To become a great improviser you need to unleash your inner musical instinct and then learn to control it. Learning to improvise is a long-term mission, one which will push you to your musical limits and then beyond. You’ll need to be armed with some tips, tricks and strategies to help ensure you continually improve.
Although the details of how to improvise vary by instrument there are some tips and strategies you can apply no matter what instrument or style of music you play. You can see our previous guides to improvising on guitar, saxophone and piano for specific guidance on those instruments, and on rock and jazz for how to improvise in those styles. In this article we’ll share some universal tips for developing your skills as an improvising musician.
Know the basics
Before you can make use of tactical advice, you need to have covered the basics. There’s no point learning shortcuts and accelerators if you haven’t even started on your improvisational journey!
Along with the basics of improvisation you will want to learn some basic music theory to help you know what your options are and how notes, chords and rhythms work together to create great-sounding music.
Got the basic knowledge covered? Great! Then we can start looking at some specific tips to help you improve.
Get Your Head Right
Improvisation success depends on your attitude. Before getting caught up in the details of learning to improvise, make sure you’re going in with the right philosophy about it. That doesn’t need to be sophisticated at all, it’s just having a clear answer to the question:
What does improvising music mean to you?
- Does it mean freedom, creative expression, fun exhilaration and a new route to musical confidence?
- Or does it mean danger, showing off, or a highly-advanced skill you only hope to some day obtain?
You can probably see which of these attitudes is going to lead to more improvisation success!
At its core, improvisation is about enjoying making music. It’s perhaps the purest form of musical expression and there’s a real beauty and elegance to the natural creativity it channels.
As you begin, and later whenever the task of learning to improvise seems to be too complicated or too challenging, return to this core philosophy: improvisation is about fun and freedom, about the pure enjoyment of music for music’s sake. Keep that in mind and you can’t go wrong.
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals
It’s easy to get carried away when learning to improvise, trying to integrate all sorts of advanced ideas and frameworks. But ask any of the most famous jazz musicians and they’d tell you the same thing: you need to know the fundamentals. Two of the most famous sports coaches of all time, Vince Lombardi and John Wooden, would tell you the same thing: it’s all about fundamentals.
For improvisation to sound musical it needs to be based on the notes of the key you’re playing in. Otherwise you’ll just produce a jumble of discordant random-sounding pitches. To play notes from the key means knowing the scale, and to play in any key that means knowing how to play major and minor scales in all 12 keys. Ideally the melodic and harmonic minor, as these will serve different purposes for you in your improvisation.
It also means knowing the chords of the key, so that you can play suitable notes over a progression in that key. Even if you don’t play chords on your instrument you can benefit from learning about the chords. For example, think in terms of arpeggios if you play a “melody instrument” like sax or trumpet.
All of these fundamentals may seem like a lot of theory and tedious exercises to practice, but these are the bedrock of all good improvisation. The frameworks they provide let you play freely and confidently, knowing that the notes you choose will sound good and the solos you create will sound musical.
Respect the fundamentals, and put in the time it takes to learn them. Up-and-down, forwards and backwards, and inside-out.
Embrace your Mistakes
Many people get discouraged when learning the art of improvisation because they try for perfection – when that is perhaps the exact opposite of the true spirit of improvisation!
Improvising music isn’t about avoiding mistakes – it’s about risking them and recovering from them.
If you always stay perfectly within the audience’s expectations and the “rules” of music then your improvisations will be dull and predictable. You need to push the boundaries and be willing to risk trying things that might not work out.
What saves this from producing a mess of “wrong” notes is that you should also learn to recover from mistakes.
Play a whole string of bad-sounding notes and your improvisation is, by all accounts, a failure.
But play a single bad-sounding note, and you have a whole range of possible ways to recover from that “mistake” and make it musical. Those momentary clashes of discord that shake the audience out of their slumber can actually become your solo’s greatest power, if you learn to skilfully turn your phrase in a direction that makes that “wrong” note “right”.
Strong knowledge of theory and the possibilities available to you can make it easier to make those recoveries, but really this is a skill you learn by doing. When you’re practising improvisation, push yourself every time. Suspend your natural judgement and high expectations of yourself. Take risks and go beyond your comfort zone. When you make a mistake don’t stop playing! And don’t berate yourself. See it as an opportunity to practice a more important skill than perfectionism: recovering from mistakes.
The more times you’ve made a mistake and recovered from it in practice the less scary the idea of making a mistake in a real improvised performance will be. Your improvisation will improve far faster and become far more interesting if you learn to embrace your mistakes.
Mind or Voice before Instrument
Using frameworks like a scale or fingering pattern can be great, but improvisational constraints need to be applied thoughtfully. Otherwise you wind up improvising robotically, just moving your fingers to produce notes according to rules, without really having a clue before the notes are played what they will sound like.
The ideal is to play the notes you mean to play because you’ve heard them in your head already, even if only a split-second before playing them on your instrument.
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