Musical Inspiration -If we are in a tightly controlled musical context, there are finite choices with regard to harmony and melodic structure. If it's strictly diatonic, then we are expected to create within these very limited structures. If it's modal, we have a different dimension of freedom - chordal voicings have more freedom, and melodic structures can be more ranging. The key is that even with a strict diatonic structure, there are two options - either define a melody from trying the finite options, or "releasing ourselves" for something to lead us in the right direction.
The method of trying different options until a pleasing result is found is very common, and is a method employed by composers, songwriters and improvisors alike. For really good improvisors, it is more often a means to getting inspiration moving. For some players, it's as far as they ever get. Even their solos demonstrate that they are operating from a sense of harmonic theory, rather than being inspired in their approach. Years ago, Herbie Hancock suggested to me that the more seasoned players did not force the issue -- even in front of thousands of people. They simply waited for the ideas to flow, because they knew that they would. And they were not disappointed.
Abusing the Lessons of the Past
Inspiration is a tricky subject, because it is not a measurable constant -- or perhaps I should say, it is a constant but we don't always access it in the same way, nor does it always look the same. Sometimes, we feel inspired and sometimes we don't. I would suggest that perhaps we are looking to repeat a memory of inspiration in a way that was successful in the past, and that inspiration just doesn't work that way. Inspiration only occurs in the present moment, and I've come to believe that each moment is unique and therefore demonstrates inspiration in a unique way.
Choice in the MatterWhat I'm really speaking to is "inspired choice." For in any musical context, we have some degree of choice, how to innunciate, how to dynamically use our two hands, what melody to play, how to voice our harmony, etc. The question really is, what leads us to one choice rather than another? Are we second guessing the universe by using a mistake or a repeatable, linear theory to arrive at our choice? Or is that a part of the inspired choice? As you can see, there may be cases where that is inspired, and there may be cases where it is not. Our job, then, is to know the difference in the moment, remaining unattached to whether it was or wasn't at another time. Or to ask the question, "Is that choice in flow?"
Flow in music is something that we all know about. There is a natural tendency for motion to flow in certain ways in certain context. We know a good musical performance because one idea flows effortlessly into another, and that there is a sensibility which is constant over the duration of the music that carries us from the initial notes to the exponential decay at the very end. We feel the flow of the music. This is inspiration. This is musicality. To a non-musician this may not make much sense, but to us, we know what this feels like.
For the purpose of this study, let's just accept that Inspired Choice exists. That in the moment, within the flow of music, choices will reveal themselves. If we can accept that it exists, then we won't get to tied up with what it's supposed to look like, and it will be able to express itself through us in time.
How to Use This?
What is important is that we allow time and energy to be devoted to stretching our mind so that we have more freedom in this realm. We need to practice doing things we don't understand in order to create a space where our judgement doesn't come in to ruin the party just when it's getting going. Throughout this site, I will recommend exersises which will break down our judgement, because the moment we are in judgement, we are standing back -- outside of time -- and no longer in the flow of the moment. We've stepped out of time, and great improvising - or great living - doesn't take place outside of the present moment.
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©2000-2005 Ben Dowling - pianist, composer and producer - is an authority on music improvisation and publishes Music-Improv.com, a web site that provides useful paradigms and practices for musicians interested in expanding their ability to improvise. Take a look at some of the metaphysical underpinnings of musical improvisation by visiting http://www.music-improv.com .
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