Get it into your body

I’m learning to play guitar. It is a tough, slow process. If I have a new chord to learn, it takes a lot of repetitions before that chord becomes second nature. I have to practice that shape with my fingers many times. I have to practice changing from chords that I already know to the chord I’m learning. The goal is to play that chord as quickly and as easily as I might say a phrase or sing a melody. But it doesn’t come with one lesson or with one or two practice sessions. It takes many sessions over many days and weeks and sometimes months for me to learn to play a chord with that kind of ease.

Sometimes I think we expect improv to work differently. We want exercises that produce better scenes right away. If an exercise is awkward or hard the first time we try it, sometimes the instinct is to throw it away. We try a new opening and it sucks. It feels stilted and forced. We are In Our Head. It’s not Organic. We give up, or move on to something that feels right, right away. This is a mistake.

The first time I try a chord on the guitar, it may physically hurt. It feels awkward. My fingers can’t make that shape. And if they can make that shape, I might take an inordinate amount of time to switch from that chord to any other. So should I give up? Should I say, “G7 chords don’t work for me. I only play E and D chords.” Of course not.

And neither should we as improvisors. We should be willing to practice new exercises many times before we even judge it to be useful. And we should recognize that we may have to do it again and again across many practice sessions, before the skill becomes second nature. Eventually it gets into our body and becomes a process that we do subconsciously. It will then be as easy as saying a phrase or singing a melody, or playing a D chord.

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