40 Days of Improv: What I've Noticed So Far


Last week, in my post about what I’ve been working on lately, I mentioned that I’m doing a challenge that I’m calling 40 Days of Improv, from Feb. 20 to April 1. (I know, that’s 41 days, but I missed one day in February.)

Over the course of my musical life, despite my mostly classical background and great strength in reading music, I’ve been traveling more toward improvisation. In high school, even though I was in jazz band all 4 years, I had great fears about it, because I thought I wasn’t good at it (turns out I was just inexperienced). I’d like to say that my fears have subsided, but honestly, improvisation still takes me out of my comfort zone (although I’ve had many positive experiences with it). And, as a performer, especially solo, this is still somewhere I struggle to feel proud of my abilities. Being uncomfortable is part of the nature of improvisation, but, who I am I kidding - creative fears and doubts never really go away, we just have to learn to live with them.

Since I was between projects in February, it seemed like the perfect time to do an experiment and explore improvisation in a new way. Here are the parameters that I set for this experiment:

  1. 10 minutes free improv - record myself every day

  2. Any style - no expectations

  3. Turn off my inner critic/judge

  4. No immediate analysis - I’ll listen and assess later

Today is Day 17, almost to the halfway point, so I’m sharing what I’ve noticed so far.

I haven’t listened to any of the recordings yet, but on many days I’ve jotted down a few notes about what I did and how I felt. I’ve naturally often gravitated to a lot of samba and Brazilian styles in my improvisation, but in trying to open my mind to whatever popped in, I’ve gone to some pretty interesting stylistic places! Here's what I’ve observed:

  • Having a framework of a daily challenge is helpful for me. I did this with composing in fall 2015 (write 4 measures every day for a month), which also worked well. This compels me to keep my commitment every day - just showing up is half the battle, and about all I need to do to succeed with this experiment.

  • Some days felt pretty half-hearted (I was sick for a few), but I still showed up, even if it wasn’t my best work. And, when I listen back to it, maybe I will actually find things that I like!

  • It’s critical to let go of expectations while I’m creating (separate the creator from the judge), but that is often really hard for me. Yesterday felt a little bit different, because I was able to specifically address the critic voices as they came up - I just told them to go away and please come back later. This is an ongoing practice. Being deliberately ephemeral is also freeing - not writing anything down forces me to be less precious about what I’m playing.

  • On some days I’ve felt a lot of resistance to starting, and on the first day I felt enough resistance that I didn’t even record myself, I just set a timer for 5 minutes. When the timer went off, I wasn’t ready to stop, so I kept going - it’s all about showing up and getting started! Taking smaller steps seemed to lower the stakes (even though there are actually no stakes). I got over that by day 2, luckily.

  • Even before listening to the recordings, I’m noticing that I tend to repeat certain chord progressions a lot. I tire of what I’m playing while I’m playing it, like “Oh I do this all of the time, this is super boring”, instead of really listening to the sounds.

  • It’s hard to strike a balance between being deliberately inventive and letting my mind flow. I often stay on one chord or alternate between two, which feels like I’m getting stuck or too “jammy”, but really I’m just prioritizing melody over harmony in that moment.

  • Sometimes I feel pressured to create a continuous work of art, which leads to me playing more mindlessly to fill space, instead of really listening to what’s in my head and then translating it to my fingers. I should let that go, because I get to decide whether I need to stop and think, and this project is for me, not to release an album - who cares if anyone would want to listen to it?

  • I notice themes or musical elements emerging each day, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Some themes I’ve explored are: chord progressions moving in 4ths, half steps, whole steps, sometimes 3rds; diminished chords as pivots; melodic motives; polytonality; and quintal harmonies evoking Aaron Copland. I’m (mostly) enjoying pushing myself to try new things and surprising myself.

I may start listening to all of the audio files before the 40 days are up, because 10 minutes x 40 days = almost 7 hours of music, a lot to listen to!

I’ll report back at the end of the experiment, or once I’ve done more listening - I’m sure it will continue to be interesting!

Rebecca Hass

Pianist and composer