Improvisation can sometimes feel daunting, even to the best musicians. Questions like “where should I start?” or “is what I am playing any good?” are indeed uttered far too often, when in fact there is no right or wrong… Everyone is capable of improvising (we all do it in speech for example), but even so, blockages often remain when put on the spot in a musical situation that requires “in the moment” creativity. So how does one go about asserting her/himself musically?
Drop all forms of self-judgment and self-criticism
If you chose to walk the path of true freedom in music, you’ll quickly realize that most of the work is of a psychological nature rather than a musical one. Sure, it’s still a great idea to practice on a daily basis and by all means, I encourage you to do so! But instrumental technique should only be viewed as a means to expressing yourself, not as an ultimate goal: virtuosic display is only relevant when backed up with a good story, a message, earnest feeling and emotions… No one really wants to hear a continuous string of loud and fast notes void of meaning…
The good news is: regardless of your technical ability on your instrument, you can always channel that heartfelt storytelling into your music. Don’t judge yourself, play with conviction, and drop all self-criticism. Often, what might initially be a “mistake” can turn into a beautiful thing: in his book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch talks about how oysters eventually make pearls out of grains of sand that inadvertently fall into their shells…
Don’t try and play anything groundbreaking
I remember Greg Hopkins, professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music, telling the class something along these lines: “Don’t try to be original. Write what your hear and you will be original.” The same goes for improvisation, and the “less is more” approach is definitely recommended to begin with: simple ideas are often beautiful! Play few notes with strong time and feel and let the music come to you. The more virtuosic stuff will come naturally after a while if you stay humble and committed to playing what you actually hear (as opposed to running scales up, down, and sideways just because you theoretically know that they fit a given chord…)
Let’s have a look at a practical example: a seven note scale (such as the major scale) is sometimes too cumbersome for beginner improvisers to use, so breaking it up into two tetrachords (groups of four notes that usually span the interval of a fourth) can work wonders. Spend time exploring and internalizing each tetrachord (C to F and G to C in the case of the C major scale for instance). With four notes at your disposal, there is still a lot to do… Remember that your melodic motives can go up, down, or be a combination of both. Repeated notes are also an option. Generally speaking, being creative with the rhythm is a great starting point when the range of useable notes is limited. Experiment with different limitations and find your freedom within the boundaries that you set for yourself.
In his book Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within, jazz pianist Kenny Werner explains how to establish a direct connection from your true self to your instrument using four guided meditations (also available in audio format for convenience). I thoroughly recommend them as a ritual that will relax your body, calm your mind, and give your self-confidence a boost.
There are plenty of other things you can do on a daily basis to help you on the path to musical freedom, that don’t even require purchasing a book, or using any accessories or instruments. The great Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke emphasizes the importance of three themes in his Letters to a Young Poet: childhood, nature, and friendship. Spend time recalling places, events, and the emotions and feelings of your childhood in great detail. Improvisation is akin to child play… And for fresh inspiration, wander in nature and socialize with dear friends. I might also suggest regularly remembering your dreams and writing them down or sharing/discussing them with somebody (a person you can trust). All these activities will dramatically improve your creativity and general well-being.
In the end, it’s all about being open and having fun tapping into the great subconscious “pool” of musical ideas. Taming the ego and being able to let go of all preconceptions and expectations are crucial parts of the process. The journey can be a rough ride, but it is absolutely worth embarking on. True magic will happen along the way. You will no longer play the music… Become the instrument and let the music play you!
Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art.
Werner, Kenny. Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet.
Visit https://funnelljazz.eu/lessons/ for detailed information about lessons or click on the image below to book your spot at the “Demystifying Improvisation for Classical Musicians” workshop today:
The class will meet for four live sessions on Wednesdays, October 23, 30 and Nov. 6, 13, 2019, from 8-9 pm ET.