As part of the 20th anniversary of The London Improvisers Orchestra, Caroline Kraabel led a free workshop at the South Bank Centre about improvisation aimed specifically at women. Caroline, from Seattle, is a self-taught musician who was drawn to London during the 1970‘s punk scene.

So what is improvisation and why was the workshop focused on women? In an interview for ‘‘British Music Collection’ by Julie Kjaer , Caroline made the observation that, because the sound of improvisation is not conventional and the listening audiences were predominantly male, their perception of the quality of music may be interfered with by their conscious or unconscious prejudices about women.

Roxy Coss in her blog ‘Thoughts of a Female Jazz Musician’ makes a brilliant argument in her article ‘Never Enough’ as to why there is an underrepresentation of women in jazz. She analyses the effects of socialization on girls and how they are expected to be perfect in society. Improvisation, especially if you are first starting out, requires you to be bad at something. This explained the general feelings in the room that many of the women there had never attempted improvisation because they had found it intimidating and frightening.

In ‘The Conversation’, Cat Hope explores why there is so little space for women in jazz in Australia. She cites some USA studies which showed that during performances, men take more solos than women. She also examines the masculine stereotypes about certain instruments such as saxophone, trumpet and drums. In the room of about 30 women, it was refreshing to see that there was a good number of saxophones, trumpets and drummers, and we were all ready to plunge over the cliff edge of ‘not being good enough’.

Caroline, a saxophonist herself, first asked everyone what they thought improvisation was. There were many different answers as well as some variations on what others had already said. This sequence of variations on a theme, she pointed out, was indeed what improvisation was. Which highlighted that improvisation was not just connected to music, but permeated our everyday lives. There have been many quotes from musicians defining improvisation, but one of my favourites has to be:

Improvisation is the expression of the accumulated yearnings, dreams and wisdom of the soul”-Yehudi Menuhin, violinist.

One of Caroline’s friends, French double bass player Joanne Leon said that improvisation wasn’t about playing but about listening. Caroline did not completely agree with this definition and for an interview with ‘The Wire’ gave the following; “courage, respect for self and others, trust, temporal awareness, reflexes, practice, openness, listening, not listening, memory, integrity, having an idea of what feels right and being able to change that idea, learning how to share power , to navigate, negotiate and create.”

Before asking us to improvise with each other, she got us to sit and listen. After about five minutes, she asked us to name one sound that we heard. It was hard to name just one but this drew our attention to the art of being able to focus our attention on one sound whilst being aware of the others. The exercise also started a practice of listening to all sounds, whether they were inside the room or further and further out or inside oneself. With better listening comes better improvisation.

All the instruments joined in for the last half hour of the workshop in groups of three at a time. The group walked around the room to get a different variation of sound and when one felt ready, as most did, they joined in whilst one dropped out. Although we were at various levels of ability, Caroline, in describing what improvisation does revealed that it was more than virtuosity. It was a fascinating process that made one perceive more intensely, made time denser and made one feel in the moment and more alive. On top of all that nourishment, it also made one a better performer.

Not bad for a free workshop although an hour and a half did not seem long enough, especially due to the popularity of the course. I came away with some tools to make improvisation better and the acknowledgement that, despite finding the concept frightening, I’d tried and could only get better. Taking baby steps towards a freer life was also priceless.