Improvisation is a complex beast to tackle. You can’t go about the process by just “making it up.” If it seems to you like that’s all Miles Davis is doing when he plays, keep in mind that the best improvisers are the ones who manage to create an illusion of effortlessness, but actually put meticulous time and effort into their trade.
So what are the most effective ways to improve your improvisational skills? Start with these eight pieces of advice, and you’ll be well on your way.
1. Take down the mental barriers
Yes, I did just say that improvisation is extremely difficult, but don’t let that scare you. If you go into the process weighed down by doubt, you’ll most likely fail.
Take a few deep breaths and listen to your favorite music. Perhaps cuddle up with your dog or cat in the sun with a cool beverage in your hand. Whatever your style is, find a place to be loose. Listen to the various aspects of your surrounding. Listen to each sound separately, then as a whole unit, and then pull them apart again. Some may call this meditation, mindfulness, or complete metaphysical jargon. Either way, as long as you realize that you’re completely capable of improvisation, it’ll make the process that much easier.
2. Start playing along to something basic
Now that you’re in the zen-like state of the improviser, you can begin playing. Find some time alone with your instrument and put on some of your favorite music. Keep it simple at first – nothing with too many chord changes or complex rhythms. Personally, I find hip-hop to be good for this. The groove usually remains constant, allowing you to feel out the space and add in any notes that you may feel fit the vibe.
Even if you’re capable of shredding on your instrument, don’t give in to your urge to “noodle” and play too many notes right out of the gate. Just as you would in a conversation, listen respectfully and respond with an intelligent and well-thought-out answer. If you’re one of those chatty Kathys who talks over everyone, perhaps this is the moment you can change your life around. Aside from learning about patience, this technique can help you absorb the style of whatever artist you may be listening to. Improvisation isn’t only about originality; it’s also about using the style of your influences in your own unique fashion. The more diverse your musical palate, the more tricks you’ll have to bring out in a jam.
3. Voice your (musical) opinion
Now that you’re comfortable, it’s time that you spoke up a bit more. Don’t be afraid to raise your voice, so to speak, and change up the melody from time to time. Start by changing a note here and a note there until you’ve completely reworked the phrase into something you like. The more you do this, the more natural it’ll become in a live setting.
4. Change up the rhythm
Rhythm is the secret weapon of improvisation. You can play the same melody over different rhythms, and it’ll sound different every time. Practice changing up rhythms sporadically and without stopping. Learn to flow seamlessly between grooves, even if you’re just playing a couple of notes in order to do so. Ultimately, (most) people won’t be impressed with how fast you can play scales on the spot. It all comes down to that perfect note in a well-timed spot that will really move your listeners.
5. Use failure to your advantage
Speaking of the perfect note, we all know that sometimes the not-so-perfect note decides to rear its ugly head. Personally, this is my favorite part of improvisation. That wretched, wrong note can be turned into the most beautiful highlight. It all depends on how you react. Sometimes a little dissonance can be okay, so if you feel you may have hit a wrong note, just keep playing. Not only will the odds of the audience picking up on it be low, but it’ll build your confidence to continue on instead of getting hung up on that single mistake. As they say, a wrong note is only a half step away from a right one. Mistakes will always happen, but it’s how we handle them that dictates our future success. [Read also “How to Make Mistakes Onstage Like a Pro“]
6. Trying too hard to be “in the moment” will only distract you
Improvising is not so much about living in the moment, but more about separating yourself from it. If you’re too self-aware, you will feel every mistake you make. Take yourself out of the environment and let go. Don’t think about how well you’re playing or how people are judging you. This will only serve as a distraction from the purpose of free playing.
This complete lack of judgment is hard to achieve and can be different for everyone. There’s no real way to practice besides repetition. You’ll feel comfortable in your skin while improvising eventually; it just may take longer than others. Keep at it, and your ability to separate your critical mind from your musical one will eventually come more easily.
7. Brush up on your music theory
Didn’t see this one coming, did you? Yes, you’re creating original music on the spot, but that doesn’t mean you can go gallivanting around a D diminished seventh chord while everyone is happily jamming in C major. Learn the various aspects of harmony and how they relate to each other. Master all your scales and practice them daily. You may not need to use all of them, but just like a conversation, it will give you a larger vocabulary to use when you’re “talking” to other musicians.
Some people (my past self included) believe that theory will stagnate one’s creativity. Why I ever thought that, I’m not sure. Honestly, if anything, having more theoretical knowledge opens up a whole new realm of improvisation possibilities. It’s far less exciting than jamming, but feel free to thank me later.
8. Have fun with it
Not to beat a dead horse here, but music is fun, so go have some. That moment when you and your bandmates are all clicking and create a masterpiece from scratch can hardly be described in words. Those magical moments come more easily when everyone is loose and enjoying themselves, so don’t get too hung up on the complexities, and have some fun!
Anthony Cerullo is an avid keyboard player, writer, and world traveler. He has spent the past few years touring the US in bands, and now finds himself exploring the musical spectrum that various countries of the world offer.