Musical Improvisation - Introduction

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Put It Together

If you've done much playing, you'll probably have heard about all those “jazz guys” doing wild improv. And, if you're reading this set of articles, you've probably wondered if you could do the same.

Of course, you'll have heard all the cute sayings:

  • Improv is easy. You just do whatever you want!
  • Improv is way too hard. You have to know all the chords and they are too hard.
  • Improv is just crap. Just a mass of notes without meaning. Crap. Pure crap.

And, between all these dumb comments lies the truth.

Improvisation is probably the hardest thing you'll ever do; and it's the easiest. It's the most musical thing you can accomplish; and it's the worst. Contradictory? Yes, probably ... maybe.

Let's take a bit of a diversion: Before we started to write down and/or memorize music it was all improv. The minstrels of old changed the lyrics to their songs every day (week, month?) depending on local politics or weather or their mood. Nothing was set in stone. And our revered classical composers (think Bach, Mozart, etc.) expected the performers of their music to improvise. Don't believe me? Here are two Wikipedia articles:

If you need more confirmation, Google is your friend.

Unfortunately improvisation has been purged from most modern classical music. I think that's sad; the guys and gals in fancy dress attending those concerts applaud polity and think it's great. If you are in the later category you are reading the wrong article.

In this set of articles I'll try to get you started doing your own improv. Before you get started, a few suggestions:

  • You should be comfortable playing your instrument before you start. No, you don't need to be a “pro”. But if you're still hunting for a E minor chord on the guitar or don't know the difference in fingering C or D on a horn, well ... come back in a month or so.

  • Having some background tracks to play with make all this much, much easier. If you have a little band you can, of course, force your practice time onto your band-mates ... but, you'll keep them longer if you practice at home. Use play-a-long CDs like those from Jamey Aebersold or a computer program like Band-in-a-Box or, better yet my MMA (it's free!). And get a good, loudish (note, I didn't say adequate!) sound system to play them though. You'll want to hear the backing tracks over your own playing!

  • Have access to a keyboard. It is much easier to visualize this stuff on a keyboard. Trust me on this.

A final note before we go on to the next section: Never use improvisation to “cover up” your inadequacies in playing your instrument. Your audience will know you're trying to BS them. Learn to play the song first. Yeah, even the hard parts.

Next: Things that don't work out so well.

And let me know if this article helps.

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