I know plenty of musicians who would rather be lowered head first into a pit of adders than improvise music. Even some gifted jazz and rock musicians, who would think nothing of creating endless variation on a pre-existing melody, would be petrified at the thought of improvising from scratch.
Which is odd, really. What leads an accomplished musician to be so terrified of putting together a sequence of notes? The answer, of course, is fear of doing it “wrong”.
So, to help anyone in this position, here’s a guide to improvisation that kills the fear of doing it wrong with one fell swoop. Because, in this approach to improvisation, there is no “wrong” to worry about.
1. Start Playing Anything. Anything at all. Music is Optional
You learn how to improvise by improvising. So, go on. Do it. There’s absolutely no need for it to be any good. It will get better, given time.
Now, I could end this post right here as, in a nutshell, you’ve just had the best advice I could give you. But, I hear you say, “I can’t just improvise. That would be improvising and I can’t improvise.”
Ok. Here are some starting points. (Players of harmony instruments, such as piano, guitar, harp, accordion etc, stick to a melody line only):
• Sit somewhere where you can hear everyday noise. A kitchen with an open window would be ideal. When you hear something, play it. A dripping tap? Play it. A plane flying overhead? Play it. Your neighbour coughing? Play it. In this exercise, you are translating what you are hearing into music. This – in essence – is what improvising is.
• How are you feeling? Play it. This is especially useful for vocalists, but instrumentalists can play too. Maybe, you feel a grunt coming on, or a whoop, or a sigh or a scream. Allow them to come. They may want to take you over for a while and this is great, its good medicine. Eventually, after a few minutes, you will reach a point where underneath, there is music waiting to come. It may only be a single tone, but stay with this and it will lead you somewhere very close to improvisation.
• If you feel too exposed doing the above, take on a character. The sillier, the better. What would a one-armed panda play? What would your most/least favourite old school teacher play? What would you, aged 4, play? What you would you, 20 years into the future, play? Try to really feel that you are them/you, as you play.
2. No Judging
Just don’t. Seriously. If you did any of the above exercises, you will see that there is nothing to judge. The sounds you made came from your experience of the environment, emotions or imagination and were a true representation of your reality at that moment.
Feel silly? Annoyed? Vulnerable? That’s fine, but don’t judge that either.
3. Drone On
Most people in the west continue to believe that melody needs to be underpinned by harmony. You only need a casual listen to Indian classical music, to see that this is not the case. Indian musicians have no need for harmony – everything that needs to be expressed can be expressed through melody.
Choose any drone you like: Shruti box, harmonium, organ, tanpura, didgeridoo – anything that can provide a single sustained note. Pick a note and listen to it.
Few musicians listen enough. Especially score-based musicians. Just listen to the drone for a few minutes. Try focussing in on the drone and try listening to the drone as part of a soundscape that encompasses every sound that you can hear. Next, add your improvisation. Listen to the sound of the combination of the drone and your instrument; listen to the up and down motion of intervals between the two; listen to both instruments as a part of the soundscape; listen to anything that occurs to you. By listening to what is happening, you have no time to think about what is about to happen. You are just playing in the moment.
Place your awareness on listening to what you are doing, rather than what you will do or have done. Don’t plan or analyse. Just allow what happens to happen.
6. No Wrong Notes
What did you learn from the above exercise? There are no wrong notes. Whatever note you played formed a relationship with the drone that had congruence and meaning. Sure, it is possible to play a note you may not like, but that doesn’t make it wrong. And anyway, that would be judging again and you agreed not to do that.
Its only possible to play a wrong note when you are improvising over a harmonic structure. Once you have chordal patterns, then you have notes that are part of the chords and not part of the chords. Then, there is always one part of your brain looking out for the chord changes. At this point, you stop being free.
7. Modus Operandi
Once you are happy freely improvising over a drone, you may want to start to re-introduce a framework. Chose a mode or scale to improvise in. The key here is to understand that the music is in charge, not the scale – if you find yourself playing a note that does not feature in your particular scale and it feels right, that’s because it is. Go with it. Now you are learning to follow.
This is true improvisation. Think of a musical score, where the tune already fully exists in potential – all you have to do is play it. True improvisation is the same. The tune exists, all you have to do is play it. From here, you start to realise that the role of the musician is simply to translate “unstruck” music into audible music.
So then, if you are truly following the music that already exists, how could you ever play a wrong note?