Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Art of Piano Improv: Core Essence (Part II)

By Paul Kwo

I believe that when we look into other fields we gain perspectives that we would never discover even if we dive to the deepest crannies of our own fields. My acting and my study of is craft has led me to one of the biggest discovery of my art of improv on the piano.

Golden Rule: Always say yes.

This has been a rule that I have learned in improv, is the acceptance of everything that is thrown at me as the actor. I must say yes and accept the new situation no matter how bizarre. Because by doing so we discover new worlds. I have applied this in its entirety to my muiscal improvs.

This rule defines my musical improvisation and is divided in the following two subsections.

1) A improviser can never make a mistake.

Every note that comes out of my finger is correct whether I intended it or not consciously. I believe if we play something that even if our conscious did not intend, our subconscious has led us there. In order to discover the music we have to let the music unfold itself for us. But time and time again performers try to lead the music. That's when improvs get stale and stagnant and non-musical. Let the music take the performer to where it wants to go and it will go there. But if you try to correct the music, it will eventually completely close up on you.

There are no such thing as a wrong note. The note is played and will forever remain played. Make use of it. Take advantage of it and see where the "so-called" mistake would lead you!

2) It's not what you play but how you play it.

Since a performer can never make a mistake, the performer's job is to communicate whatever the notes come out in a musical manner. Music is very powerful and every note has its strengths and weight. One can play 5 notes and have communicated the universe while another player may have played 5 million notes and have said nothing more then look at how fast I can go.

Music is not about techniques or about speed. It is not about how fast we can play or how many accurate we play them. Yet over and over I see our obsession for accuracy because that's what's easier to judge. It's what could be easily standardize. But yet we totally and utterly fail when it comes to upholding the same standard when it comes to musicality.

I have to admit even when I first started to teach piano I fell in the same trap. It was easy to just teach note and rhythm accuracy then to teach musicality. So lessons always end up emphasizing accuracy. We give our excuse saying that without accuracy, musicality is impossible. But that's erroneous as I have discovered in Improv. I can play all the wrong notes in the world and still make music. I can play with my fist and palm and still make music. I can play with random ping pong balls and still make music. Music does not require accuracy, it is self sufficient if you let it be.

It is not what I play but how I play it. It doesn't matter what the composer intended, but what I am communicating through it. If one were to remake a classic film, no one would ever expect nor even want the filmmaker to make a historically accurate film. In fact we would absolutely frown on such an act. Instead we want a fresh new perspective. We want to see it in a totally different light. But yet when it comes to music, classical music, we act in the exact opposite manner. I find it stagnant and irrelevant.

Don't deny the reality of the situation. Don't deny the so-called wrong notes. Let the music unfold itself and let the music speak for itself.

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Paul Kwo, Los Angeles Area Composer and Master Pianist

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