I have done quite a few collaborations in the past, many of which are improvisatory in nature. Playing with lots of different musicians has taught me a few things about collaborating and improvising with other people. As a whole, collaboration can be rewarding, but only if you are willing to be flexible. There’s nothing more satisfying when a group of musicians comes together musically and creates a wonderful spontaneous moment.
However, these moments require some preparation. Much of it is not musical preparation, but a willingness to give and take space from others. Here are a few tips that may make your collaborations more successful.
Listen, listen, listen. Do as much listening as playing. Avoid feeling like you have to ‘fill the space’ – you are crowding the musical space by doing so, and not letting other people bring their ideas to the table. You don’t have to play all the time.
Don’t get wedded to an idea too early. Be willing to throw things away and admit when they aren’t working. Some ideas seem like good ones, but can’t be executed. I’ve played with people who have insisted on playing the same musical phrase over and over again, when they could have moved on
How to prepare for improvising. Yes, scales can help, but you need to get to the point at which you can think out loud on your instrument. I have found that playing by ear helps your muscles learn the instrument by leaps and bounds. Play along with a different song every day. You’ll soon learn quite a lot about your instrument that you couldn’t have learned from an etude book.
Be willing to provide and take feedback. Part of building a cohesive group is to be encouraging of others, especially specific encouragement. Things like “I really liked what you did over that last vamp” really helps the group dynamics, as is being willing to take such feedback. Try and be positive, and less critical.
Record yourself all the time. Oftentimes, the best moments of musical improvisation are fleeting and can’t be recreated. Besides, how are you going to improve if you don’t listen to yourself?
Let the Rules Change. Let everyone have their moment in the spotlight – and try not to settle into musical roles. The best songs are emergent properties from a group dynamic.
Try, try again. Making mistakes is natural, and it’s going to sound like crap at first. Be persistent. Art is trying many things and seeing what sticks.
I hope someone out there finds these tips useful. Anyone have any other tips on collaboration you’d like to share?