Prelude: The Art of Improvisation

December 14, 2022
keyboard keys with watercolor paintwash overlay

This Lent-Easter 2023 issue (Year A) explores extemporaneous prayer. According to the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, extemporaneous means “spoken or done without preparation.” Sometimes, as artists, we extemporize, too, don’t we? In music and some other art forms, this is called improvisation. Improvising means composing or performing on the spur of the moment, especially a piece of music or drama, without preparation.

Both definitions—extemporaneous and improvising—include the words “without preparation.” But, really, are we completely unprepared? Have we not already learned theology and forms of prayer, or harmony and musical forms? Do we not rely on some kind of formula that our extemporaneous expression will fit into? Don’t we have some kind of plan or outline, however loose it might be?

For musicians who improvise, whether liturgically within a service or as a musician in the secular world (think jazz, blues), we likely have some ideas before we start. It might be a melodic fragment, a bit of a hymn tune, a rhythmic element, or a length of time that is optimal. For a jazz or blues musician, the framework is the chord chart and the number of bars within that chart.

Improvisation extends into other art forms as well: improv comedy troupes respond to verbal prompts, visual artists do “live painting” in response to words or music, or a dancer might create spontaneous movement in conjunction with music or rhythm.

Improvisation has always been scary to me. I feel like I don’t have the creativity and that my improvisations don’t come out as interesting. But although improvisation seems spontaneous, I think that for many musicians, preparation is essential (despite the dictionary definition). Things that might be helpful include knowing harmonic structure, having a framework, thinking about the theme and what can be done with it, and perhaps investing some time working on some techniques.

Perhaps, like me, you don’t feel like you have a natural skill in the art of improvisation, but if you’d like to explore it further, we have some resources to inspire you, such as the Music United column called "Extemporaneous Sacred Moments" and the piece titled “Improvisation Tools,” especially the list of Canadian books. Some churches also have a tradition of Jazz Vespers, which is a lovely way to combine a liturgical service and improvisatory elements. If you’d like to read more about Jazz Vespers, search Jazz Vespers (Gathering Pentecost 1, 2018).

Happy improvising!

Tammy-Jo Mortensen, Music Editor