A couple of months ago I started playing in an instrumental band, as the only guitarist. It felt exposing. There was nowhere to hide my shaky chops. No singing or words for me to distract people with. I was leaning FAR out of my comfort zone.
Then, just to make life even more interesting, we decided that rather than rehearsing any music we would just sit and play. So I couldn’t even practise our songs to get them perfect. No prep. Nothing to hide behind. Just good old making it up as you go along (or “jamming” if you’re my dad). For hours. All taped, and poured over afterwards for recurring patterns, good moments and a coherent style.
This wasn’t inching just out of my comfort zone. This was climbing out of the 14th-floor window and onto the tightrope.
Improvisation has always been something I’ve struggled with. I learned saxophone as a teenager, and despite loving jazz and knowing a modest amount of music theory, I just couldn’t step off the edge. The thought of getting it wrong was too overwhelming. So I just – didn’t. I figured it just wasn’t for me.
But, of course, improvisation has nothing to do with wrong or right, going to a defined point, or hitting anyone else’s standards. It’s about learning to say “fuck it” and surrendering to the process. It’s the ultimate in play. Bouncing off other people – or whatever other parameters you have – and giving yourself permission to respond from a deep, subconscious place of invention.
In short, I stepped off the ledge. I had to – I was sitting in a shed-studio with two other people who were pumped up and ready to go, plus I couldn’t run away because I was on the wrong side of Leeds and Joe had given me a lift there.
And it was wild. Not only was it the most relaxing band practice I’d ever had (completely in flow state) – listening back to the recordings that first week, it actually sounded pretty good.
Week 2 – better. Week 3 – getting exciting. Week 4 – sound finally solidifying into something that is completely itself.
By letting go, staying curious, and allowing ourselves to be surprised and delighted by the journey, we’ve made a thing that lives and breathes all on its own. Even if we decide not to share it and keep it as our own secret art, it’s just as special.
Since I’ve started on this journey with Piopio (still in its very early stages), I’ve started spotting places for improvisation everywhere. I’ve played with fiction writing. I’m posting on social media for my business more, and finding it less agonising. I’m dicking about with ideas of performance and fun in other musical projects. I’m playing with effects and words and concepts without any real end game. The world has become a big, messy artist’s palette, and I’m joyfully smooshing the colours.
It’s been a nudge to get over myself– an eternal work in progress. It’s encouraging me to let go of ego, shame, or the thought that any of it *gestures wildly around* really matters in the great universe of things. Of course, having a safe space to try things, bandmates for accountability, and semi-regular practice time has really helped too.
I’ve realised that we waste a lot of time waiting for the perfect moment, for the stars to align, in order to create for ourselves. And in doing that, we miss the tiny moments of gold that pop up when we’re just messing. The moments that lead to something, which leads to something else, and all of a sudden you’re making art.
When you start playing just to see what happens, you open yourself up to being surprised and delighted. And once you let go of preconceptions about how things are supposed to sound, or look, or feel – it’s surprising how often you are.