Learn to improvise: 5 easy steps to get you going

Getting started with musical improvisation can be intimidating or overwhelming, but it does not have to be that way. For years I had not performed improvisation on stage, until last year. Finally, I had enough confidence to get up on stage, in front of the orchestra and let the music form in my head and be played by my hands at that very moment. By no means am I a great improviser, but I did figure out a few things that helped me get enough confidence to perform on stage a couple of times. And if they were helpful to me, they may be helpful to you.

Here we go:

1 Learn the scales and triads. Yes, it is boring to be practicing scales and triads, but they are a fundamental part to good improvisation. In many jazz and blues songs, the blues scale is used. In many pop songs, the major and minor scales lay that foundation. Make sure you learn as many scales and corresponding triads by heart. Practice playing them from your head, not from sheet. That way you train your ears and build up muscle memory. Ideally, you know the scales in all 12 keys, but if you don't you can still improvise with the scales you do know. It may make point 3 a bit more difficult though...

2 Start as simple as possible. Start to play melodic lines with long notes and small intervals. There is no point in trying to fill a solo with a continuous torrent of 16th or 32nd notes jumping all up and down the range of your instrument. Besides, the point of a great improvisation is to tell a story to your listeners. You take on a journey, share your emotions. So, start slowly, just half or quarter notes for example and go from there.

3 Play along with records. Preferably songs you love and know very well, which means your ears and mind now what's coming and can focus on the improvisation. Again, slower songs are easier to get started with and can provide the perfect backdrop for an amazing improvisation. While playing along, experiment with different melodic lines. Start with playing the melody for example, then deviate from there changing notes and intervals and play with varying rhythms. Don;t try to be perfect, just experiment and find out what you like and what works when. That way you train your ear, build muscle memory and more importantly, confidence. Try not to think too hard about what to play, when you're playing. Just let it the music flow out of you. I recently read this quote: "If you think, you stink". Not sure who came up with it originally, but it is very applicable here.

4 Record yourself. Listening to what you played is a great way to learn. I often listen back to practice sessions and realize I sounded better than I thought when I was playing it. You may land on a 'wrong' note, that does not actually sound wrong at all.

5 Whistle! No matter how many hours you have put into playing your instrument, you will be limited by what you are able to play. Not so when whistling. I found that whistling an improvisation is a great way to explore melodic lines, riffs, etc that form in my head, and not be limited by my inability to immediately play them. This is especially true for fast notes and large intervals. If you whistle something you really like, record that line and try to play it. That way, I have come up with various little riffs and lines that I can then practice in all 12 keys and eventually string together when improvising.

Give these tips a try next time you practice and see what works best for you. These will not magically turn you into the next Charlie Parker or Miles Davis, but they will give you a starting point to get the music out of your head and into the ears of your audience and have fun doing it!

Header image source: Flickr / Public Domain