Growing up, I loved to read, and one of the series of books I discovered was the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Whereas normally a book proceeds from front to back, these were different because every few pages, there would be an option in the plot for the reader to choose what action the main character takes next. Based upon your choice, you would flip to somewhere else in the book and continue reading until the next decision point. Sometimes you flipped forward, sometimes backward, so you never knew how soon the end would come. You could also reread the book many times to see how the different choices changed the outcome, so suddenly instead of just one book, you had fifteen or twenty!
In preparing for my upcoming concert at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen, I had to choose repertoire to play and decide if I wanted to improvise on the concert. As I sifted through my music options, I felt like I was in a choose your own adventure story. Which piece will follow this one? What theme shall I use for my improvisation? While there was never a wrong way to progress through the adventure books, there was usually only one way that led to the best ending. What is the best musical program I can build from the pieces available to me? What would I be comfortable improvising and how might it fit into the mix?
Try it again!
While it is important to be able to keep going while improvising, I believe it is also useful to attempt the same improvisation multiple times. Just as I reread the adventure books multiple times to get to all the different endings, we could practice our improvisations from the same starting points and make different choices as we progress along. Occasionally the ending of the book came fast and furious (and not too happily). So might our improvisation come to a rapid close if we deviate too far from our plan, but the joy of practicing is that we can start once again from the beginning, making a few different choices and hopefully reach a more satisfactory ending. Even if you are content with your improvisation, could you do it the same way again? Chances are (especially if it is more than a minute long), you’ll end up doing something a little different the next time through. Did the change make it better? This is how some composers actually write their pieces. Why couldn’t we do the same as improvisers?
While I had the pleasure to reread the Choose Your Own Adventure books numerous times, at some point, I had exhausted the options of the book and it was time to move on to another volume. The themes we choose for our improvisations offer an almost infinite source of options for us to explore. We may provide a “final answer” when we improvise in public, but even after a performance, we can continue to work and rework a theme many more times. How many different ways have you tried to improvise on the same theme? Besides simply doing variations on the theme, can you use the theme in a new way to create a completely different form? I challenge you to dive into a theme and work with it to see how many different styles and types of piece you can make with it before exhausting your adventure with it.
May your adventures always end happily!
PS. If you need a theme to work with, check out the list of options at www.organimprovisation.com/themes
Recent additions to organimprovisation.com: