The highest aim for a creative group is to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. There are inherent factors involved with spontaneously creating with others that touch upon a fundamental impulse of play and interaction inside all of us. Playing within a group is a social mechanism and through this process higher levels of inspiration can be accessed. Working together with others in any creative activity takes you out of your normal pathways of thought and into a new realm of collective play. When a group is operating at its best new ideas and ways of creating come forth from within an individual that if left to create on their own would not necessarily be ideas or conclusions they would naturally arrive at. Navigating cooperative efforts of creation can be difficult and each situation poses its own unique challenges. With everyone involved being designated roles within the group, along with managing individual as well as collective responsibilities, finding how you fit in and can best contribute is not always easy. Getting to a place of group cohesion and fluid interaction and communication takes a delicate balance of:
1. Identifying what you can do to best contribute to the group at any given moment. 2. Remaining nonjudgemental or critical of what other group members are contributing.
Here are just a few principles and ideas I try to keep in mind when creating with others on and off the bandstand.
What is the motif?(What’s your motive?) In any creative endeavor there has to be a motif. Some small nugget of an idea or simple building block that can be explored, manipulated, expounded upon or revisited by the individual as well as the group. Motif is important because it gives everyone involved a home base and common ground for exploration as well as something to return to. Think of the motif like the topic of conversation or an “inside joke” you have with your friends. It serves to govern and structure the vast possibilities that will arise individually and collectively in the heat of the spontaneous creative process. Most often the motif can be lifted or traced back to melodic content already present within the framework of what you are working with. A motif can be melodic, rhythmic, harmonic or any combination of the three. Finding a common subject to mine creative content from is essential in creating a cohesive group statement. Two masters in the use of motifs in improvisation that come to mind are Brad Mehldau and Sonny Rollins.
Wait, Wait, Wait Some More Once you have an instrument in your hands, one that you have spent countless hours practicing and playing, and a vast set of skills and knowledge at your disposal that you are ready to show off, the hardest thing to do is to not play. It is a daunting challenge that you must face every time you find yourself in a group setting. Once you have developed and mastered any skill, the challenge then becomes when and how to appropriately apply those skills in a constructive way. What gives life to playing? Not playing. Within the space you leave there is a deep well of inspiration and opportunity for new ideas. By not playing you are leaving room for other group members to respond to motifs you have introduced, introduce a new motif, or develop an idea in a new way that you possibly never would have thought of. This leads to new and fresh insight and inspiration for your own creativity to shine through. An example of a master of patiences and waiting would be Saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Play the Time When you are in a creative head space time is perceived differently than when you are going about your normal day. If you have ever recorded yourself and listened back to what you played (which I highly recommend) this becomes shockingly apparent. Often times when we think we are waiting for what seems like forever we are not waiting very long at all. Sometimes we wait just long enough to take a breath or until we realize we aren’t making any sound (oh no!). I try to tell myself to wait and pause long enough until the uncomfortable feeling of not playing leaves me and I can clearly hear what is happening in the moment. The other side of this concept is...
Play the Long Note Another way you can approach the difficulty of perceiving time in the act of spontaneous group creativity is playing the long note. Long notes are an overlooked and underrated device for fostering new ideas and creativity within a group. Waiting and playing the long note leaves a player vulnerable but in these moments we become the most aware. Playing the long note gives everyone involved a moment to listen to what is happening, identify motifs, and invites all members to act, opposed to react to new ideas. As a soloist the long note can also be used to flip the roles within a group. While sustaining a note everything that is played under and around that note becomes part of your solo and invites the whole to take an active part in an individual players creative process. Masters of perceiving time in the moment and the long note are Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix.
Coda Decision making within a group with a collective creative goal in mind is a daunting task. With patience, restraint and empathy the possibilities for higher level collective creation reveal themselves and the possibilities become endless. Playing music with others is a microcosm of a vast number of interconnected mechanism we deal with everyday, whether it be conversing with others, being part of a sports team or contemplating the inner workings of the universe. Having your own established concepts and principles are essential to maximizing the potential for creating something new and exciting and can further our contribution towards the attainment of collective creative goals.
Suggested Listening: Brad Mehldau - Art of the Trio Volumes 1-4/Sonny Rollins - Saxophone Colossus/Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil/Miles Davis-Tribute to Jack Johnson/Miles Davis-My Funny Valentine(Live)/Miles Davis-Live in Berlin/Jimi Hendrix -Live at the Isle of Wight