In my last article I talked about the basics of musical improvisation, the three foundational blocks you need to put in place before you start improvising. So now that you are informed on some music theory basics, you’re exploring a variety of musical styles and you have a solid mindset to give you motivation to start improvising… It’s time to get started!
Here are six simple steps you can take to start improvising today:
1. Sing Along with Recorded Music
A great way to build confidence and gain personal experience in improvising is to sing along with your favorite recorded song. This can be on the radio, a CD or MP3 player, or YouTube videos online.
Find space where you are all alone and put on some music you know and like. Don’t worry about a polished performance, especially if you don’t consider yourself a singer or worry about how to sing in tune. Just start making sounds that fit well with the song you are listening to. If you’re happy to sing, sing! If not, you can whistle or hum.
Bobby McFerrin demonstrates vocal improvisation with an arena full of people
This will help release some fresh musical ideas because staying non-verbal restricts you from the song lyrics, leaving your mind free to create your own compositions as you express yourself. Singing along can be a great way to improvise music because you are creating a connection between thinking and practicing.
2. Play Along on a Musical Instrument
To improvise music using a musical instrument, put on some instrumental music and play your instrument along with the music.
You might worry that you don’t know what to play – don’t worry! You’re going to find out by trusting your ears: if it sounds right, it is right. Want a shortcut? Use some of that music theory we talked about earlier.
Playing along on your instrument like this will help you learn to improvise imaginatively. It will also help you break past that barrier of worrying that you can’t do it. Remember that everybody’s first improvisations sound bad, that even good improvisers occasionally play a “wrong” note, and that there is nobody around to hear you as you learn by doing!
If you play more than one musical instrument, you can creatively use each of them and listen to the different results. The differences in speed, tone, flexibility and their muscle memory and visual thinking will give you varied inspiration for your improvising.
Or grab your instrument, find a single note which seems to fit the key, and start playing along. You might be surprised how far you can go with a single note!
Ella Fitzgerald performs the One-Note Samba with scat (improvised) singing
3. Get Creative With Melody
When you are learning to improvise, often the melody can provide a good starting point. You can actually play a melody and then create your own interpretation of the melody.
The secret of improvisation is creativity. Try changing a note or a phrase by adding your own ornamentations. You will be surprised at how much you can personalize the music with a single adjustment to the melody.
Make a game of it: Play the melody repeatedly, but each time you play it, make one more change. Soon you will have created something unrecognisable! If you apply those music theory basics as you choose your notes (e.g. sticking in the scale can be a good idea at first) then your creation will be a new alternative melody which still fits the song. Pretty cool!
4. Get Creative With Rhythm
Rhythm is considered by some to be the key to improvisation. Becoming creative with your rhythm requires a strong rhythmic foundation (learn rhythm here) so that you are free to make changes and still sound in time.
Try experimenting with rhythm the way you experimented with notes: start by playing the melody and make a shift in the rhythm by hitting a note earlier than expected, or a bit later. Listen for the impact this has. This shifting of the beat is technically referred to as syncopation. It’s a simple but powerful way to add your own flair to a performance. Take it a step further and start really changing the rhythm and again, before long you’ll have created something distinctive and new.
Of course, mixing these two aspects is where the true creativity starts to come in, as you choose notes and timing purely from your own imaginative, using the standard melody only as a spark of initial inspiration.
5. Embrace Musical Accidents
When you want to start improvising music, you will need to come out of your comfort zone and allow yourself to explore something risky and different. When you learn pieces to perform you are taught not to make mistakes. To avoid playing notes which aren’t on the sheet music, or playing them at the “wrong” time.
With improvisation, there are no rules and no “right” or “wrong” notes to play. There are notes that sound good and notes that don’t.
But here’s the real secret to mastering improvisation: when you play a note which sounds bad you can fix it! The wonderful thing about music is that every unexpected twist and turn can become the start of a great new journey for the listener.
Unlike performing prepared music, where playing a wrong note is a momentary mistake, with improvisation it is an opportunity: it’s a chance for you to use your creativity on the spot to find a way to turn that “wrong” note into a “right” one, and bring the music back together in a satisfying way.
So when you mess up and accidentally hit a note that sounds off-key during a performance or practice, don’t panic! Just keep going in the new key and find your way back. This will help you know how far you can go with creativity and you will be surprised at the very positive effect it can have on your audience. They might not even know it wasn’t intentional!
6. Record Yourself – and Listen Back
At the start of improvisation, it can be difficult to remember things you played and the tiny lessons you learn with each choice of notes you make. Recording your improvisations will help you remember your previous experiences and build on them. Remember you must listen back to your recording to get the benefit though! Listening to your recording will help you understand your strengthens and weaknesses. When you listen you can also pick up a cool idea from your recording and use it again to improve your improvisation next time.
This can be a challenge at first because it will really put you to the test: your attitude must stay positive (don’t get disheartened if you don’t sound great at first) and your ability to embrace mistakes (try to be objective about how well you recovered from any “bad” notes). Be willing to experience the discomfort of listening to yourself improvise badly at first, as it is the key to sounding better and better in time. Before you know it you’ll be able to return to those original recordings and say “Wow, look how far I’ve come!”.
Start Improvising Today!
One of the utmost joys of being capable of playing a musical instrument is the ability to spontaneously create music on the spot. Improvising is essentially a form of composing and many musicians would say it’s the ultimate display of composition skill.
Whether you are an amateur, an experienced musician or a music guru, you can’t argue against the fact that improvising music skillfully is a powerful thing. It calls for creativity, commitment, willingness and readiness to always learn something new. It is a perfect way to create new music and improve existing pieces. Above all, remember that it is a skill that everyone can learn and perfect with practice.