Monday, December 10, 2012

Wingin' It

We all know that the best made plans....  Yeah.  But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be making any.

As a freshman in high school, the band director approached me and asked if I'd be willing to change out my percussion/piano/trombone for a trumpet.  There weren't any coming in with my class, he said, and he needed a stronger high brass section.  I agreed and spent months honing the craft of the trumpeteer.

Background note: I started playing the piano at age 3, as soon as I could read, and have always had a gift in music.  Swapping one instrument for another has generally been a fairly simple task for me, with the noted exception of the guitar family.  My fingers just won't do it.  

Within a few months, I'd moved up the ranks in concert seating and was playing a high-ranked trumpet.  The director invited me to expand my skill set and join the jazz band, too.  As "Second Trumpet."  For those of you unaware of what this means, it's this: In most jazz ensembles, it is the second trumpet (and for some reason, not the first) that plays the solos.

I would have to learn to improv.

Improvisation is a challenge.  When you're listening to jazz, you're thinking these guys are totally cool and you wish you could be even half the artist they are.  When you're watching them, they make it seem effortless.  In many cases, they play "off the cuff," if you will, and throw together these incredible strings of notes that make jazz precisely the art form that it is.  I seriously doubted my abilities to improvise anything of note.  Pun intended.

There was one big song for our upcoming showcase, one pronounced second trumpet feature.  Most of the solo was written out, but there was a broad section in the middle of the piece that would require improvisation.  For months, we rehearsed that piece in the classroom.  Every time we came to the wide open space marked "Trumpet Improv," I lowered my horn to my side, flashed an embarrassed grin to the rest of the group, and loudly declared, "Something goes here!"  I never played a single note for that space in rehearsal.  Not a one.

And why would I?  I had a keen awareness that I had no idea what I was doing, and the last thing I wanted was to embarrass myself.  The last thing I wanted to hear about any work-in-progress improvisation I might be trying out was that it wasn't any good.  The last thing I wanted to see was disappointment or regret on the band director's part.  So I never played a note.

What I did do, however, was take to pen and paper and practice.  I sketched out the chord progressions of the piece, played the melodies and harmonies over and over in my mind, tried a few notes here and a few notes there, and did what I could to get something down on paper.  Something...that fit the piece but wasn't bound by theory.  I had to leave room for expression and for keeping with the tone of the piece.

When performance night came, I took the stage.  Trumpet in hand, I stood off to the side as directed, in front of an auditorium full of people (which I find less intimidating than a smaller group of just a handful).  The band director was standing just off-stage.  By the way, the second trumpet?  Also directs the jazz ensemble.  It was my cue; it was up to me.

We played through the written piece and came upon the open section, and I closed my eyes...and started playing.  The notes I'd painstakingly penned for months leading up to this.  The notes no one had ever heard.  The notes I had practiced but which, in this scenario, took on an entirely new emotion as I felt the vibe of the band behind me harmonizing with my notes.

By all accounts, I nailed it.

You see, the key to good improvisation is both understanding and discipline.  You have to have a framework for music and theory.  You have to understand the intricacies of both the piece you're performing and the broader genre of jazz in general.  You have to know music if you ever want to break out in song.  Otherwise, you will only make noise.  At the same time, you have to devote yourself to studying the piece.  You have to discipline yourself into the particular music.  You have to work within the key signature, the measure, the beat, the time, the overall vibe of the piece.  If you know music but haven't given yourself over to making music within the measure, again, you're just making noise.

There's a wide open space out there that is inviting you to do your thing.  It's up to you what you're going to do with it.

You could be so paralyzed by the idea, so worried about getting it wrong, so worried about not doing it right, that you never play a note.

Or you could decide to just wing it, to take yourself and take your chances, and you end up just making noise.

But invest yourself in understanding who you are, who God created you to be and invest in the discipline of living fully that - invest yourself in doing it right, devote yourself to the details, commit yourself to the framework and to honoring the tone - and you make beautiful music.

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