Monday, January 13, 2014

Improvisation and Insight

I'm totally digging my music therapy classes. They are personally insightful, professionally needed, and just plain fun. In my Music Therapy Ensemble class this semester, we were assigned to to some solo improvisation on a few instruments that we were drawn to, and with our voice. We were asked to be spontaneous, coming up with whatever we wanted (non-referential improvisation) and to try and improvise in the "style" of some emotion, such as joy, love, or anger. We were also tasked with picking an instrument that reflected our true selves, and one that reflected our ideal selves, and improvise on that. We reported the experience in a reflection paper. Here's mine.

Individual Improvisation Exploration

 Improvisation has been a long time coming for me. It has surprised me, frustrated me, and at times let me touch the sublime. It has also let me connect with others, gaining understand I might not have otherwise had. It has given me insight into myself.
Personal Experiences with Improvisation
Being comfortable and competent when improvising is certainly a goal of mine. Before coming to school, I got quite comfortable improvising on the trumpet. I played with a quartet and it was part and parcel of the gig. I never translated that expertise to other instruments, however. Until now, I never tried improvising on percussion instruments. In a group, however, with someone else's riffs to build on, I feel safe and inspired. I hear their playing and get lost in the shared creation, trading riffs and taking turns being “in front.” The level of communication is amazing, given that it is entirely non-verbal.
Improvising alone is another matter. This may be due to the fact that alone, I usually play a pitched instrument. They seem to demand melodies and harmonies from me. Drums, on the other hand, make no such demands. Instead, they allow me to let go of that and play with rhythm, accents, dynamics, meter, tempo and groove.
Still, playing together can sometimes have a downside. I discovered this when my daughter came in and spontaneously started playing the drums with me. I enjoy making music with my kids, and we don't do it often enough, so I didn't stop her. When I was ready to end, but she was not, it got frustrating, though. Her playing spoke to me about her as much as her daily activities did. It was annoying, enlightening, and fun all at the same time.
Referential vs. Non-referential Improvisation
The difficulty of “getting into it” with pitched instruments marked my experience with referential improvisation, as well. I have to make is sound like something. It's harder to force the music to conform to an intellectual thought. When it's an emotion like anger, fear, or sorrow, I may not want to dig deep enough to make myself feel that way. Then the improvisation becomes an intellectual task, and I feel disconnected with the music. That's something for me to work on.
Non-referential improvisation was much easier. The sounds come from within, perhaps from my unconscious mind. It presents ideas and I get to play with them, shaping them like a child might playdough. An idea is created, modified, and then I get to wipe it out and start over with something else without having to care. Transience is celebrated.
Instrumental vs. Vocal Improvisation
I played with a few instruments: guitar, piano, and a small collection of hand drums. Playing the guitar was the most difficult, perhaps because it is not an instrument I have yet mastered. Still, itt was fun when I started playing with various chords, strumming patterns and rhythms. Then my lack of experience would rear its head and take me out of the groove. The piano was similar, but I felt more confident with it, and was able to create more passable results. I was certainly able to create pieces more relaxing, and more majestic, on the piano. The drums were just plain fun. My inner “jazz man” got to come out and play. It occurred to me, after the fact, that there's no reason those fun grooves can't come to play on the piano, as well.
Vocal improvisation came easily. I found myself spontaneously adding melodic vocal lines when improvising on guitar. Vocal improvisation is not foreign to me at all. It is often the first instrument I turn to when musical ideas for composition strike me, and I'm away from paper, computer, or piano.
Improvising Lyrics
Lyrics were quite another matter. I often make up silly lyrics on the spot, to known melodies, just to make my children laugh. We used to sing to each other instead of talking, when doing chores around the house. “It's time to clean your room, please. It's time to clean your room.” I might sing, in an overly dramatic, operatic voice. “No, Daddy, it's not. I need to eat my breakfast first,” or more often, “Do I have to?,” they might reply, smiling. Putting myself on the spot, even though I was alone, was more difficult. I couldn't think of much to say about myself that wasn't critical. “John is a fat man, trying to go to school,” and so on. Recognizing it, I immediately forced more positive lyrics, “He's dedicated to his music, and helping other people. He'll see this course to the end.” Perhaps I am too aware of my shortcomings, and don't give myself enough credit for my abilities.
Improvising on the Self
That notion, how do I reflect myself in improvisation, didn't start very well because of those lyrics. It was hard to choose an instrument to represent my real self, and my ideal self. In the end, I could only think of the piano. A part of me would love to someday sit down at a bank of synthesizers and improvise like Vangelis, but the piano is often enough.
Sometimes, when I hear other, more talented players in class, I feel jealous or discouraged. They are so good! I feel like a pretender. There are other times, however, when I'm pretty damn good. At those times, the piano and I become one being, indistinct from each other. The experience dwells in the spiritual and speaks of the sublime. But that is not often.

Improvisation is a spontaneous act of musical creation, and although I struggle with certain aspects of it, I also revel in it. It makes me feel connected to others, and can sometimes be a tool to tap into inner realms where thought and creation exist in the same space and time.

Thursday, November 07, 2013


I live in a cinder block cave. The three bedroom apartment we now live in has cinder block walls, and a bit more than one-quarter of the square footage our house did. The master bedroom is only a bit smaller than the one we had before, and one of the bedrooms is about the same size as the smallest bedroom we used to have, although it has more closet space. The final bedroom is about the size of a walk-in closet. There's barely enough room for my middle daughter's bed and shelves. We put her dresser in the closet so it wouldn't block the outside window. If we could get her to keep her room clean, it might seem bigger than it is.

