As a musician who loves to improvise and be thrown off the deep end of things, MOFO was the perfect environment for me. I was really able to both stretch, and be stretched out by the other musicians I performed with.
Having been an improvising musician for many years, I must admit to having my licks/riffs/ideas that I do use over and over (who doesn't?), so in one sense what I do is not 100% improvised. But, and this is important, even when I play something familiar, the context is always different. Things like the room, the audience, the instruments used, and even my particular mood at the time are always changing.
A good example are my 2 performances in the Barrel Room, on Friday morning and Saturday morning. While there were similarities, each performance was quite different. One factor was that the energy of the 2 audiences was very different. Another factor was the 1st Barrel Room performance was my very 1st performance at the fest, so I didn't know what to expect as far as the sound and reaction of my borrowed gear, the sound of the room, and the reaction of the audience. I also had an overall sense of nervousness when I started. The 2nd performance in the Barrel Room was my 3rd overall, so by then I had a better feeling about everything.
Thinking While Performing
As I've mentioned numerous times, I'm always listening to what's going on when I'm playing. This feedback helps me make choices. And choices are what improvising is all about. The things I am thinking are:
- Instrument choices: which ones and what one/s to play next.
- Mallet choices: hard or soft? Rubber, cord/yarn wound, wood, metal, big or small?
- Rhythm choices.
- Playing rhythm vs ambient atmospheres.
- Volume & texture choices: loud/soft, harsh/smooth, melodic/noise, short/long, rhythmic/arrhythmic, or combinations of these and everything in between.
- How are the audience and/or other musicians reacting to what I do?
- In response to those reactions, do I play it safe, or do I go further out on the edge of things?
- What is the room telling me?
- Can I play with the reverb/echo of the room?
- How is everything different than the last performance?
And all of this is happening in real time as I'm playing. There's no stopping to think it over and then making a decision.
A good example of this is the photo above. I call this set up of small Gongs my floor Gamelan. I usually play it with the medium blue rubber mallets you can see on the left. But in some rooms, the blue mallets are too harsh/brittle sounding, so I'll use the softer red rubber mallets. And at other times, I'll use a soft, cord wound mallet because the rubber ones are too overpowering. So I have to listen to the room's acoustics, and how my instruments sound in there, then make a mallet choice before I start playing.
There are even times I won't use a certain instrument, because I know it won't work right in the room, or I tried it and it didn't sound good, so I put it down and moved on to a different instrument. So another important thing is realizing when something isn't working and then abandoning that gracefully for something else.
The Continuing Art of Trust
The biggest thing of all is trust. Trusting myself to play the right thing. “What if I do something that doesn't work?” It happens, but you just move on to the next thing. And you keep moving, changing, evolving what you are playing.
There's also trusting my audience to go along with what I'm doing. A good example of this is the use of silence. I think a lot of drummers are afraid of silence because the way we are taught is to always be playing, always making a sound. This is especially true of drum set players. On set, we seem to be always playing a rhythm, rarely stopping. Even when we do stop, some other band members may be playing, which keeps things filled up.
Now when playing solo, when you stop, everything stops, and there is this little bit of fear in the back of your mind that the audience will get restless, or won't like it. But you have to trust that the silence is just as important as the sound, and in fact, will make the sounds you play stand out even more. But this takes a lot of time to nurture and develop.
The End is Only the Beginning…
So here we are, the final post about my experience at MOFO. I hope you've found it interesting, helpful, and even inspiring to your own music & improvising. Thanks for reading.
I'd also like to thank everyone at MOFO—Brian, Shelley, Stacey, and the whole crew—for making this an exceptional musical experience. And the other musicians I shared a stage with and who I was fortunate enough to see perform. I'd also like to thank Paiste/Yamaha Australia and Mike Balter Mallets for help with the gear. A very special thanks to the US Consulate in Melbourne, Australia for their generous support. And finally, my sincere thanks to all the wonderful people who listened to my music.