In Foundations of Improvisation – Staying Present, I discussed how being “in the moment” is a precondition for the creative process of improvising. When we are present and ready to put our hands on the keys – perhaps with the intention to improvise for the first time! – then it’s time to let go into the space of “not-knowing.”
Not-knowing may feel very different from any experience we’ve had playing the piano before. There is no music to guide us. Our musical memory is helpless. We have no choice but to go for it.
We can take heart from the fact that as an improviser, we are joining the ranks of Beethoven and every other great composer (and improviser) who was willing to let go into the deep well of not-knowing from which all creativity arises.
Being in the space of not-knowing means letting go, if only for a brief time, of our self-consciousness, our need to be a “good player,” and especially of our need to feel like we know what we are doing.
After all, if we are present with the music that is spontaneously coming through us, at that moment we don’t know what we are doing! “Knowing what we are doing” is a left brain activity. The left brain wants to understand, comment, analyze, plan, and judge. To truly let go into not-knowing, we must put all that left brain activity on hold.
Not-knowing may feel very new to pianists who are used to practicing with an always-watchful inner critic. It may even feel anxiety-provoking to pianists whose competence at the instrument is a major part of their identity (and that is most pianists).
As we begin to improvise, we may even feel like we felt with our first teacher at our first piano lesson. Yet what a relief that is – after all, a child doesn’t have decades of mental baggage to interfere with their pleasure of making music at the piano. Only we adults have that opportunity!
You will know that you have entered the space of not-knowing when you are willing to suspend judgment, and when you feel relaxed and content with the music that comes through you (no matter how simplistic or mistake-ridden it may sound to you).
Diving into not-knowing is an essential foundation for entering the space of musical creativity. Take a dive and see!