If we are friends on Facebook, you might be familiar with my #improvise posts. It's usually a video of me improvising music at the Marimba like this...
I've always been inspired by the freedom (to an extent) that Jazz musicians have during performances and also by their ability to literally create music on the fly. When done really well, it is amazing to watch and hear!
Since my undergraduate years, I've in some way made improvisation a part of my day and practice sessions to strengthen my connection to the music that I am playing, composing and learning. I truly feel that this practice makes you a better musician because you begin to also connect with your instrument, which is something that percussionists need to work on all of the time. Think about it...we are almost always approximately 16 inches away from our instruments!! This is why we work on scales, arpeggios, rudiments, hand technique/placement etc... Then, we supplement those techniques with others like Ideo-kinetics (Gordon Stout's book that every mallet player should live by) which lends us a way to help "feel out" the lateral plane of the marimba and other keyboard instruments. All of these skills are essential to the physical aspect of playing percussion, but what I have been interested in more recently is connecting those physicalities to the ear.
The first time I really felt aurally disconnected from my instrument was while I was jamming with my brother, Ben, a jazz trumpet player. Since improvisation was so natural for him, he has had to learn a way to make a real connection to the instrument that he plays in order to allow for the music to speak. By the time he played a note I knew that he had already heard the note that was about to come out! At that moment I thought "what if there was a way that percussionists could do the very same thing?" We all do it to an extent, but do you actually audiate everything that you are playing? Do you know that if you reach a specific distance, you will hear a particular note? That is what I believe improvisation helps with because you get your eyes off of the page and begin actively listening to how you not only make sounds, but make music itself.
After all of this, I began pursuing more ways to incorporate improvisation into my daily practice sessions. (I don't mean simply improvising in between practicing either, which is also a great way to begin or end a session!) So I began to use it as a tool to learn music too. For example, I play with a contemporary music group called Glass Farm Ensemble. We often play extremely challenging music and sometimes even after spending hours with certain excerpts, I found that I wasn't able to get past the notes on the page. Presently, as I am learning this type of music, I often take the notes or rhythms like small motives and improvise around them. As I feel more comfortable in that specific musical "zone", I go back to the passage in the music and put the metronome back on. It is amazing to see what you will internalize after you eliminate the stress of playing correct notes and rhythms!
After having a lot of this down, I stumbled across and have been totally inspired by Maria Finkelmeier's improvAday project. If you don't know what she is doing with this-check it out! Her posts, to me, reinforces the fact that improvisation can be easily applied to your life and will not only help you in your endeavors, but also verify your love for playing music.
SO...after giving you all the run-down, I am excited to announce the development of my new FREE masterclass series "#improvise" that will be posted here and on my YouTube channel beginning mid-February! It will feature videos on how to begin your application process, using improvisation in compositions (have had a lot of questions on this topic), creating new compositional ideas with improvisation, active listening while improvising in groups, and much more. I will also be providing FREE etude "sketches" that I am hoping to record my own versions and have others post their own here as well.
Thanks for your time and I hope to see you there! Please email me @ firstname.lastname@example.org or submit the form below if you are interested.
Anthony Di Bartolo is a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer, and educator.