S├ębastien Badel

Improvisation & Flow

What is the difference between composing and improvising?

There are fundamental differences between compositions and improvisations. Both do not demand the same skills.

Composition

A musical composition is a chain of well considered and chosen events.  Compositions are exactly defined, from beginning to end, and even the interpretation is predicted by the composer. 

The “what” and the “how” are prescribed. A creation is thought through and worked out before being written down. Once created, a written piece is practiced by musicians, and can then be performed numerous times.

A composition is like a prepared speech. When we compose, we choose, phrase by phrase, the things we want to communicate. Composers have time to think about the what and the how. When he runs out of ideas, he can wait and think more. He’ll continue to contemplate his work until he’s satisfied with the progression. 

A composer thinks his story through and selectively picks his used elements.  He develops his progressions, creates scenes, adds introductions, chapters, conclusions and endings, He choses or creates new styles, he uses a musical language. He adds punctuations and articulation on how he wants passages to be played. He writes everything out and perfects it. Before presenting his work, he makes sure as much as possible that the desired goal is reached. He won’t present anything until he is sure enough of his work. 

Like writers who write books.

Improvisation

A musical improvisation is a chain of undefined, spontaneous, impulsive moves, based on the ideas that the player has at the moment of playing. His technical abilities are his playground. 

Improvisations can be somewhat structured, especially when musicians play together, but they are still undefined. Playing by one self doesn't need any structure, other than a basic idea of what one wants to develop. 

Neither the “what”, nor the “how” are prescribed. The improvised creation is not thought through or invented in advance. The creation appears while playing. The piece can usually not be repeated, unless it is first recorded and then written out.

Contrary to a prepared speech, improvisation is like a spontaneous speech. It is limited by the ideas we have available at the moment of playing. We don’t know what we’ll end up saying. We might know style and topics. We have not so much time to think. We can only say what we think of, while speaking. We depend on what we have in the “hot” moment. 

When an improviser runs out of ideas, he stresses. His audience is right there, expecting him to entertain them. He has to come up with something or stop playing. Experienced players have backups and techniques for those moments. 

A structure helps to contain work. But an improvisation cannot be planned. If it is planned, it is no longer an improvisation. Only containers and styles can be planned.

My way to play

Personally, I never work with structures or containers. I never practice my work either. Not so far anyway. They are all spontaneous and unprepared expressions of an inspired moment in my life. They all have their personal story and context. 

Apart from routine scale practices every now and then, and a few existing composed pieces, I don’t practice much. I only improvise and record the improvisations. I then listen to them, until I like them or reject them. I listen a couple dozen times. Once I got touched, the work is ready for publication.

When I play, I go by the flow and energy of the present moment. Experience develops skills. I do not plan any results. I am driven, often try new things and never know what the outcome will be like. I never play because it makes sense or seems reasonable. I rarely do what is expected. It is almost like speaking in tongues. I feel things and try to express them in tones. Even if it is really not reasonable. 

I therefore only play when I am stirred inside. Sometimes I don’t play for weeks or months. I want natural inspiration to be the motor behind all my work. I don’t want to produce forced performance, based on false expectations. I desire authentic music, not to please anyone. I believe each one's duty on earth is to be and express the very person we are. Not to conform what the outside world expects us to be.

I do have patterns and styles I often repeat. I repeat what I personally like. Just like any other person on earth. Bankers speak about finances, politicians about politics. As artist, I have my preferred topics, styles and themes. They often return in my play. They also evolve over time, slowly. Some never change.

Inspiration

Literally, the word “inspiration” means “to have the spirit within.” The spirit is a motor. It is the motivation, the fuel, the energy behind an action. It is the stimulating idea behind a work. Inspiration is what motors us in life. It provides energy and ideas. When we lack inspiration, we feel empty and lose heart and motivation. Inspiration is what keeps us moving. It can be short-term or long-term inspiration. Lots of inspirations last only a minute (such as social media posts).

In music, inspiration is what makes the music enjoyable. Inspired music is enjoyable to hear. For some reason, inspired music speaks to us and draws our attention. It moves our emotions. We like it.

There is a process to produce inspiration. Ideas and energy come as a result of a mechanical process. Like any other fruit, inspiration is being cultivated. We can cultivate inspiration. There is a mechanical process for it, available to anyone.

Inspired musicians have cultivated inspiration. Often without knowing it.

Something has filled their minds with a resource for music. To play or create it.

The mind can also be empty. Artists may find themselves with no inspiration. It feels like having little or nothing to communicate. It is terrible for one who lives on entertainment. It happens to the greatest artists. The search for inspiration is an ongoing challenge. 

