How do you begin a piece of music? That’s a question I’m often asked. The answer I usually give is that you begin as soon as you start playing – that is, if you’re trying to “compose” something, the piece begins the moment it has energy and is something you want to capture. If it’s an improvisation, the piece begins the moment you set your fingers on the keys and hit the first note. It’s like free flow writing and writing a chapter to a novel.
The writer can both improvise and enjoy the process or can structure the ideas more – or, as I like to do, combine both procedures into one. I start out by improvising – always. Then, if I want to memorialize a musical idea, I write down the first two bars of melody along with the chord(s) I’m playing. I throw this on a chart and voila – the idea remains fresh until I want to either expand on it, or ignore it completely.
If the idea is a rhythm pattern I write down (Left hand = whatever the pattern is) so I can remember it later. I never stop improvising though because that would stop the flow and who knows what could come out of it. Don’t forget that an improvisation is a piece of music in and of itself. There is really no need to impose structure on something as beautiful and organic as spontaneous expression. In fact, these spur of the moment fantasies are often more inspiring than any contrived composition. There is something more alive to them because there IS more life to them.
Endings pose another problem, namely the problem of when to stop playing. For improvisation, the answer is when energy (inspiration) starts to wane down. That’s a good time to bring your music to an end. You’ll know when this is happening when you become bored. That’s the sign it’s time to stop.
Composition is a different story. The form of the piece already dictates when you should stop. For example, an ABA form tells you to play the A section once or twice, go to B, back to A then bring the piece to an end. Of course the amount of repetition and contrast is a personal decision but the form establishes both beginning and ending. It’s a nice safe way to say that yes, I have a piece of music here. Now, improvisations can have form as well. The big difference is that you don’t consciously think about putting the music into a predefined shape.
But for some unknown reason, most improvisations do have symmetry – that is they take on a form of their own. I don’t know if this is because of human beings innate rhythm (heartbeat) or what.
Even Zen flute music, which may be the most freely inspired improvisation style around has some structure. You can hear it in the phrases. Beginnings and endings. Don’t worry too much about them. What’s important is where you are emotionally while you play. Become aware of that and all your problems are solved.
by Edward Weiss