“Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
― Winston Churchill
So how exactly do we get into this improvising thing? What is it that you do? How many steps in advance do you know? Personally, I barely know a couple bars at most, and even then I’m not sure that those are what’s gonna come out. I toyed with the idea of exercising this away through attempting to memorize a four or eight bar sequence as I’m dancing it and then repeat it, either on the same or on the opposite leg, depending on where I land. Didn’t find it fun so I didn’t carry through, and also I had forgotten about it until now. My refusals of discipline aside, there is this scary idea of having to plan things ahead and probably while you’re dancing.
My day job is Software Quality Assurance, and there’s a thought I want to take from there. The first phase in Software Testing is what we call “Planning and Control”. Note the “Control” part – meaning, keeping track of how much the initial plan is not being fulfilled and adjusting both the activities we carry out and the plan itself. Cause things never go according to plan – not only in QA too, this is pretty much how anything in life goes.
Most sean-nós teachers work by teaching steps. This is a useful starting point – as beginners, we have this curious set of combinations that we may do in some sequence. But, what happens if we attempt to use one of these and we, well, make a mistake? We had a plan – it’s not happening. How do we go about controlling this before we “get caught”? The audience doesn’t know what the step is supposed to be, but we can’t fumble completely neither. In my mind this is really all about keeping the pulse. A good time to pull out one of Rónán Ó Snodaigh’s bodhrán masterclass videos – somewhere around the four minute mark he states that “You can’t go wrong when you’re grooving, it’s as simple as that.”
This is probably coming off as somewhat laconic by now, so let me attempt to clarify. The best that we can do is know the tune well and have our steps breathe with it. Easy for anyone to say. But if that’s too big a bite, most of the time you will actually be fine as long as you stay within the basic rhythm of the tune. So, once we lose focus and our “plan” falls apart our instinct is to panic, and typically what we do at that point is a) mess the rhythm up and/or b) stop altogether. These two reactions are what we want to get rid of through our training, mostly because they don’t make us look good. The worst thing about steps not going to plan is getting nervous – you can’t be in the groove having fun (as Rónán wonderfully describes) if you’re nervous. Things will still mess up and you will not do what you intended, especially if you’re as fond of Guinness as I am. But if your offbeat moment is small enough and you get back to the beat fast enough – the audience has little chance to notice! With practice, you will notice these “mistakes” slowly become unplanned variations that aren’t really all that much against the music.
In terms of practice – I’d advise to just work at home with the tunes and not be afraid of being repetitive. Remember – especially in the confines of your training space, you are allowed to repeat the same exact step forever, and don’t be ashamed to do that. Our mind needs a specific kind of focus to be creative and stopping and thinking does NOT help. However, constant movement (even if repetitive) DOES. When practicing improvisation, never allow yourself to stop. Keep your focus on the music and the pulse and stay as close to it as you can. If you fall off, get back in – if this means walking around (rhythmically!) for a couple bars do that, but don’t break the movement by stopping in place after an off beat – in this break your conscious mind starts messing with you, and improvisation is not a conscious effort.
And here I’ll stop – I guess I’ll think of something to add but let’s keep it for a “part 2” or something… And of course, please share your experiences on improvisation – I’d love to see more approaches and thoughts on it.