There is a small closet in the living room that is plumbed to hold a small washing machine. It's barely big enough to hold the washer, and close the door. I had to get new hoses, with 90 degree connectors, to get it to fit, though.

 There's a spot for a gas dryer, as well. Outside on the porch. I've hung clothes outside to dry, but never taken them to an outside dryer. Its' pretty well protected from the elements by the upstairs balcony and a dividing wall, but I think I'm going to get a tarp to cover it, with winter coming along. There's also small storage room, just off the back porch, opposite the dryer. Trust me when I say it's packed to the ceiling.

 The kitchen has taken the most adjusting. It's tiny. The refrigerator (standard size), sink (two basin) and oven/stove are butted up against each other, wrapping around the corner the sink sits in. On the other side of the stove is a counter top about the size of a movable chopping block. That's it. No more built in counter space.

 To cope, we've gotten creative. There are, thankfully, plenty of cupboards that go nearly to the ceiling. There was also room for us to stack a few large storage buckets in one corner, and put in a freestanding shelf against the wall, opposite the stove. We've also turned an aquarium stand into a microwave stand. Putting the cut-out from a sink installation on top has given us a bit more counter space. The bread-machine lives under the microwave, on the floor.

 Parking is weird, too. It's been many years since I lived in an apartment, and at least those had assigned parking. Not so, here. There is resident parking, but I'm not guaranteed to have a space of my own. There are a few parking lots adjacent to our complex, but the one that's closest to our apartment is shared by the football stadium. Every time there's a home game, I have to move our van so the university can sell the parking space to some rabid football fan for $10.00. I also can't get to my apartment easily because the close down the street that runs in front of it. All the better to control access to the game and sell the almighty football tickets.*

 In spite of how different it all is, we're getting used to it. The university shuttles are reasonable, at least during the day, and the city has free public buses. The routes and stops are a little screwy, but we're coping. The kids have made friends very quickly, the neighbors are nice, and I love my classes. My wife and I have both found work. It doesn't pay as much as we really need it to, but at least we're employed. All in all, I'd have to say my life is pretty good. Busy. Weird, when compared to our old life, but good. Now if I could just find more time to update my blogs, regularly.

 *In case you're wondering, I really don't like American football. Yeah, it's nice when the college team wins, but to be honest, that doesn't happen very often.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Running Scared

In case you didn’t figure it out, my family is moving to another city so my wife and I can finish school. We’re quitting our jobs, trying to sell our house, packing up the family, and moving into a three bedroom apartment. Neither of us has a job lined up or any idea how we’ll keep up with our rent and utilities if we don’t get one, although my wife has an interview set up. I’ve never done that before. I’ve always had a job during a move. In fact, the only time I’ve ever moved as been because of employment, not in spite of it. I’m scared witless, but for a reason I can’t fathom, we’re going through with it, anyway.

The security-craving part of my brain is going ape-shit. It’s like I’m talking to myself, “Self! What in heaven’s name are you thinking? You’re acting like an idiot.” The adventurous side of my brain is saying, “Wow! Think about it, Self! You’ve freed yourself to work on music full-time!” I can’t decide which one is screaming louder.

I can dream pretty well: releasing and marketing a solo piano CD, playing clubs and coffee shops, setting up a piano trio/quartet with some other students, getting involved in the local arts scene, teaching and doing something concrete with music therapy. Maybe I’ll write a book or create an online course.

I can frighten myself pretty well, too: how are we going to pay the rent if we can’t make a decent wage, how can I get a job given how scattered my schedule is, how will this effect my two youngest daughters, let alone my other children, how will I deal maintain the connections I want to maintain in Salt Lake and Tooele if I’m living in Logan, and so on. What if this makes us homeless and I have quit school?

I admit it, I would love to play the house husband, work on my music, and let my wife work as the full-time bread-winner. She’s planning on it, but she has a few classes to go to finish her degree, and I don’t want that to go by the wayside because of fear. It’s not fair to her or to our daughters. Either way, the adventure begins this weekend.

P.S. If you’d like to help us move, show up Saturday morning and help us load the truck. If you’re in Logan, you can show up at Aggie Village and help us unpack. Any help is appreciated.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Last semester went well. Surprisingly, I got straight “A’s” for the second semester in a row and have a current GPA at USU of 4.0. Anyone who knows me from childhood has either fainted or reported me to the FBI to find out exactly when I was replaced by an alien doppelganger. I can sympathize with them. While I’ve never been overly stupid, good grades and I never got along when I was younger. I think it was all the boredom and skipping classes in high school, but I’m not ruling anything out.

To put things in perspective, though, I’ve only been going part time. I’ve also been at an extension campus with rather small class sizes. This is all about to change. In about a month my wife and I will be moving to the main campus so both of us can finish our degrees. We’ve put our house up for sale, started getting rid of our excess stuff, and generally been making a mess. We’re moving with into an apartment about half the size of our current house. I’ve been telling everyone it’s like we’re losing our basement.

Miraculously, I’ve saved enough money to fix most of my teeth. I’ve been visiting the dentist every other week for a while, and it’s not quite over, but should be in a couple of weeks.

To make things more chaotic, and here’s the scary part, as you know, I had surgery on my hands:  bilateral carpal tunnel release. Not fun. Needless to say, that has slowed things down on the move, at least for my part. My hands are starting to feel better, though. That’s the good part.

The effects of such personal upheaval are an increase in personal and familial stress, increased orneriness, and general feelings of hate, fright, discontent and a fair amount of humility. It could be humiliation, though. I’m not sure.