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Improv 04

An Improvisational life

By Michael Keith



I recently had an epiphany: I have been an improviser all my life.


        My earliest memories are of spontaneously creating characters and settings for them to do things. Yes, I suppose most of us did this --but most of us forget this.
When I was about 10 years old I would make up my own melodies on a small electric organ my parents had. I would do this for hours. Sometimes just a couple notes, back and forth, back and forth -what joy! My parents became interested only when I mimicked part of "Silent Night".  They got a teacher for me. He told what to do. YUCK. He was unimpressed with my fiddling around on the keys. Why? I stopped the lessons.  I went back to my spontaneous adventure games. No one ever told me what to do there.

        At 13 I wanted a guitar. I liked rock music and the people playing it looked like they were having fun. I got an acoustic from the department store. I scratched at the strings, I pulled at them, I struck them with other things, and I played with the tuners and so on... tons of fun!  NO.  This was not music I was told. You need direction. A few lessons in I quit.

       Years later the bug was back. I was getting a little old (according to society) to play with imaginary friends doing imaginary things, so I went back to the guitar. I worked at it like mad. I got the basic chords and strumming together and now I was off. I began creating my own instrumental pieces based on improvisation. I didn’t know that it was improvising -I just knew that it felt right! "Play a song” everyone would say. "Why?” I thought. Everybody does that. Sometimes to seek approval I would compare my improvisations to recognizable things for people. "Here is a train" I'd say, "here is a spider". My English teacher in high school said I should try drama class to get this creative energy out. Why act?  I WAS getting it out.

        Eventually I learned to play guitar quite well. Lessons wouldn't work for me, only listening would. I listened to everyone and everything.  I learned to play country, jazz, blues, rock, punk, funk, junk you name it. I traveled and recorded quite a bit for a number of years but I wasn't happy. The music was the same night after night.  I drank a lot –a real lot.  After about a year off and getting sober I discovered that there are so many other players like me and I was amazed.  When I quit worrying about how to make ends meet with my music/gift it all seemed to make sense.

        I am so grateful, and excited to be an improviser at this point in my life. I now enjoy playing music that I disliked for a long time. I perform and record regularly now as an improvising musician.

          I teach guitar as well. I inform my guitar students about the beauty of improvising freely. I tell them that despite what some people may say, improvised music is traditional, basically the first music on this planet. I see their eyes light up (in a somewhat joyous disbelief) when I applaud them for sticking a piece of paper under their strings or something