The Improviser's Canvas


And its confines or not...

At present, I absolutely want to paint a starry sky.  It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens.  If only you pay attention to it, you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance.  And without my expatiating on this theme, it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky." - Van Gogh.

Within confines or not, improvisation is self-expression.  The confines can be strict, faint or non-existent.  In art, strict means limited space, tools or available colours - to be crude, it's like paint-by-numbers for adults; faint means a general outline with more colours and brushes and probably some image in mind, with non-existent of course being total freedom with all tools available and perhaps no original image in mind.  This could be called abstract but no matter the confine, one will always demonstrate self-expression within it.

On the piano, one also has these confines when it comes to improvisation:  strict confines would be the structure of a song or the bars during which one is allowed to play when in a band situation (this video shows Oscar Peterson holding back incredibly much so as not to upstage Count Basie, for example); faint would be considered a chord structure played over and over (like the blues I, IV, V), to which one can enhance or substitute the chords or change rhythm (which is where most of us are located), with no confines being total freedom which may be called free jazz.  As you will see, by listening to this, a bass player and drummer would have a difficult time finding a rhythm or key to follow because it's totally free, unplanned and without structure.

In the hope you understand this, allow me to go a little deeper into the options available to the improviser.  For ease of discussion, I shall use C1, C2 and C3 to represent the confines discussed above, with 1 being strict and 3 being total freedom.  I will also use the word 'canvas' to represent the artist's canvas as well as the piano.  I should like to begin with C3 and work backwards.

Imagine a 100cm x 100cm canvas in front of you with a palette of colours and an assortment of brushes next to you.  Unlike Master Van Gogh's oeuvre d'art at the top of this article (C2), we have no image in mind; anything is possible.  For the artist, the sizes and shapes of the bristles are choices, the colour combinations are choices, the white space is a choice to fill or leave blank.  With even some basic knowledge of light, tone and form, a lovely painting could be created.  The more knowledge and awareness of one's natural abilities, tendencies and preferences, the more You the output becomes.

For the piano improviser, available are major scales, major and minor triads, many chord types, blues scales, modal theory, in fact, a lot of different scales within the 12 notes provided; further, one can use this 'pool of notes' in a variety of ways: note repetition, call and response, dynamic variation, crush and grace notes, target note philosophy, pattern runs (triplets, for example), ... the list is quite long!

The more knowledge, the more of them you're able to apply.  One also acquires this knowledge through observation, not only reading theoretical books.

Now, in front of this canvas, pick a brush, dab it in a primary colour or one you have decided to mix and paint it wherever you wish, however you wish on that canvas.  What happened?  The magic is that you could never tell me what made you do that.  Why yellow? Why a thin brush and why some flicks of lines in the bottom left corner?  (That's what I would have done since that's what I just wrote spontaneously).  You're not the inspirational source, you're the vehicle through which it plays and surprises itself.

This is a C3 canvas; you can do anything.  After a while, it would be a lovely, spontaneous work of You.  On the piano, you could have selected random chord types, picked up a random rhythm or time signature (or not) and chosen particular notes from a particular scale and played them in any particular way.  That would be a C3 improvisation; total freedom and recommended to simply discover 'what happens', to become the observer for a while.

Moving backwards to a C2 and taking your attention once again to the Van Gogh at the top, he knew he wanted to paint a starry night; he had the idea and colours in mind, perhaps even knowing in advance what brushes he would use and what the village would look like under that magical sky.  He was not totally confined (as if painting a portrait on commission for some rich aristocrat) and it wasn't a spontaneous creation (since he wrote about it weeks before doing it).  We could say that he has an internal canvas much as the Water Pianist has an internal piano.

As a pianist, your C2 situation is that you know a song, have studied the chords, know some scales and notes of interest, not to mention you have discovered some particular stylistic traits, so you will apply them to the structure of the song and be confined to its key, chords and structure.  A million people could paint a starry sky yet never paint it like Van Gogh (that is not to say better or worse, only in terms of self-expression).  A million people could play two scales over the same song yet never sound the same as another.  Let's keep this variety alive!

Now for the reason I felt compelled to write this article: C1.  There are two angles to approach this and I will present both without opinion in the hope you will consider both and choose which one best applies to your natural Self.

The idea is that excessive confines are like stabilisers on a bike for young children or armbands for people who can't swim.  A 'step by step' approach, no matter if it goes against natural tendencies, in the hope that the individual will make progress on their own.  The problem here, however, is that many unnatural tendencies, due to the confined beginnings, remain and are hard, if not impossible, to remove.  One also delays very important aspects of pianism and musicianship such as natural fingering, the musical personality and many 'internal' philosophies I discuss across my articles and videos.

So, where do you sit on this?  Do ponder.

In conclusion, I hope that you have been encouraged to see the piano as anything from a blank to a paint-by-numbers canvas and will acquire the knowledge required to follow Your path no matter the confines you accept and perhaps break free from.

As Van Gogh says,

"Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralysing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerises some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of 'you can't' once and for all."