We cannot pretend what we don’t have. We have to be loaded and charged, to be able to entertain a public. Without inspiration (= ideas and energy) we only use false methods, like predefined models or prototypes, to cover our lack of inspiration. When we have nothing to say, we should keep quiet. Not make something up.

True artists never have that problem. They only create when they have something to express. When they have nothing to communicate, they keep quiet. They understand the time to receive from others. They recognize inspiration when it comes, because they are alert and looking for it. They know art is given by inspiration. There are times to express what we have to offer and times to be quiet and listen to what others offer. A professional artist knows what time it is.

Where to go with inspiration?

True artists always go into domains that attract and inspire them. Often not common to please a large public. It makes an artist what he is and gives him a unique identity and value. Large public pleasers are not really artists.

An artist usually follows his own personal creative path or his self-imposed mission. Because he believes in it. He is not after pleasing anyone. He has his own goals to reach. If indeed he is an artist. The goal is always to express, shape or give form to ideas. The ideas inspire, not the art.

Of course, any artist would like to be appreciated and valued for his work. But that is not the primary motivation. One is artist because he is inspired and he has something to express. Any artist has something to express. Only the gift for a particular skill doesn’t make someone an artist. You can practice 20 hours a day, if you have nothing to express, you’re not an artist. What makes the artist is his inspiration, creating expressions from his ideas. He has something to express. He is motored, motivated, by inspirations.

Artistic works in general

So artists work with inspiration. Like stated before, there are always returning patterns and themes in art. That is normal. People always express similar things, and artists do too. They also use their preferred techniques and styles. They have the same artistic drive motoring them. So work can be similar. That is okay. They still express their artistic ideas in a new way, everytime, with every work.

It may be perceived similar, but it is really different every time. Each work is a new expression of what can be motored by the same inspiration. It wants to produce the same result: share an idea. Every work is a unique creation, different from all others, and valuable on its own. 

All gold is the same, but every time one finds some, it is a unique experience. And the gold has the same value as any other gold.

Every artistic creation comes at a different moment in life, with a different background, different settings, different influences. Different previous experiences. Different angles to what seem to be the same objects.

So every work is in reality unique. And every time we observe or hear the same work, it is also a unique experience. We can value every presentation as a one time-ever experience. Previous and future times will be different. We will hear or see something new every time. We’ll hear or see things we never heard or saw before. This will increase the overall value of our experience, with any certain work. We never ever experience the same things in life in the same way.

Appreciation

The risk as an artist is always that an audience might not appreciate his work. We as artists ourselves might not appreciate our own work right away. We might not like certain works for years. But if it was inspired when we did the work, it has a unique value. Every time.

One day we'll understand it from a new angle and recognize its exclusivity or unique quality. It happens to me often. I only publish works that are more than a year old, after I heard them many times. Appreciation comes over time. It takes time to come to understand and appreciate good things in life. They are deep. As a listener and even as the creator of work, appreciation comes over time.

I learned how not to doubt quality on what has been done through inspiration in an authentic manner. Quality is always in authentic work, even if we cannot perceive it at first. It may be difficult to discern, but it is there. Waiting to be found. It will often take time, sometimes years to come to appreciate and value an artistic work. It happened to many great artists in history. Discovering their quality was a learning process for the audience. 

I suppose only pretended works will never become valuable. Pretense is not art. It only serves to learn what is not art. 

As we learn to have open minds and spirits, and we learn how to see and hear things in a perceptive way, we will in time also appreciate artistic value more and more. It is like that with all good things in life. Quality is often only recognized after time. Like anything, art needs to pass the testing of time.

Flow

Flow is a rather recent word. Used since 1975 for an ages-old known phenomenon, it supposes a natural stream, causing things to run smoothly. 

What we want as artists is flow. For an artist, flow is energy and ability added to a performance.

It is something else than inspiration. At best, with flow, we surpass ourselves in a performance, by something sensed as super-natural. We are being empowered by a greater, more genius and more excellent capacity than our own. This capacity, added to our performance, turns the experience into something exceptional. 

In flow state, we forget where, what and who we are. We fear not and hold not back. We lose notions of time and location. We are being carried to another level of experience.

For the artist and audience to get in a flow mindset requires to release fixed mental states, and preconceived ideas of what the outcome must be. Flow needs freedom and is hindered by fear. The more we are open and relaxed, the better the result will be.

Flow for an artist

Flow is a result caused by the quality of the artist. At this point, I do not consider my own playing to be at a very high level of flow. I hope one day I will have opportunity to work on increasing. Flow requires work.  

At occasions I may surpass myself, but more often I am not. I do not invest enough effort and time in practicing and preparing for such an outcome. I don't have the means to do so in my actual life. 

But I do experience a form of flow, which applies more to my method of creating music.

Flow appears when invited, as a response to a stream of events and statements. It shows up, at some point, when we relax, and we become confident. 

