"Beginning Approaches to Improvisation"
First published in Victory Review, April 2001.
by Richard Middleton
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,
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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is a songwriter, musician, teacher, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Reading Rhythm"