June 17, 2015


No, don’t think, “Oh bother, I’m not reading this!”.  Bear with me.  Up until not too long ago, I thought improvisation was something my teacher thought up to make my life hell, I thought she just didn’t like me (ok, not really).  But, every time the word “improvisation” was uttered, I could see it, hanging in the air like a cloud of smoke over a frying pan – smelling slightly bad and not improving my disposition.

I know now that my fear was unfounded but not baseless.  I no longer quake in my boots at the thought of ripping out an improv…but that’s only because I have spent some time on some important fundamentals.  Learn those fundamentals and you’ll be well on your way to comfortably filling the time between tunes, when you can’t think of anything to play, or just when your mind is blank.

Start with riff.  A riff is a short pattern or phrase (melodic, rhythmic, both) that is repeated.  Remember that the "re" in repeated means over and over and over and over…..I suggest keeping it simple – especially when you’re just beginning.  You can do this!!

Here are four things to get you started:

  1. Start with a simple pattern – and I mean s-i-m-p-l-e!  This is not the time to channel your inner JSBach!  Three notes is all you need to start.  Starting simple means that your brain doesn’t have to work hard just to keep the pattern going.  You want something so easy you can do it without thinking – literally.
  2. Noodle around the pattern – this is the stone soup method of composing on the fly.  To your well established simple pattern, add stuff.  Try adding the root note, then try out the other notes in the triad, maybe give the 4th, the 6th, or the 7th a go and see what you like.  Remember that tunes are made of the patterns, pitches, and SILENCES so you can add those too - use all the colors on your palette!
  3. Don’t forget your theory – it will help you make choices faster with less hunting and pecking.  All that adding stuff is easier if you don’t have to muscle through it (you don’t have to have studied your theory but it helps to know ahead of time what sort of effect you’ll get with the 3rd as opposed to what happens when you use the 4th (for instance)).
  4. Practice – improv doesn't just happen from the stage - all that nonchalance comes from hours of practice!  The jazz greats (what most people think of when you say improv) know their music cold (like you will if you practice your 3 note riff) so they could select a pattern and build a riff on it.  You have to practice doing improvisation!  Don’t expect that sort of creativity to just jump into your head or into your hands - it takes work.

Start doing a little gentle improve in the safety of your practice space – just spend 5 minutes of each practice session seeing what happens if you suspend disbelieve and give it a try. If I can do it, you can too!

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