Improvisation Made Easy!

Where the music comes from...

In this article, I would like to cover improvisation, because I believe that improvisation is one thing any musician should at least try. Why? Because I have a feeling that the origin of music was all about improvising. As with language, music had been around long before people started thinking about notation, rules or systems. Drumming and singing, although nowhere near the renditions we know today, may very well have been the first musical experience of man. And I bet you that our ancestors just improvised along. In other words: early music was first and foremost improvisation and therefore considered "normal" and "natural". Over the centuries, improvisation remained an integral part of music, whether in Gregorian chanting of the early Middle Ages or later on in the music of minstrels and travelling entertainers. The same can be said of John Sebastian Bach and the variations on a theme in Mozart’s music, while present-day jazz simply wouldn’t exist without "improv". That is precisely why each and every musician should at least have a go at improvisation.

How to improvise

Those brave enough to look into the subject are faced with the following question: where do I start? There are a multitude of instruction books and methods about improvisation out there, and far be it from to judge them. Some methods follow a similar approach, while others try to do things differently. This leads to another question: which direction should I follow"”which one is the best? No worries: there is no right or wrong way. While some musicians prefer one approach, others are happy with a different one. I suggest trying out different methods before deciding on one. What is important, however, is to find a teacher who can help and advise you. But what if your day job leaves little or no time to take classes? In that case, consider the following ideas.

Learning a language

As far as I’m concerned, improvising is a lot like learning to speak a language. How does a child learn to speak? Simple"”it listens to the language it hears, usually the words spoken by its parents (or increasingly crèche staff). Let’s go down the first road, i.e. of the child listening to its parents. It pays attention to how its parents talk and to the way they handle grammar and build their sentences, without ever wondering about the theoretical framework that links sentences to grammar and vice versa. Next, it starts imitating its parents, uttering a few words and then gradually moving on to full sentences. Even at this stage, children are totally unaware that there may be rules governing the language they speak. A child learns to master the vocabulary of its parents, which also means that parents with a more refined and differentiated language automatically allow children to express themselves more clearly. Only much later will children learn the underlying rules at school. If mum and dad or the environment speaks a dialect, this is also adopted by the child.

Listen to improvised music

This discussion of how we learn to speak has a lot in common with how we can learn to improvise. The first step for improvisation is to listen to improvised music as often as you possibly can! Obviously, it helps to listen to improvisations on the instrument you yourself play, but other instruments may work just fine, too. Choose a song, preferably one that isn’t too fast and uses only a few chords. For blues, I recommend "Blue Seven" by Sonny Rollins or pieces like "Watermelon Man" by Herbie Hancock. Looking at the score (if you happen to have it) while listening can be helpful. Also, try to listen to different versions of the song performed by other musicians. You will realize that most performers don’t always follow the score, focusing instead on a free interpretation of the theme. The next step would then be to learn the theme by heart, first as it is written. Then, try a freer interpretation and take some artistic license with the theme by changing it here and there"”that is already a form of improvisation. To get a feel for the chord changes, you can start by playing the notes that make up those chords. Try to copy some of the performer’s phrases or transcribe the line he or she plays. While this takes some time at first, remember that practice make perfect. After copying the improvisation, try changing it here and there to come up with your own version.

Improvisation is not a closed book

As you see, improvisation is neither a closed book, nor witchcraft. The most important decision you need to make is to have a go at it and to start playing along. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes"”and don’t despair if you occasionally ruin a chorus. A famous quote attributed to Miles Davis goes like this: whether a note is right or wrong depends on the next note.

Have fun rehearsing!