Little Jennie arrives home from school. She is very, very late. We are flies on the wall listening to the exchange with her mother as she walks through the front door. Our timing is right because we get to hear a concoction strung together at the last minute by one of the best storytellers of all time – a kid knowing she is in trouble.
“I was coming home from school with Willy, and we were walking past the corner store, when a guy on a bike came round the corner really fast and knocked Willy over, and he hurt his leg, Willy did. So I took him into the store and the shop guy said he would help him, then he went in the back, but he didn’t come out for a long time, so I thought he might be dead. Anyway, Willy started feeling better, so I helped him walk home, but it took a long time because he had to hop. Then it started getting dark, and I forgot how to get from Willy’s house to my house, so I got lost, and I remember what you said about not asking strangers, so it took me a long time to get home, and I dropped my pack somewhere, and I can’t remember where I dropped it, so I can’t do my homework.”
Wow! Circles within circles, or perhaps it’s spirals within spirals. Whatever it is, it is all about the story. Whether it is the big stories of life and death or the small ones like Jennie’s tale of woe, stories are everywhere.
And we know stories. We are, in fact, constructed of stories. Whether they came together through our environment or simply as a result our gene pool expressing itself, our stock in trade is our ability to present a good story to the rest of the world. If you don’t believe that, try acting in a peculiar fashion down at the local laundromat and see how long it tqkes the EMTs to get there.
While the stakes may not be as high when we are improvising, they can feel awfully high when we are on the hot seat. And that is because the audience, musically educated or not, knows a good story when they hear one.
So how do we spin a good musical story? Well, the same way Jenny spun hers. We start out with a premise and go with it. It really doesn’t matter what that premise is as long as it has coherence and it is capable of fueling the development of the rest of the story. Sometimes the more outrageous the premise, the more useful it is.
“A Frenchman, an Irishman and a Parrot walk into a bar……”. Not bad. Why?
Because you are already hooked. You are hatched. You have to hear what happens next.
What follows that initial statement, ideally, should be a series of phrases, each one suggesting the next – a series that moves gradually and inevitably to a climax or conclusion. And the listener wants a whopper – a tale that has a theme, development, a beginning, a middle and an end – one that ends with “Yes!”.
Unlike written composition, though, we have to accomplish this on the fly. Still, it doesn’t mean we are left wandering in the desert. Jenny improvised her story, but it wasn’t from scratch: She had a theme, some sort of rules of engagement; perhaps she even had an idea of how she was going to present her little dog and pony show. She set up guidelines, (much like the guidelines provided by the melody, harmony and rhythm in a piece of music), that provided a framework for her story. And having a framework is important.
That being said, when the time came to “play”, the words just tumbled out, one phrase after another, one sentence after another, one paragraph after another until the tale wound up of its own accord and the job was done.
And after it was all over, you can be sure that her mother ended up with that look on her face – the one she could barely hang on to – the look that said I am still mad as she smiled inside, recognizing the fact that her little girl had just kicked some serious butt with the English language.
There are a few things that we can be taken away from this story. The main one, though, came up in a previous article. Even though we have learned the “science” of the music, the licks, the theory and the structure, when it comes to improvising, we must throw it all away and trust instinct to provide us with a story that will fly.
Rely on the framework but trust the muse. When one phrase ends, let the next phrase suggest itself. You wouldn’t chime in with an entirely unrelated phrase in conversation would you? No! Then don’t do it when you play. The mind is well trained to think on its feet. Let it do its job. Before you jump in, TAKE THAT SPLIT SECOND and allow your instinct to suggest the next phrase. It might not be the perfect phrase, but you can be sure of one thing……it will be worlds better than the stock lick you were going to shove in there! We are storytellers at heart and, given a chance, our inner storyteller will jump at the opportunity to spin a good yarn.
All that being said, there are many tricks o’ the trade that we use every day in our vocal lives that are useful musically.