Thursday, September 4, 2014

Soloing, part 12-1: Improvisation – as a whole

I've been thinking about improvisation a lot recently.  I was doing a couple of sessions with our auditioning class and wanted to get them thinking about improvisation on top of giving them some concrete drills.

What is improvisation, anyways?  It’s the act of creating something on the fly, impromptu, in the moment.  Everyone improvises.  You improvise a dozen times a day without realizing it, I bet.  Do you drive?  Then you decide on the fly when to merge, when to slow down, etc.  Do you talk to people on the phone?  Then you’re deciding what you’ll say based on the conversation.  Do you have a pet?  How you play with your pet is probably another example of improvisation in action.  True, this isn’t what most people think of as “improv”, but it’s still there.

Most taiko players see improv as a tool.  It’s just the thing they use when it’s time to solo.  The solo ends, the tool is pocketed away until next time.  That doesn’t mean they’ve mastered the tool or that it’s something they’re comfortable with, but the tool still works.  On a basic level, this is fine.

You can also take improv to a higher level by thinking of it as a skill.  And with any skill, the more practice you give it, the better it can get.  We practice striking, we practice tempo, we practice sequence – so it makes perfect sense that improv would also be on that list.

Finally, taking it one step higher, you can view improv as an art form.  It’s something that you can spend years of study on – decades even – and still have so much more to learn. There is the day-to-day improvisation that we do as human beings, sometimes even for survival, but most of the recognizable improv that we think about is attached to an existing art form.  If I pointed at you and said “improvise!”   What would you do?  Would you sing a song, do a dance, play a rhythm?  Would you arrange things into patterns?   Maybe tell some jokes?  All of those things are already their own art, and you’d be using improvisation within them.

On a larger level, there are so many things people can improvise within!  Some of these are: comedy, sparring, drumming, singing, dancing, guitar, poetry, debate, cooking, etc.  When you watch/listen to someone improvising in those arts, is there anything you can learn and use in your taiko solos?  On a smaller level, just looking within taiko, there are many elements you can improvise in within a solo.  Some of these are: rhythm, movement, footwork, facial expressions, intention/mood, interaction, kiai, etc.  When you solo (or plan a solo), how many of those elements are you taking into consideration?

While I’ll get more into taiko-specific improvisation in the next part of this series, I think it’s really important to understand that since improvisation is not unique to any one art, it’s worth looking at other arts and asking how they utilize it.  What can we learn in the process?

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