Even for experienced improvisers, the process of improvisation is somewhat of a mystery. Riding the edge of creation, which is what the process of improvisation feels like, is not something to be questioned too analytically. It is a bit like the centipede that was paralyzed by the question of which foot comes after which; thinking too hard can throw you off completely.
The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.
I usually tell people that you play one note, then another, and then another. Anything more than that often results in a mess. You make each decision based on how you “feel.” You react in accordance with how you feel the phrase should go. You can’t really think too much about the music specifically, thinking takes too much time. I have personally always felt that thinking was overrated anyway.
Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea.
About twenty years ago or so, I ran across a scholarly article about the process of improvisation and how it works. It had diagrams and flowcharts and feedback loops with options and conditionals, etc., etc. I figure it was meant more to help someone program a computer with an improvisation program rather than to actually help someone try to improvise. It was not very enlightening, but it did get some things right. It emphasized the reactive nature of improvising as opposed to that of following a plan or focusing on an abstract or musical idea. It is a process, not a production. This is an important part of improvising that an improviser needs to fully digest. At any moment while improvising, a performer is reacting to what he or she has just heard, trying to take it where they think it should go. But before they get there, they must react to the new music. This is true, even if you are improvising by yourself. Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea. Playing one note softer than expected changes the emotional course of a phrase, and provides (or sometimes necessitates) the opportunity to go in a new direction. Improvisers learn that no idea is sacred, and it is more practical to just avoid thinking too much. You can have the most magnificent vision and insight into the next eight bars, but by the time you’ve reached the eighth bar, you have already altered that plan at least three times. Vision wasted.
This phenomenon of continuous reaction can become a joyous experience when improvising with others. The music can be constantly enhanced by the inspiration of multiple minds, and it can also be thrilling to be part of many uniting as one in a common inspiration. Musical interaction can be thrilling when you know what everybody is doing, as is the case with Classical music. But that interaction can border on nirvana when everybody is improvising. The music is always, however, on the verge of chaos. It is only through collective effort that it stays alive. This fact enhances the thrill you receive when it works.
A dear friend of mine, who happens to also be a composer, asked me a question after I had played seven or eight chords in quick succession upon which you could have wasted fifteen pages of analysis. He asked, “Do you know what you are doing when you play those chords or are you just moving your fingers?” The simple answer was, “Yes.” I am just moving my fingers and know what I am doing. The more useful answer was that I am not doing a theoretical analysis of each chord, but I am listening hard to what I am playing and reacting accordingly.
Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!”
It is important, too, to not separate your brain from your fingers. Playing any instrument is a physical process and we relate the motions we make to the sounds that we hear. Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!” The process is flowing freely without the stifling interference of any intention. There is an unfortunate concept in classical music called “muscle memory,” which can supposedly happen when you practice a passage so much that you can play it without thinking about it. This can sometimes have unintended consequences, ostensibly because the performer is not in control of his or her fingers. This fosters the idea that one’s fingers are both untrustworthy and separate from one’s brain. The brain’s job seems to be to whip the fingers into shape and then lord over them to make sure they don’t go astray. This is nonsense. There is no way you can “think” your way through scales, arpeggios, or any other passagework without trusting your fingers to do the work. The true danger is not that your muscles will betray you, but that your mind becomes lazy. Paying attention is the foundation of any skill, and listening and guiding are attentive skills demanded of any musician. While improvising, the listening is more open and creative, and the guidance less rigorous, but it is still the fingers that do the work. When improvising, control over how you play your instrument needs only a very loose tether because there is no planning to be done. You are simply listening and reacting, over and over. I don’t think, therefore I improvise.