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Singing is listening

For many improvisers doing musical improv sounds like another layer of difficulty. You have to be a good improviser; you also have to sing, create a melody, fall into the rhythm, and sometimes even rhyme. It sounds like a complication, right?

Mmmm, not in my case…Let me tell you why.

The Counterpoints show, June 2023. Credits photo: Christoph Paulik

Five years ago, I did musical improv for the first time. It was during a Sunday workshop at easylaughs. I was very excited because I would mash two of my favourite things: singing and impro. I was so looking forward to it. And also a bit anxious: Would I be able to do this? The workshop finished and I was like, « What just happened? », like an epiphany, I realised that music makes impro easier for me.

Why was it easier for me? I don’t think it’s because I love singing, I have sung all my life in chorus. It’s not that, there is something else, and I hope this resonates with some of you that already do musical improv. And if you have never done it, I hope it will inspire you to dare and do it. :-)

Going back in time again, when I did that workshop, I was at a plateau, the dreaded plateau. The moment in your learning journey where you’re stuck and cannot move forward. When you start learning a new skill, it's like you're floating on a downstream that takes you whenever you want, but after a while, you hit THE PLATEAU, and suddenly the waters get thicker, and you are in a river of mud unable to move.

And then music came!

It's not another layer of something I also have to take care of on top of the platform (who, what, where), the « yes and », endowing my partner, object work, focusing on relationships, avoiding conflict and the long etcetera an improviser has to think of when they enter a scene. All these guidelines that help you become a better improviser are straightforward when you are in the moment. They happen. If I only would stop being in my head for a moment… Music takes care of that. It does EXACTLY that. I am in the present, in the now. I am not thinking about what just happened, what will happen, and what could happen. Music stops my ship (my head) from balancing, it makes it steady.

One of my most admired singers EVER is Rufus Wainwright. In an interview about vocal technique and emotions, he named his favourite quote about music: « Sing like you are listening » by the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Let that sink in.

Sing like you are listening.

When I read that line, my heart missed a beat. PUM - PUM - PUM - (…) - PUM.

In a flash, I remembered all the times I had been listening. I remember hearing to the record Help by the Beatles because my brother wanted to buy it, and my parents said we all had to approve, so we sat in the shop in a separate room and listened to it*. The whole album, both sides. I was 5.

I wanted to learn to play the piano at the conservatoire. Still, my parents didn’t want me to, so for years, I would go twice a week to the conservatoire, sit on the floor outside of the piano classrooms and listen to people doing scales and making mistakes on a loop. I was listening, and whenever somebody made a mistake, I smiled. Then I knew I wasn’t listening to a recording. This was live. This was alive.

I was a very active kid, playing, drawing, running, reading, playing basketball and singing. I was also sick many times and had to spend long periods in bed. So I listened to tapes. The only thing I did was listen. I listened to Bach’s Matthäus Passion, Tom Waits, Talking Heads, Mozart, and Beethoven. I listened to Rex Harrison doing the best parlando ever in My Fair Lady. To Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. To Madrigals…This is a long list; let’s stop there.

So, that’s the secret. That’s all it is. That’s why music impro is easier for me than other impro. You are more in the moment, can quickly embrace mistakes, and don’t even have to sing. You listen to the pianist. S/he will make all the decisions for you, you just go downstream sipping a piña colada.

*This was in Franco times. My parents didn’t want to bring home an album that could be a problem


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