Richard Middleton
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"Beginning Approaches to Improvisation"
by Richard Middleton

First published in Victory Review, April 2001.

In my teaching practice, people often come to me for help in learning to improvise. Many of them share a common belief that improvising is inherently difficult, and qualitatively different from other kinds of music-making. Though it contains some elements of truth, this belief is based more on fear than reality, and just makes it harder to learn how to do it. Even very skilled and experienced musicians can "psych themselves out" to the point that they feel completely awkward and ignorant when it comes time for them to take a solo. If you've experienced this yourself, perhaps the following ideas will be helpful.

One thing that's important to understand is that even the greatest improvisers don't make up everything they play out of thin air every time they take a solo. They're constantly recycling material they've used many times before: stock licks and riffs, favorite instrumental effects, habitual pathways for getting from one place to another, snatches of melody from other sources, and occasionally, a few truly fresh ideas mixed in here and there. In other words, each musician has their own personal vocabulary, much of which is shared with other musicians (such as classic blues or bebop licks), and some of which they've discovered on their own. They've become so familiar with this vocabulary that they can trust in it and let themselves respond freely to the moment, letting all those "prefab" ideas flow out in spontaneous combinations.

I mention this point because many beginning improvisers place unrealistic expectations on themselves to produce absolutely original music every time they take a solo, and they actually try to avoid familiar licks and phrases, as though making use of them were somehow a form of "cheating." It's not. Listen to your favorite players and notice how much of what they play is made of melodic bits and pieces you've heard before. This is particularly evident in strong musical traditions such as blues, bluegrass, and Celtic music. Masters of these styles have become so familiar with an existing vocabulary that they can "say" whatever they like. Their mastery has less to do with making up brilliant new melodic ideas than with how freely they can string together familiar ideas in new ways, without having to think too hard about it.

How to learn to do this yourself? Begin by learning small licks, riffs, runs, and other melodic phrases, from whatever sources that inspire you. Steal shamelessly from records, other musicians and instruction books. If you find yourself humming or whistling a little idea to yourself while you're doing the laundry, see if you can figure out how to play it on your instrument. Gradually, you will begin to develop your own improvisational vocabulary, a collection of "words" that you can string together to create musical "sentences."

It's in this stringing together that much of the real fun and inventiveness of improvisation comes into play. As you get to know your musical vocabulary, you begin to notice which licks work best over certain chords and progressions. You find new pathways and relationships between familiar phrases. You respond more spontaneously to the ideas of the musicians you're playing with. You may even find yourself playing truly new ideas that connect the old ones. You eventually begin stringing shorter ideas into longer and longer phrases, constructing solos that have a logic and cohesiveness that belies the simple materials they're composed of. "Composed" is the right word, too, because in effect, that's what you're doing — composing in the moment, using all the old musical materials at your disposal to say something new.

So... listen for licks and riffs and phrases that you like, and learn them. And when you've learned them well enough and know how they work, you can "forget" them and just say what you want to say. It's much like talking: you know your language so well that you rarely think about the individual words, focusing instead on the thoughts and feelings you're trying to express.

One pitfall with this process that some musicians encounter is that they learn all kinds of fancy licks by rote but never really make them "their own." They never develop a personal relationship with the "words" they're using to "talk," so what they "say" feels trite and boring. It's important that you make the music you play yours, no matter how memorized or worked out it may be. This goes for songs, tunes, and the licks and phrases that make up your solos. But what does it mean to "make the music yours?"

Since we're talking about this in the context of improvisation, let's look at a simple exercise that I hope will give you some idea of what I mean. Play the song, "This Old Man," on your instrument. Play it as straight and simple and square as you can. Now let's goof with it. Play it as a lilting waltz. Play it as a fiery tango. Play it with the upbeat, syncopated drive of a swing tune. Play it in a minor key, as a funereal dirge. Play it as a whirling Irish reel. Play it as a Sousa march. Play it as a slow, rocking blues.

Play around with the tempo, dynamics, and articulation of the song. For example, play it as softly as you can, then play it at triple forte. Play all the notes legato, then staccato, then alternate between the two. Try accenting every other note. Play it as slowly as possible, then at breakneck speed. Then start slowly, accelerate gradually until you're playing very fast, then decelerate back to where you started. Play it with no meter at all. Play it as disjointedly as you can, abruptly shifting the tempo, dynamics and articulation at random intervals.

Now let's bend the tune a little more. This time, try holding out some of the notes longer than they'd normally be played. Then do the reverse, and play some of the notes much shorter than usual. Now try repeating the notes at the beginning and ending of each phrase. Or leave out a note here and there. Try sliding or bending into some notes, and landing good and hard on others. Add little pickup notes or ornaments in the rests between the phrases. Now strip it back down to its bare, skeletal essentials.

What's the point of all this? Well for one thing, with each new variation of the tune, you are, in effect, improvising. You're drawing on all your musical resources to find new possibilities in something familiar. You're getting to know the song's tonal and rhythmic contours, its inner relationships, its many "uses." You may never do any of these shenanigans in an actual performance, but this kind of play and exploration widens your expressive range, so that even in the most traditional setting, you are open to the possibilities in the music, and in yourself.

It also helps you step out of the box of "right" and "wrong," and back into spontaneity and intentionality, into freedom. You're getting away from "correct" and back to "alive." Not that playing the tune straight is "dead," necessarily. But there is a certain death at the heart of any art that is motivated by fear of being wrong. Aaron Copland said, "Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness — I wouldn't know. But I am sure that it is the antithesis of self-consciousness."

That's what holds back many musicians, particularly those who want to learn to improvise. They're afraid of playing something wrong. Many of those who come to me for guidance are secretly asking me to show them the "right" way to improvise, to save them from mistakes and failure. And yes, there's much to be gained from knowing the customary ways to use scales and licks, the customary stylistic approaches, the customary "rules" for playing music "correctly" — these are useful and have their place. But they can't ultimately drive away the fear of being wrong. They can't give your music that spark of life that makes it worthwhile. That comes from inside of you, not from music theory.

So — learn the licks and tricks, the scales and patterns, the materials from which your music will be made. Learn the vocabulary in which you want to speak. Then make that language your own and say what you want to say. And no matter how much or how little you know about music, remember to PLAY when you play. Enjoy!

Copyright 2001 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.

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Richard Middleton is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm" (Countersine 2018).