Connection through improvisation

Cover photo artwork, titled "Ball Game with Dog", by abstract artist Tatawa (Wei Tan) // // Instagram: @_tatawa

This story is being presented as part of PechaKucha Vol. 4 at The Music District, May, 2018. Pecha Kuca nights are an informal gathering of creatives and opportunity to share ideas.

Lara Mitofsky Neuss Headshot

Lara Mitofsky Neuss, Clarinet

By Lara Mitofsky Neuss

My name is Lara Mitofsky Neuss and I am a clarinetist and teacher in Fort Collins, Colorado. I am finishing my Master of Music this spring at Colorado State University where I am the graduate teaching assistant for the clarinet studio and new music ensemble. I am so thankful for my experience at CSU, where I’ve gained a broad range of teaching experience, while having artistic freedom to express myself in both traditional and non-traditional areas of music. Whether contemporary, chamber music, solo repertoire, orchestral and wind ensemble music, or even composition and improvisation, I have dived in to them all. Our new music ensemble at Colorado State is called “It Could Be Anything.” I’d like you to keep that in mind as I take you through my recent journey with improvisation.

Improvisation is something that has been used in both music and in life for many years. Not having been exposed to improvisation early on, I feel very inspired and lucky to have recently formed a strong connection with it, and I am excited to share with you my journey. I see improvisation as the opportunity to express my inner rhythmic and emotional experience as it is in the moment. When one improvises, sounds are created intuitively while being informed by the relationship of being one with their instrument. As I improvise, every teacher, mentor, and colleague that has supported me lends to the emotional expression of each note. Those who tirelessly coached me with their knowledge and patience are the foundation of every performance and piece that I share. The combination of their influence, my emotional bond to music, and my continual desire to connect with others, creates in me a weightless freedom to express what exists in my mind, spirit, and heart.

A chair in the corner of a roomIn Summer 2017, I participated in a program on Improvisation and new music held at Orford Musique in the province of Quebéc, Canada, and facilitated by Swedish percussionist Anders Ästrand. The twelve chosen participants with varying musical backgrounds arrived at Orford, eager to learn about Anders and his improvisational techniques. Anders began by having us close our eyes. I encourage you, if you are comfortable doing so, to take about fifteen seconds to close your eyes and become one with your environment. For us, a tap on the left shoulder meant to play our instrument, a tap on the right meant to stop. We stood with intense focus on our instruments, initially nervous to feel a tap yet gaining increasing confidence each time we were chosen to play.

A young baby sitting on a fence postAs the week continued, we were given opportunities to work together in groups, create our own compositions, improvise, lead, and follow. The natural beauty of Quebéc inspired our music as did the personal growth and experience that we shared. We moved from the insecurities of ‘What if my writing is bad? Am I being too repetitive with my improvisation?’ to becoming engrossed in the pure joy of freely connecting, expressing, and rejoicing musically with those around us. The fear of being judged by others and our tendency to self-critique were replaced by spontaneous rhythmic music making. None of this would have been possible were it not for the years of dedicated academic study, performance experience, and tireless practice. To find this freedom we had to have complete trust in our training and in our relationship with our instruments. As comfort crept in and personal judgement lifted, our natural rhythm, artistry, and emotional expression became spontaneous.

An elderly gentleman's headshotFollowing this extraordinary summer experience, I was fortunate to be one of four improvisors chosen for a tour in Sweden. Here I was no longer the beginner, but the educator, taking college students on the same journey that I had so recently had the opportunity to experience. I travelled with the three other musicians to Stockholm, Gothenburg, Arvika, Ljungskile, and Orebro, teaching and performing with the students. The camaraderie of traveling and continuous performing with our students led to a unique environment of sharing, with our growth matching theirs. Myself and the other teachers grew increasingly closer, having already formed a strong bond from having performed together over the summer. Our shared journey had created in us a sense of becoming a single, united entity, and we plan to continue touring as a group. Our goal is to share our enthusiasm and knowledge of improvisation with others who like us, did not train in typical improvisational settings.

I have plans to channel my growth in the area of improvisation to schools around the world. Improvisation is an extraordinary way to connect with the artists around you. We are all artists and deserve the freedom to create our own voice. Improvisation is something that can be experienced in any field or genre. What you feel in one moment will be gone the next. With a new-found freedom and self-confidence, you can use your creativity to express your deepest emotions; a gift to yourself and to the many others who are influenced by you.

A dirt road provoking heavy thinkingYou might have been curious about the photos accompanying this story, wondering if they were taken by me during my various musical travels. The answer is that they were not but they represent an intimate piece of my growth as a musician and as an individual. My sister Ilysa Mitofsky took these photographs as she walked through her life in various cities and countries. She captured these moments as she felt emotionally connected with them as they passed by. This is her improvisation. It Could Be Anything.