid. Our teacher, a clarinet player, would take us through the required pieces for the next grade exam. They were classical: The melodies felt stiff. I thought the saxophone was the stupidest thing on the planet, and I gave up around four years later. I don’t think I played the instrument at home even once.

During a visit home around 12 years later, my mum told me to dig the instrument out of the back of the cupboard under the stairs and put it on eBay. For some reason, I decided to take it back to Germany. I signed up for a group lesson at the local community centre and began wrecking our neighbours’ lives forever by practising in the kitchen in our flat a couple of nights a week. I enjoyed meeting new people and re-learning to read sheet music, but I had still never really heard a piece of music featuring a sax that didn’t seem to belong to a dead tradition. It felt nostalgic and a little bit silly: Music from a naïve and embarrassing era of badly-fitting trousers and people smoking cigarettes through little plastic tubes. Saxophone lessons felt like history lessons. I began to think eBay wasn’t such a bad idea.

And then one day our teacher, Simon, wrote a set of notes on the board (I now know this was the G blues scale), sat down at the piano, and started playing the chords in the 12-bar blues progression. The others in the group had been attending the lessons for a while: One by one, they began to play – and it sounded good. It honestly sounded good. I was intimidated, and not a little bit confused: They had all sounded just as crap as me when we were murdering Summertime. When it was my turn, I (almost certainly) turned red, and passed to the next person in the class without playing a note.

Once every student had played, Simon finished at the piano and gave each student some short feedback on what they had done well and what they could try in the future. He explained the task to me: Any of the notes on the board would sound good at any time, in any order. Just pick up your sax, and blow. Make shapes. Try different runs. Play long and short notes, soft and loud. Adjust your lips on the mouthpiece. Play notes that are close together, and play notes that are far apart. Build ideas. Experiment. Play on the saxophone.

We began again. When it was my turn, I (almost certainly) turned red again, but I blew. I couldn’t believe that the tones coming out of the sax fit with those coming from the piano. Notes became melodies. I was listening to the piano – but I also wasn’t. After what was, in retrospect, almost certainly not 12 bars, I pulled the sax away from my face and the next student began playing. I went home and I couldn’t sleep all night. I was hooked.

We continued to do this exercise for the last 10 minutes of every lesson. I surreptitiously scribbled down the set of notes that Simon put on the board, and I played them over and over in our kitchen – teaching my fingers to find the keys automatically, teaching the neighbours to master their bloodlust urgently. I gained confidence, playing more boldly each week. Each time I got closer to sounding more like myself: Communicating something meaningful – without knowing what it was before it hit my ear.

Since then I have learned more and more about improvisation. It is a long journey: I can now play over chord progressions without relying on a blues scale. I think about phrasing, I try to explore motifs and patterns while paying more attention to forming a coherent story, from the beginning of the solo to the end. I’m crap, of course, but that is not really the point. Improvisation, when it is done well, seems to require something similar to what sportspeople call ‘getting in the Zone’. Simultaneous and exclusive states of mind: Absolute focus on the chord changes and available tone material, together with a total absence of conscious thought. It has opened up a completely new kind of music for me – not just to appreciate, but to revere. This composition on the run, this singing without a song. It is a transcendental act that requires staggering union between mind, body, and music. It is astonishing. And yet everyone can do it – you just need somebody to show you how.

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