Prince and Creating Spontaneity

From The Blog of Tom Jackson:

The former guitar player for Prince was telling me about their rehearsals. If you’ve seen any video of Prince or seen him live, he goes off on jams that appear completely spontaneous. Sometimes they’re so off the wall, you wonder where they came up with the stuff they did! I asked him, how did you get from that place to this funky

thing to this Pink Floyd thing to this breakdown, to this jammin’ stuff — and it all seems so spontaneous? And he said one word…"practice."

In practice they got an instinct, they were jamming, and they went down that road in practice. The idea came to them, they stopped, went back, fleshed it out, and rehearsed it to where it was really tight and they didntt have to think about it.

Those of us who have just "jammed" know that it might be magical….one night. And then on other nights it’s just terrible. So the key is this: if you understand the fundamentals in your preparation, and you know how to hold the mic, and you know placement on stage, and you know what it takes visually onstage, then they’re in your arsenal and you can use them (be spontaneous with them) onstage. They’ll come naturally – without thinking about them. Otherwise, you get an instinct, and if you haven’t rehearsed the fundamentals, then you have to think about it, and all the audience sees is you thinking about what you’re doing. And that’s not exciting.

I have a good friend who lives in Chicago. When he flies into town he doesn’t give me a call and say "hey, Tom, lets go down to the library and watch people read!" We don’t want to watch people read. And no one wants to watch people think!

So what we need to do is plan, practice it in rehearsals, and then we can go out and do it. And when we’re onstage, IF we have the fundamentals, then we can follow our instinct, and it’s natural. We’ve done it over and over and over again. It looks spontaneous even though the basics are things we’ve worked out in rehearsals.

On a football team, those players are not just playing their 19th, 20th game of the year when they get to the Super Bowl. Before the Super Bowl, they had six weeks of training, and before that they had a 6-inch thick playbook of plays that the team runs, and they study those plays. The truth is, everyone knows their role. They run the plays over and over and over again. Then the coaches have a game plan. THAT’S what a live show should be! You’ve studied a playbook, you’ve rehearsed it, and where the spontaneity comes in is that every night, every audience is different. So just like the running back, you don’t run through the same hole every play. You try left, you try right, you try jumping over them, you pitch the ball back…. that’s where the spontaneity comes in.

Everyone needs to know the role they have and the goal of each play. That’s the way a song should be, too. That’s what should happen onstage – a combination of rehearsal and spontaneity. No one is thinking! The running back isn’t thinking when he runs up to the hole, and the hole is closed, "oh, maybe I should run this way" – he just reacts. Why? Because he has the fundamentals!

Having the fundamentals down because you’ve done your woodshedding is the first step. Then planning the show – getting a vision for what you want each song to look like, and what you want your show to look like – that’s the next step.

It’s important to find the balance between form and spontaneity, and to understand the creative process. That means brooding over your songs, listening to them in different ways, planning, getting ideas,…and then working it until it becomes a part of who you are onstage. Something natural, something creative, something unique – and that’s what your audience wants to see!