Flow is a super-natural capacity to surpass one-self in a given situation. When invited, it comes to solve a problem. It can come as an answer, a reply, to what is being done, created, formulated or stated, IF we invite and allow it. Imperfect situations always demand clarifications and response always comes somehow. Flow can turn every imperfection into perfection. I believe this is true for anything experience in life. For me personally, this is how I perceive nature at work, developing excellence. 

So it is in music. Flow is being caused by launching a bunch of problems in the air, by a confident, trusting and peaceful pilot, the artist. Not necessarily a highly skilled one. A courageous one. The confidence provokes the response from nature. Confidence is opposite to fear and creates solutions.

What I do as a musician is to express problems. I create them. I state things and play with them. I always have musical questions to express.  I make statements and wait for flow to answer.  I repeat and refine the statements. I play with them. I stress about them. I chew them, I spit them out. As long as needed. 

I never get bored of that process. Well, sometimes I do, but again, then it’s my own lack of focus. Nothing is boring in life, unless we have no purpose or are not focused.

I repeat questions until I recognize possible answers. Answers are always given, sooner or later. I recognize them because I did NOT initiate them. This is very important to understand. I know what I initiate. I state questions and problems, but I never try to answer them myself. I wait for answers. And they appear, by themselves. I haven't ever invented my answer. I haven’t created them. I only create problems and look for answers. 

No one can answer his own questions. We can ask questions and wait for answers. They come. Solutions are always given, by natural flow, as reply to real questions. If indeed we truly have questions. When I play, I recognize the answers when they appear and try to place them in the context or spotlight as being a solution to previously stated problems. Questions can have more than one answer.

Most often at least. Sometimes they don't appear, or I don't recognize them. This, again, is caused by lack of focus.

Flow comes when we invite it to. Nature always cooperates with expression, when it is authentic enough.

Peace of mind and freedom of expression are crucial ingredients for that. Patience is as well. Flow can not come where there is absence of peace or presence of fear. 

Practice and preparation are useful to be confident and have less fear, but not so important for flow. We can produce flow at any level of performance. It comes by concentration and articulation, not by level of performance. We don't need to be masters in a technical skill for flow to activate. But we do need peace of mind and freedom of expression. And learn to remain authentic.

Pressure from the audience, self-consciousness, expectations, desiring recognition and things like those, hinder artists from being authentic and thus hinder flow to cooperate with their performance.

I learn to wait and not stress. Suspense is built up by problems being stated and resolved by the response of flow. It always comes when we know how to wait for it. It can delay. It is okay to be empty, have nothing, needing to wait. No one minds that. 

Like in a movie. It is okay for problems to exist, as long as the end is happy. We should not fear a problematic situation, but trust that solutions will appear at the right time, and shift everything back into balance. It always makes the experience interesting.

If solving tards, it can be that the artist resists or is not focused.

For an artist, the challenge is to not pretend anything. We never have solutions, we only state problems. Solutions come as answers. They don’t belong to the artist. The artist only invites answers and translates them for the audience.

Although we do sometimes compromise authenticity, we can still stay in a place of reception and float around until solutions appear. 

When we improvise, like with any performance in life, it will never be perfect. We must accept emptiness and void, without resisting the uncomfortable feeling of no knowing where to go next. Not easy to do, but to maintain resistance will only make performance worse.

Accepting discomfort will eventually cause flow to occur. 

Flow for audience

Flow carries the artist, but also carries the audience. 

A public performance is always empowered by what some have named a 'mastermind'. The mastermind is the collective united energy of all minds blended into one focus. It is the sum of all the present individual concentration. This creates a cloud of energy and concentration, called a mastermind. It is a very powerful sensation to be part of a mastermind.

Focus by the audience causes power in the mastermind. Disturbance in the audience causes disturbance in the mastermind.

Flow comes from the focus of the mastermind. The mastermind is the blending into one concentration by all present individuals' minds. Their energy is being united through focus and the quality of the flow is the sum of all focused energy all together.

When an audience is being focused, it carries the artist and his performance. Then the audience profits by a superior performance, and is carried itself into higher levels of experience. That is also called flow. Super-natural energy is carrying the experience of the artist AND the audience. Energy levels grow and cause wonderful experiences, for both.

The master is in control

Like said before, any artist is empowered by the concentration and energy level of his audience. This works in a positive or negative manner. Resistance from negative people in the audience hinders cooperation of flow. When some are antagonistic, it causes a negative disturbance. All energy is being blended into the mastermind, positive and negative together. All individuals together affect the state of the artist and the whole performance.

A master in art knows how to handle negative energy. Though it is unpleasant and not welcome, he can still turn it to the benefit of the performance. Negative people will increase the focus of the artist, if he is a master in the skill. It will make him more alert, since he feels the negativity. 

