Tips for Aspiring Improvisers
The ability to pick up ones instrument and freely create music may seem like a foreign world to many who have been trained in the western classical system of music, but the reality is that improvising is not as hard to grasp as you may think. There are myriad sources with detailed information on jazz theory, scales, history, etc. none of which this article is claiming to be, rather, this post is meant to provide some guidance, as opposed to strict exercises, which so often seem to lose focus on the big picture.
I have always been drawn towards improvising, as initially, my reading skills were in dire need of development, and it took seemingly forever to learn and memorize from the page, but my understanding of theory was my strong suite. I blended my penchant for being quick theoretically with playing, and I found it much easier to create than learn.
It’s a simple fact, improvising requires experience and listening. It’s always easy to tell if someone listens to themselves, and the actual style they are playing. Many times improvising becomes a complex theory exercise; instead of paying your ear the attention and gratitude it needs, we become caught up in seemingly helpful didactic exercises- the problem is that improvisation cannot be taught out of a textbook, but rather, it is cultivated through experience.
Take every opportunity you can to play the music with other musicians; I’ve always found that experiences playing are very telling of where I am at, and what I need to work on. Find time to get ensemble experience, and learn how to gel with other musicians, because at the end of the day, no one likes a selfish musician (you know, the kind who are always seeking attention- by the way, it’s not hard to find them…). For me, as a pianist, I have had to learn how to comp behind plenty of soloists, and how to intuit exactly how busy I can be versus how sparse. This is something that only comes through experience playing in a group.
The old adage “You are what you eat,” in my opinion, applies equally well in this arena, of which the food is music. You will sound like what you listen to, so be selective in your choices, or broaden your scope to include a variety of sources, to avoid being typecast into one style (of course to learn a style, the reverse true, immerse yourself in that world).
Don’t just listen to the notes; listen to the contour, the rhythm, the feel (this one is especially important) and the entire group. Listen to how the player’s feed off of each other, how the rhythm section is comping behind a soloist, and how much space the soloist has.
Of course, developing your ear is important, so typical ear training is recommended. The goal here is speed and accuracy, be able to recognize a chord, a phrase as quickly as possible (this isn’t aural skills dictation, being able to play it back will suffice). Some of my favorite drills are the one note method by Bruce Arnold, where you learn the sound of a tone degree within a tonal center. It is surprisingly quick, and helpful, but consistent effort is needed to obtain results.
Experiment with Rhythm
Learn your basic swing, latin beats, rock beats, polyrhythms, etc. Be able to freely play any rhythm you hear, and mimic the feel; If you look a jazz transcription, the rhythm is usually sorely lacking, and doesn’t quite translate as well from the page. It kind of makes you wonder if we are playing all these classical pieces correctly, as we have no recordings of the time for comparison.
Don’t try to think
Practice all of the scales, modes, chords, etc during your daily practice, so that it becomes automatic when put on the spot. Try to translate what you envision mentally to reality and not allow “okay, b9, so I can play this mode over it…” to creep into your stream of consciousness. Although I will say, I have found focusing on chord types and extensions much more helpful than applying my modes to everything (not to say that modes aren’t helpful, but as Hal Galper would say, it’s a close-ended system).
It is important to know your tendencies, acknowledge them, and try to expand your understanding of the musical language. By reading and listening to a variety of music, and synthesizing the information, it’s possible to make your knowledge more complete, as well as help with other aspects of musicianship (if you know how to improvise in the style of Mozart, then if in situation where you are sight reading, it can aid you in spots that might be tricky to read).