Improving With Improv

Improvisation, c.1915-1916
Improvisation, Andrew Dasburg c.1915-1916

For those who have been following the blog, I know I’m sort of beating a dead horse at this point, but I’ll say it again for new visitors: The research record on music practice examines only Western classical musicians and their practice. This isn’t to be critical, because the research that has been done so far is superb and incredibly valuable, but it’s not the whole picture. One thing that the Western classical type of practice tends to overlook is improvisation. This wasn’t always the case. Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and many other giants of this form were master improvisers, but for whatever reason, improvisation as a regular part of music practice is not important in the tradition any more.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

This isn’t to say classical musicians don’t improvise, of course. Tuba demi-god Rex Martin says he improvises every morning during his warm-up. Colin Oldberg, another excellent symphonic trumpeter says he frequently improvises during his warm-up, too. But for the most part, it’s probably safe to say that most Western classical musicians don’t make improvisation a central part of their practice in the way that, say, a jazz musician does, or an Indian classical musician, or a rock musician. In fact, improvisation is an important part of many musics, including West African djembe music.

To me, improvising is like speaking a language spontaneously, whereas only reading music and re-creating the music others (or yourself) have written is like reading a book or a story out loud. The reading is scripted, whereas the spontaneous use of language flows where it will, especially if it’s in conversation with another. If you’re new to improvising, it’s a simple thing to do.

fMRI Jumping Brain by Emilio Garcia
fMRI Jumping Brain by Emilio Garcia (Photo credit: “lapolab”)

First, allow yourself the space to let anything come and accept it for what it is. Don’t judge anything at the time, just let the sounds come and keep playing (or STOP playing; overplaying is, for some, like a plague; silence is golden). If you need to judge what you play, do it later by remembering or make a recording and review it when you’re done. Don’t judge what you’re playing, just let it come and move to the next sound. In fact, there is some early convincing evidence that when musicians improvise, part of the prefrontal cortex that controls judgment is powered-down. An fMRI scan of improvisers’ brains tells us there is a lot less blood flowing to areas of the brain responsible for judgment.

Second, give yourself a parameter to limit the possibilities. Stay in a key, or a small group of notes, or a rhythm. Something to give you a little bit of structure. If someone says, “just play something, play anything,” the vast possibility can be daunting. If instead, you decide, “I’m going to use the notes D, E, F and C# only and see what I can create,” then you’ve got a sandbox to play in. Limitations can set you free.

If you improvise with yourself, there is no possibility for a “mistake.” Try to make sound that expresses something, anything, even if it is just the expression of the sound itself. Play with length, volume, timbre, movement, or anything else that comes to you. You can do this with others or alone, and it’s a great (and I would argue “necessary”) addition to your daily practice routine. There are no “wrong” notes in this kind of music, and that is another of its beauties. As Shakespeare said, “There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

You can also “play” with programs. One of the simplest and best is to play along with a drone, like jazz trumpeter Ingrid Jensen does. I’ve started doing it, too, and it’s great! There is a fee app iTanpura Lite, that will play a drone in any key (and you can change the pitch 1 cent at a time, too!), and you can play along. It’s a great way to simplify improvisation to its most basic form: one note. Set it to the tonic of a tune or piece you’re working on and explore how every other note sounds against that tonic. It’s a wonderful way to practice blending and intonation, too.

But the most fun is improvising with others. If it’s more freely improvised, set some group parameters. If it’s within a song, hijack the melody to serve your improvisational purposes: use the tune’s melodies, intervals, rhythms, and other idiosyncracies to build similar musical ideas. When you listen to somebody like Louis Armstrong improvise, you can really hear how he toys with the melody. If you’re improvising around a tune, forget the chord progression (for a while, anyway) and go with your ear and the melody.

Put some improvising into your practice routine. It will  help you improve. Check out master improvisers in the Indian classical tradition, Ustad Ravi Shankar and Ustad Zakir Hussain. This clip starts with the tail-end of Raviji’s solo and then a mindblowing solo from Zakirji. Enjoy, and good luck with your practice.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. theunstoppablebeard says:

    this site has excellent advice on developing our ears for improv.

  2. Ryan says:

    its funny, I just wrote a post that includes improv as a way of getting better at chords. Man!! It is so important to practice this way from time to time. When I was younger, I think I did this once a day. I would just pick a key and go for it. Its one thing to know the theory behind how something works, but to put it on your hands is another. Thats why it is important to make mistakes even so that you know what sounds good and what doesn’t!!

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