Like a master in martial arts, able to use the strength of the enemy to his benefit, so a master in art is able to use negative energy in his audience to produce a more focused performance. IF he doesn’t lose confidence. 

Flow always comes to solve problematic situations, when invited. Thus, the problem of negative people in an audience will provoke an answer of nature as well.

Skills needed to transform negative energy into a positive experience, in such a situation, is to maintain peace and confidence. The artist must reinforce his peace, patience and confidence and wait for the right moment, to produce a satisfying answer. He will then be able to surpass his level into a superior performance.

He will indeed sense the presence of negativity, and it will cause him to be either distracted or more concentrated. This extra focus will produce extra energy and extra flow in response. If indeed he is able to master the negativity. It makes it more of a challenge to surpass himself. 

But he can surpass himself and even convince the negative audience with his surpassing performance. This is not easy or common. It is for masters.

In any case, the audience always carries the artist, whether for good or bad. It always gets what it deserves in return. Unless an artist is at fault in his art, the audience has power to make him soar above his actual level. Or drop beneath it, if it is antagonistic. The audience has power to stimulate the best capacities in artists or hinder them from reaching top level performance. 

Preparation vs Pre-meditation

To produce inspired improvisations, we must understand the difference between preparation and premeditation. 

Preparation means we optimize the possibility to surpass ourselves, while keeping the outcome open. We still want to produce an unplanned and authentic performance.

Premeditation in this context, means we try to control the outcome by planning the result somehow. This is not authentic improvisation.

Successful improvisations are never the outcome of a planned performance. Such can not even be called improvisation. 

Successful improvisations are the result of a blending. It blends the work of an artist with the cooperation of a focused audience mastermind and produces flow. The state of mind of the artist, empowered by the state of mind of the audience produces the flow. Flow carries the performance to a superior level.

Improvising, we lose positive flow when we premeditate our performance. We premeditate based on fear and lack of confidence. It is not the rule of the game. The game is to produce a blending of different energies. Premeditation cannot produce this. It will even hinder it. Performance cannot be authentic when we try to control an outcome in advance out of fear and lack of confidence. The needed response will not come. Another result will come. Not what we planned for. Sooner or later it will be exposed that it was not authentic. Only courage produces positive flow.

We can hope for something, ask for something. We can try to achieve something. But we cannot premeditate anything. The outcome is being given in response to performance. Response will be different for a premeditated event than for an authentic event. Like anything else in life, in the long run we cannot fake.

In music, we can prepare our fingers, open our minds, visualize performance, focus and concentrate. We can try to sense present energy or air-charge. We may try to use it positively. But we should never ever try to manipulate a final result. Not knowing what the outcome will be, we must leave it open, even long after we are done. It is what it is, and we won’t know its true worth until time passed.

Doing so, we won’t drown. We will float around, until nature answers. Sometimes it takes years before we recognize value in art.

The Common and Special

When we listen back, as I usually do, over and over again before publishing some of my music, particular phrases start to stand out from common phrases. 

In reality there are no common phrases. There is what we call the common, but the outstanding won’t have any particular outstanding value apart from the common. The special needs the common and the regular, to be special. There again, it is a balance between both.

None of them are of greater value, but both are equal. The common and the special. They form one whole. Together they have a value. Just like with human beings. 

The common is just as outstanding, as the rare, although it is more common. There is simply more of it.

The Learning Process

Life is a trial of events. We don’t just show up and always produce the perfect event. We try things. In trying, we repeat things, while trying new things. We ask questions and seek answers and solutions.

By doing the same things over and over, we discover ways of doing them better, and start to master skills.

Often we wish we would have done things differently. Looking back, we feel we should have taken another path.

But life is not made that way. We learn after, rarely before. We can only try to understand what can be done better next time. If we understand errors.

I do not really believe in errors. Life is a learning process. The most precious values show up, as spontaneous gifts from nature, when we live our experiences as wholly as we can.

Looking back, sometimes years later, we see clearly what was good and what wasn’t. And if we really look deep, we also see it could not have been any other way. 

It was actually perfect the way it was, back then. Life is always perfect the way it is. We just have to learn to accept what it is. It is not easy to accept what we don't like. But we can believe it is still perfect and necessary to proceed to what we want.

The more we are able to open heart and mind, to understand this and leave behind preconceived, fixed ideas, wishes or judgments, the faster we will discover and appreciate true lasting values. 

This is not only true for music, but for any other experience. The quality of any experience depends on the quality of our openness and ability to believe and focus.

It requires focus and training to reach an optimized mental state. Most people haven’t learned to enter into that state and thus they miss out on the good part of life. And of music.