January 5th, 2006


Improvising at the piano is something i've always wanted to be able to do. All of my classical musical training has taught me about playing more accurately, reading symbols on paper, handling music with greater complexity — culminating in the ability to sight-read from sheet music. But all of that seems like fake musicianship when i watch and listen in fascination as someone improvises. When i sight-read, it's just a reproduction of precomposed music, like reading a book aloud, but when good musicians improvise, they are truly expressing themselves through their instruments.

So for most of my life, music has been about translating symbols into actions. It's a highly technical activity, almost like mental calculation. To be able to sight-read, i just had to learn to think faster. More notes? Think faster! More sharps and flats? Think faster! Read faster, move the fingers faster, pay attention! It's a whirlwind of mental activity, and it's exhausting. When i'm calculating that fast, there isn't much time to imagine what it would sound like. I'm too busy translating. And without the sheet music, i'd be lost. What do i do? If it takes 99% of the available brainpower just to play the notes, how could one possibly also decide what notes to play with the remaining mental capacity? It takes me ages to make most decisions. Choosing from a restaurant menu with two dozen items might take me five minutes — but there are 88 keys on the piano keyboard, i have ten fingers, and a couple of beats go by every second.

I'd gaze with envy across the chasm, from the ranks of the dull, uptight automatons on my side with classical sheet-music-based training, far across a gaping divide to the crowd of relaxed, cheerful musicians who were brought up to play by ear, whose melodies flow from their hands as easily as speaking. Somehow they had a magical intuition that let them play the musical ideas in their minds directly through the instrument, as if it were an extension of the body. I had musical ideas, sure; i could hear and play back music in my head; but it stayed locked up in there because i had no idea what to do with my hands to reconstruct what i could hear in my head.

How did they get that magic? i would wonder. And how can i learn it?

On and off over the last couple of years i've been trying to learn how to improvise, in a few different ways. I took some jazz piano classes from the music department at Berkeley; i took a few classes from a private instructor; and i've spent many a spare moment at the piano. I have a piano keyboard right next to my desk, so it's literally within arm's reach whenever i feel like distracting myself from work. At first i would always reach for some sheet music to play from — either because it was so comforting to play something i already knew well, or because i enjoyed the mental challenge of sight-reading something new. (A few years ago, i met Don Knuth at a conference, and he casually invited me over to his house to sight-read concertos with him. I declined, in abject terror at the stupendous difficulty of the task and the idea of disappointing someone i held in such great respect. Today i question my timidity; surely nothing bad could have come of it, and i would have enjoyed spending time with him.)

But other times, the thought of playing something i'd already played dozens of times seemed boring, or sight-reading felt like too much effort, or i reminded myself that i really wanted to learn to improvise and should just try it. In the classes i had been advised to start simple, using only a few notes, or a simple scale, or a simple fixed chord progression. And that's where i started.

That's where i still am, actually. I've been messing around at the piano for a while now, but it's pretty much the same idea. I go to the piano, pick a dumb chord progression, and play it over and over while trying to dance a melody around it that doesn't sound too corny. I'm not sure it sounds like much. But i've noticed that it's starting to feel a little different.

It's not that i'm developing an intuitive ability to play whatever sound i want out of the instrument. It's kind of the opposite, actually. It's more like, i play randomly on the instrument until i hear something i like; and then eventually, at some later point, i recall there's this sound i like that my fingers vaguely remember how to play. And i think, okay, that might fit here, and off they go and do it. In a way, instead of learning to play whatever i imagine, i'm learning to imagine what i know i can play. So it's not really like what i thought it would be at all. And yet, the imagining and the playing are just starting to blur together, so it's becoming less clear which direction things are going. Am i playing what i hear? Hearing what i play? Hearing what i imagine? Imagining what i hear? Am i really making anything up or am i just replaying bits and pieces of stuff i've heard? I don't know. Maybe i'm just fooling myself into liking the limited subset of sounds that i can make. But it's starting to feel more like expression, somehow.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to people who "really" know how to improvise.