Every musician improvises. So does every cook.
I Think It's In the Blood.
It probably has to do with the human tendency to experiment, or perhaps the moment when you want to escape the tyranny of notes on a page and just express yourself.
Whatever the origin, I can safely say that I've been at this long enough where it feels very natural to sit down, strike a single note, and allow that single note to take me down whatever pathway opens before me. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn't: what you find on the CD's is probably about 10% of what I do -- the rest hits my equivalent of the "cutting room floor." Sometimes it's because the resulting sound just doesn't "do it"; and sometimes (often, really) the music fails my own critical ear for performance.
You have to stay at this game, day in and day out, the same way that you have to stay in the game of writing, and if you pause for even a moment and decide that there's something else to do, you'll drop back a half-step and find on the subsequent day that not only do you need to try to move forward, you need to pick up the pace to win back that half-step you lost. So the tension is always there (and "tension" here simply means the taut strength of an assumed posture, the back held straight against the onslaught of the million and one obligations life thrusts upon us) -- a tension demanding a balance between creation and marketing, inspiration and transcription, imagination and the daily plod of the tasks at hand.
But Is It All Really Improvisation?
That's a question I've frequently heard -- and it's the best question. When people listen to my CD's, they often ask what parts are really improvising and what parts aren't.
I can divide up what I do into three parts: 1) Total improvisation -- where I truly have no idea what the second note will lead to, only that it reflects and counters the first; 2) Partial improvisation, in which I might start with a melody, or an ostinato (repeating pattern) in the left hand, and explore themes associated with it (this can range from fairly controlled to fairly free, by the way); and 3) Fully rendered pieces, which I find the most difficult to perform.
Now, to take this classification and set it against pieces on the CDs:
How Does It Happen?
Honestly, think sleep loss has a lot to do with it. Some of what are to me the more powerful pieces (and I find, unfortunately, that I miss as often as I connect with my audience here) -- those powerful pieces ("Don't Be Afraid," "The Sea Turtle," "The Blessings of Our Days") were recorded at about 1:30 - 2:30 in the morning, I period I affectionately call "The Zone," but that my body calls the "Are You Nuts? You Need Some Sleep!!" time.
I do a whole lot better with improv than I do with prescribed pieces. This is not some great truth that only yours truly has hit upon, by the way. Humans as a whole do better when they're able to push the rule-driven neocortex into the background and let some of the more primitive structures take over. We'd do well to recognize that art, and the creative spirit, owes as much to these far older, fight-or-flight tools as it does to the discipline and precision of the forebrain.
I've experienced this first-hand, when I've taken some effortlessly improvised pieces ("How Far Way You Are Today," for example), transcribed them, and set about recreating the initial experience. No go. I can come close, but there's something about that primal experience where the notes and the emotions merge, a confluence both as complex and as free as the tumble of water down a rockface, never the same two drops falling the same distance, nor the same two sparkles catching the attitude of the sun in exactly the same fashion, our swiftly tilting planet seeing to that.
So the second attempt, or the third, or any effort beyond that to frame the waterfall must inevitably fall short, the artist discovering instead a hundred insecurities and choices that interfere with what s/he intuitively understands to be something that should be so easy, so attainable, but isn't. Finding a new melody is like swimming across a glass lake at dawn -- you cannot swim through the same waters twice, simply because you're roiled them with your first passage.
So, what to do?
The answer is simple: continue. Recognize that the emotional essence of the initial experience can only be approximated, never recreated, and that there is much joy to be gained from the attempt, through practice, to rereach that height you hadn't realized you'd climbed in the first place. And you'll probably reach a different place altogether. That's the beauty of music: it allows the brilliant light of this emotional experience to shine through in multiple ways, like sunlight through breeze-tossed leaves.
Above All, My Piano Is My Friend.
But don't get me wrong. There are days when it leers at me like some 88-toothed, defiant beast.
And on those days, if I'm wise, I'll realize that it's my failing, my hangup, that's caused the problem.
Because at other times, in the wee hours of the morning, or when my soul feels shredded by things male, or when the heart asks yet again why it can't be given that which it desires -- in all those moments, my friend reminds me that I have but to touch its keys to embark on the road to healing.
So -- Thank You.
If you've read this far, thank you. I hope these words gave you some insight into what at least one person feels is what it takes to place the word "artist" next to his name. I'm profoundly grateful for the time you might have spent reading this page, as well as the moments you spent either listening to clips from my CD's or reading various stories. Please tell me what you think -- I'd be happy to hear from you.