How to Start Improvising

DO YOU WANT TO LEARN TO IMPROVISE?

Many of my students want to improvise on their instruments but think that this is very complicated to learn and difficult to approach. In reality, to begin improvising can be quite easy.

The truth is, it can be very simple to get into spontaneously “making things up” and it can be one of the most exciting and rewarding parts of being a musician, amateur or professional.

6 Comments

  1. Anthony Buzzeo on March 6, 2019 at 5:38 am

    Hi Tom,

    Its your east coast buddy Buzz. In my 30 plus years as a music teacher and musician, who has experienced all the struggles and pitfalls related to learning to improvise, I believe there are many other factors outside of the information given by educators and books, that really determines one’s success. For one, I think its more about a persons relationship to risk/reward.
    We can gather the tools to get the job done; study scales, chords, harmony, etc, but that doesn’t provide the impetus for making it happen. The great Wayne Shorter has said that to him Jazz means: “I dare you.”

  2. Anthony Buzzeo on March 6, 2019 at 6:21 am

    Tom,

    Some more thoughts. When I teach a student how to improvise I can help but believe that their approach to music mirrors how they go about life in general. I have a belief that music can also be a behavioral therapy of sorts. i.e. change the way you approach music and then everything in your life changes. The reverse can happen too. The enlightenment can come from the life end of things and then your music changes as a result. Its so hard to get inside of the things that inhibit us to do things well. My struggles in life definitely loaned themselves to my music. Over the years I discovered that I had a number of false misconceptions about how music should be played. I am aware of those misconceptions now and try not to let them interfere anymore. There is also alot of involvement with the ego as to how things go musically. You have to keep that in check. I have to quote Wayne again who says “play music the way you want the world to be,” I take it a step further to say play music the way YOU want to be. You may be nowhere near who you want to be. That’s OK. Give yourself the allowance of projecting who you want to be in one piece of music or one solo. Then, you may have a blueprint for changing other things in your live.

    Buzz
    South Salem, New York

    • Tom McMail on March 7, 2019 at 2:19 pm

      Cool insights, Buzz! I think that one of the biggest steps for some of the students I am introducing to improvisation is overcoming the fear factor. The central idea that you can do almost anything in the right context should be liberating but some people are terrified when I say “Just do whatever you want!” This of course is often within the context of pentatonic scales or other low-risk approaches. People need to give themselves permission to experiment, and they also need to be willing to make mistakes. Some of my best discoveries started out as mistakes.

  3. Anthony Buzzeo on March 8, 2019 at 5:28 am

    Yes the Pentatonic scale is low risk yet quite complex with regard to its harmonic implications over the blues. Those 5 notes mean something different on the I, IV and V chord but even a beginner knows the notes are right. One of the other things I say to a student too afraid to take risks relates to statistics of note choice. We study modes of scales which are 7 notes. Every one is 7 notes, from the major scale, the Melodic and harmonic minor scales, with the exception of the diminished scale (8 notes) and maybe also Wholetone (5, like the pentatonic). So if someone took a wild chance and stabbed any note on the instrument, they would have a 7/12ths chance of hitting a note in the scale of the moment. Thats a 58% chance of being correct within the “right” scale. Those odds are really good right?! And here’s the even better part of it. If you happen to be wrong (42 percent chance) moving that note a half step in either direction will make you right. Those are pretty low risk operatives. Now the point is not to say we should actually play that way. The point is to relax the frontal cortex and quiet the internal watchdog so that maybe you can hear something to play. Part of developing as a player is allowing your point of view to emerge. We all have one and the one we have in life is that same one available to us musically. The problem is we think the accomplished player’s point if view is the one we have to take. That’s the wrong path to be on. The very process of trying to improvise often pits the ego against the true creative core source. I see you have some of Steven Pressfield’s books as recommended reading on this site. The War of Art is essential reading in my opinion and relates to the process of improvising. There are two parts to the process as it relates to the Pressfieldian theorem. 1. Preparation and 2. Waiting for the Muse to come. However, she is less likely to whisper sweet inspirations in your ear if you are not prepared.
    The more you practice this routine effectively, the less you have to “wait” for the muse. Become a master and you merely have to “allow” her to come. Some people have a problem on the preparation side of things and others on the execution side (muse offering you what to play)

  4. Shane on March 8, 2019 at 8:00 am

    Hey All,
    I’m m new to the blog! I started studying under Tom back in August (absolutely no experience prior) and just over 2 months ago I’ve started Guitar with Tom. Ive Fallen in love with it and really enjoy learning all about music. Tom has started teaching me about improvising and I agree there is a fear around that for me. That fear of messing it up, doing it wrong, doing something that doesn’t make sense. For me I feel like I doubt myself because I know I have SO much to learn when it comes to music. So it’s taking that leap! But that’s where Tom comes in helping with that. Just yesterday he played as I was tasked to improvise within a scale he’s giving me in the past. It was actually a lot of fun , still nerve racking but It felt good!

  5. Anthony Buzzeo on March 9, 2019 at 3:05 am

    Shane,

    You are in good hands! Keep up the good work and the benefits always will outpace the work.
    You can also start to feel empowered in your other non-musical daily activities.

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