Improvisation teaches us to listen

How, where and when do sounds come together? Chords? Coincidences? Piano teacher Chris Wiesendanger illustrates the complexity of the art of improvisation. Photograph: Chris Wiesendanger

Speaking, reading, writing and listening are the foundations of communication. But what about listening? Only listening allows us to read situations, to recognize their potential and to act adeptly. Taking action always means improvising based on what we hear.


It took us years to learn to read, write and speak. But what about listening? What education and training do we undergo to learn to hear and listen? Speaking, reading, writing and listening are the foundations of communication. And yet, we have barely learned to listen and often forget how to. This is where improvisation must come into play.

Improvisation is first and foremost listening. When I hear something new, I establish relationships with sounds that I have stored to memory. Thus emerge actions, interventions, approaches, phrases, rhythms and textures… For now, they are classifications and differentiations such as “Ah, I know that” or “Oh, I’ve never heard that before.” Such responses open up numerous possibilities.

Improvising is about recognizing possibilities, about reading a situation: Should I mention my idea? Am I making something possible? Or am I making the inherent impossible? A web of possibilities and questions emerges. How do I learn to recognize possibilities as they arise? How do I read a situation?

Trusting change

Enter the art of improvisation. Experienced improvisers make safe decisions. Playing experience, intensive aural training and an almost shamanistic sense of future actions are all involved. Yet the crucial factor to trust change. We insert the idea into a process and follow its effect. We learn that skilful guidance initiates developments while forces produce undesirable reactions. The best strategy relies on limitless openness. Serious antagonists include clichés, conventions, habits and reflexes.

We can begin with simple listening exercises.
1. Listening for individual tones. Where and how does a tone begin, where does it end? I listen for the subtle movements within a tone, find a gap and insert the next tone. In a tone, I hear both: its essence and its potential.
2. Listening for pauses. Pauses are definitely not simply silence, but rhythm. I contemplate the balance between tones and pauses. Is there a need for an economy of tones? We waste too many tones. Sounds are valuable, as are pauses. We need to be conscious of resources. Couldn’t improvisation make a valuable contribution to a more ecological world?
3. How, where and when do sounds come together? Chords? Coincidences? Can intention be distinguished from accident in improvisation? Improvisation produces emergent structures precisely through the unintended. A dance of possibilities begins.

Using the non-existent

The world of music is mysterious, fragile. Too much influence destroys it. If you want to cling to something, you’ll lose it. As an improviser, I add something to a situation by making use of what isn’t. This is perhaps the highest goal of improvisation.

As an improviser, I truly understand what “no regrets” means. Regretting means not being present. Regretting implies “greeting.” I visit an old friend. Regretting includes “duration.” The prefix “re-” signals a change of state. Phrased more loosely: I work with memory.

We can only learn to improvise by improvising. Putting a foot wrong is also part of things. Regretting while playing leads nowhere.

To return to my initial question: Shouldn’t “Listen twice as much as you speak” become our guiding principle? Listening makes us better communicators. Speaking has its time, as does listening. I’m deeply convinced that improvisation teaches us to listen.

Chris Wiesendanger ( teaches the piano and the rhythm/vocal section in the Jazz and Pop profile and as part of ZHdK’s continuing education programmes in music. He will be performing a solo concert with free improvisations on Monday, 11 April 2022, 7.30 p.m., in ZHdK’s concert hall 3.


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