I decided to make the title for this post sound like one of those dreaded essay questions from high school. I don’t know what made me do that. It just felt like the right thing to do at that moment.
I guess you could say I improvised it.
I grew up in a Midwest American town that boasted several ferocious school music departments. Out of 1200 kids in my high school, 400 of us were involved in music. I was in, among other things, the jazz band. In jazz music, there will inevitably be a bit where the notes turn into slashes with chemical – looking symbols above them. If you were the one who volunteered (or, more often, was forced into it), that meant it was your turn to stand and make something up on the spot – it was your turn to improvise.
Something a bit like this.
Jazz improvisation instruction is full of contradiction. One day it’s, “just play anything, there are no wrong notes, Miles Davis built a career on that concept you know”, and then next lesson it’s “These are the notes of a D Dorian scale. When you see D minor, restrict yourself to these 7 notes and no others”. Jazz is freedom and spontaneity, then jazz is hours upon hours of finding ever more gruelling ways to play scales.
“They” (music educators everywhere) will tell you jazz is like speaking. You learn scales (vocabulary and grammar), but then when you take a solo (have a conversation) you forget all of those things and just make it up as you go along. But that analogy never really worked for me. Jazz improvisation is HARD and language (English) is EASY. I didn’t have to sit and drill adverbs for an hour a day before I could tell someone they were going too “slowly”. It was something teachers said and I never believed. Panic resumed.
However, now that I’m studying Japanese, I’m starting to get what those bespectacled, goatee’d lecturer-dudes were talking about. I have spent months now learning the difference between は, を, and が and I thought I nearly had it. But, when faced with a real live Japanese person, all of that goes out the window and I mess them up. Also I know that か is at the end of a sentence when it’s a question. I know it. But I haven’t practised it in real time. So I forget that too, and that’s easy. I feel like a bit of an idiot…
…just like when I would know the notes of a melodic minor scale, know them, could recite them, could play the scale on my instrument, but when faced with a performance situation – gone. Out the window. It’s a really dreadful feeling.
I think it comes down to the difference between knowing and knowing. There’s knowing something with your head, and then there’s knowing something so well that it is a part of you. After years and years of trying, I can now achieve passable jazz solos on multiple instruments. I never feel like I’ve done as well as I could have, but the audience claps and the world keeps moving. It was only partly due to practising scales. It was mostly due to being faced with that real situation over, and over, and over again and playing some really dreadful solos in the meantime. Now the notes are more a part of me than something that I think about.
That’s what I never understood. English has always been a part of me – I don’t remember learning it. And it’s such a part of me that I can say things that are wrong or don’t actually make sense (like “meese” is the plural of “moose” and “smack that b**tch up”) and they become correct in that moment because I’ve expressed myself in that way.
So until I get lots and lots and lots more practice, Japanese will be at the “ohmigodohmigodohmigod there’s so many people here and they’re all looking at me and Mr. Public School Music Teacher will be so disappointed in me if I screw this up” phase. However, if I’ve survived it once, I can do it again. In the meantime, people of Japan, ごめんなさい。