SE: How do you approach teaching students to improvise, since it is essentially a gesture of personal freedom in which even perceived "mistakes" are embraced?
FF: Like any other kind of teaching, it's not so much about teaching people to do stuff as teaching them how to teach themselves to do stuff. I think that's the only effective way of teaching anything. The most important thing is to learn how to listen. And to listen critically within the context of doing it. I have a lot of incidental activities that I do with my ensemble here at Mills College, which have mostly to do with breaking down peoples ideas of who they are, and what they should be doing. Because especially musicians have a lot of ideas, even though they may be self-imposed, about what is and isn't music, and about what you should and shouldn't be doing, and what technique is, or isn't. In improvised music, you need to get rid of all of that really.
And so, I have games that are designed to, first of all, help people to lose their inhibitions, and second, to stop worrying about what the others are thinking about them. Because I've discovered, working with very high-level classical players, like when I do improvised music with, for example, the Ensemble Modern, that the biggest single fear they have of improvising is what their peers are going to think of them while they're doing it. Even though these people have been working together for years, they're one of the crack ensembles of the world, and they can play anything brilliantly, but when they improvise, they feel completely vulnerable to each other. Now if they feel that way, then that must be kind of prevalent everywhere. The trick is to try to get people to get rid of that whole way of thinking, and remove all hierarchy from the situation, so that the people who appear to be technically good don't intimidate the people who are just beginners. Often, it's the beginners who are the better improvisors. They can just play what they feel and hear, and if you're keeping it simple, a beginner can probably do a much better job. You have to learn how to stop your hands from moving if you have a lot of technique, because when you have a lot of technique, you tend to want to use it all the time.
So I do exercises for the people who are really good, like tie one of their hands behind their back. That's a lie. I don't do that.
SE: Maybe you should.
FF: Probably. Usually, when I start working with people, I make them put their instruments away, so that we're only working with the voice and the body. Because the instrument is a powerful statement, and it's a way in which you can impose yourself on other people. I think the first thing I want to do is get rid of that, and have people just react together as people, so they just have to deal with who they are, without the prop of technique or anything else. The second thing is that I try to do it at a very high speed, which means that nobody has time to think. You just have to react constantly. Of course, in the process of that, you make an absolute idiot of yourself. The lesson from that, is that actually that's really ok, and you're not going to get anywhere until you get to that point.