Comedy Troupes Vs. Jazz Jams
I was in LA about a month ago, and got the pleasure of seeing an improv comedy troupe in action. It reminded me how similar the improvisational arts really are. Improve comedy troupe function a lot like jazz jams, and participants must face many of the same challenges. In these improvisation art forms, it can feel like you are jumping off a cliff with no parachute. But it’s the a great way to walk the path to mastery. And by mastery in the musical sense, I don’t mean that you can play every style virtuosically but as Kenny Werner puts it… “Mastery is playing whatever you are capable of playing… every time… WITHOUT THINKING.”
Debilitating Stage Fright
I joined a comedy troupe in my 20’s in an effort to face my own debilitating stage fright. I was such as shy girl (still am) that I didn’t even consider being a musician until I fell in love with improvisational music in my 20’s. I wanted so badly to be a jazz musician but knew I had many years of hard work ahead of me. So in the meantime, I used the comedy troupe to face down my fears of the stage. It taught me so much about improvisation.
It’s been 20 years since then, and I’m still tackling my stage fright little by little by little. I’m able to risk more these days, taking huge leaps. But each and every step up on my musical journey still takes so much courage.
Seeing the comedy troupe in LA a month ago reminded me of some things I had forgotten about this journey. So by writing this here today, I’m reminding myself as well as hoping to encourage others who are facing their own fears little by little.
Tips for Improvisational Arts
So here are few tips for those brave surfer souls who love the art of improvisation, and want to fearlessly ride the moment to their humble glory.
#1 – Minimal Effort for Maximum Results
We are all fighting our own need to control but trying too hard is the quickest way to disconnect and jam up the flow. Just think of the person who is trying too hard to be funny; it just never is.
Working hard of coarse is integral to being a great musician, or comedian. But it’s not that simple. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean you make great music.
When it comes to improvisation, rhythm, and the voice – there is a proper balance of effort and trust that must be achieved. Efficiency, and patience are part of the equation. A wise, experienced player knows how to walk this tightrope. That leads well to the next point…
#2 – Embrace the Space
To quote Kenny Werner again, from his book Effortless Mastery - “You must surrender the need to sound good, otherwise you can’t really let go.”
It’s this letting go that allows the space needed for the magic to flow.
I was rehearsing last week with my trio when my bassist reminded me, if I get lost, just stop and listen. I’m embarrassed to admit, it just didn’t occur to me. My fear of not doing well at an upcoming gig had been driving a barrage of notes. He called me out from playing in a solitary universe of my own mind. By reminding me to embrace the space, a better sound amongst us could be created.
It almost felt too easy at times, but when I listen back, the music got cooking.
So by letting go and allowing space, I have more bandwidth to listen and trust in my fellow bandmates and we’ll ride the waves together. This leads into the next point…
#3 – Play Nice with Others
This is speaking for group improve situations. Respecting and Listening to each other is the zero point. All else grows from there.
Though there might be players who make this difficult, you learn to give it always, otherwise the music suffers. Remind yourself that anyone who shows up to participate deserves a level of respect. They could be home playing it safe.
#4 - Learn the Rules of Engagement
In order to participate, you must follow the rules of engagement. This can be very different for the each group and you want to respect that as well.
For example, in certain jazz jam settings, the players expect that you will have 200-500 standards memorized and easily transposable on the spot.
For other jams, it’s the norm to use your ireal from your phone, or call specific tunes you know - particularly true for singers.
Some groups are strict jazz traditionalist, and others are open to fusion, and other style influences as long as someone can improvise and follow the form.
There are even have private groups I am a part of where members send out lists to prepare for each week.
It’s entirely possible to find or put together an improve group to meet you at your level and interest. With weekly to monthly sessions with musicians that support your growth, you will improve very quickly. And eventually be ready for stricter rules of engagement. Another way to play nice is…
#5 Unconditional Acceptance
Something else to learn from improve comedians is their golden rule: “yes, and” meaning whatever your fellow actor says in a scene, whether you like it or not, you have to go with it. It’s complete and utter acceptance of everything that happens. Otherwise, you will be into the mindset of judgement, and no longer truly connected to the moment, nor your bandmates.
This acceptance when applied to your own playing as well sets the stage for truly happening music. Kenny Werner explains this unconditional acceptance is the secret ingredient to many masters such as Thelonious Monk… “ Behind every note was the belief that ‘This is the truth.’ He didn’t believe in wrong notes. He believed that they were right notes because he played them…Miles Davis as well was always making the next right note out of the last wrong note. “
Finally, whatever you play, believe in it whole heartedly.
Great actors do this. They convince us because they are so committed to their role, their story.
The same is true for the masters of great music. “Monk had so much conviction in what he played that while he was playing, he couldn’t conceive of anything else.”
When you find yourself in the zone, it is this way. It can feel almost too obvious, too easy. You just know exactly what to play and it comes out effortlessly. Nothing else is true. And the best part is that you know whatever work you’ve put in up till now, whoever you are in that moment, it is enough.
Surfing the Waves of Improvisation
Being in the improvisation arts takes such courage. Akin to surfers, we wait for the right wave, spring into action and then ride the moment out. The hardest part is that there is more failure than success. So when I see so many people committed to it, it renews my faith in humanity. We miss the wave so much more than we nail it, but when we do nail it… it’s something to behold! And it means so much.
These improvisation groups – jazz jams, and comedy troupes are perpetuating a very healthy and viable art form. We are gathering together to work on our craft, be creative, to learn to work well together and hone interpersonal skills like presence, patience and trust.
Whether there is an audience or not; whether at the pro level or just starting out, it all requires passion and courage. And it’s time well spent in my opinion.
For more on Effortless Mastery check out Kenny Werner’s book of that same name.