Updated: Sep 13, 2021
There is great freedom in improvisation. Freedom from rote practice and performance. Freedom from mustering up the discipline to perfectly execute the pre-defined. The freedom to feel the power of free flowing music in the ever present moment.
Defined, improvisation is something you do that you didn’t previously prepare for. While this may be true in many of life’s settings, the definition by itself can be problematic and confusing for an aspiring musician. Musical improvisation is a bit of a conundrum for most.
For context, it is often a mystery as to how some performers can play such perfect notes when they improvise, as if they have crossed into a depth of divinity not commonly possible for most humans. How do I get there, how do they do it? It’s often a mystery that remains unsolved, perpetuating frustrated attempts at getting nowhere and bowing with further reverence toward the guitar gods that figured it out.
So how do they do it, what’s the broader perspective? It becomes clearer by adding some color to the original definition. Improvisation is something you previously didn’t prepare for. Well yes and no.
While you may not have previously prepared to play all the notes that are about to be performed, you are prepared to play your instrument. Don't be overrun by the anxious moments of confusion as to what to do, which already sets the stage for early failure and dissatisfaction in an improvisational setting.
Furthering this thought along, let’s look at it from a different angle just to drive the point home. A skilled improviser must first be a skilled musician. As a musician, you know enough theory to piece things together, even if at a rudimentary level. For example, you can easily find note patterns in a certain key, and you have a level of command of more than one key. This is a great starting point. You’ve done some homework, which always pays off.
Back to the point. If you are then a skilled musician (to whatever degree you are), then you are prepared to play your instrument to whatever degree you are currently capable. Simply said, you are automatically prepared to play music by virtue of the skills and knowledge you’ve already acquired. Even music that you haven’t necessarily pre-planned or practiced note for note.
The biggest fallacy regarding improvisation is that it must be totally random, the ultimate outpouring of mind and soul with no conscious effort. If this is your strict belief, I would ask you to reconsider in the spirit of progress and growth.
First, in most cases, you are improvising to other sounds. We'll assume some background music of some sort, a favorite backing track perhaps. You have ears, so you react in some way as to how that background music is influencing you. Music often creates emotion or energy. It makes you feel a certain way. Your antennae are already up, you are mentally preparing even if on a subconscious level. Tune in here first. Feel the mood you want to blend into. Be conditioned by the music. This is first about feel, then theory.
Since you can improvise over and over again to the same piece of music, you have a sense of the key or keys that the tune consists of. Since you can find these keys on your instrument, you are even more prepared. But wait, aren’t we already starting to defy the notion of improvisation with all of this preparation. No. Be patient. Remember. Your skill and knowledge allow you to improvise, you can’t instantly dismiss them nor should you. You’ve worked too hard to get this far.
Improvisation is much like exploration. All great things happen through exploration, which is much like experimentation. Electricity. The light bulb. The moon landing. PC’s, laptops, cell phones. The inventors had skill and knowledge, with which they explored and experimented. Simply said, they explored beyond the predictable known with skill and intent. You become an artful improviser very much in the same way.
What this means in practical terms is that its ok to find a familiar shape or finger pattern on your instrument as you begin to improvise. This is the structure in which you are prepared to play. The key is to experiment within that structure, playing notes at different intervals and in ways the mood of the background music is influencing you to do. Ways that may not be necessarily familiar to you, yet your knowledge, experience and skill within that shape gives you a level of confidence as to what will work and what will not.
As you practice improvisation, the mindset cannot be that of a student. Running through routines in your head or on your instrument defies the experience. Improvisation is an experience that is free of any prior restraint you may have had from trying something new and unpracticed. Yet to be guided by the mood of the music and setting, your skill and knowledge. This is the crux of the solution, the path to becoming more artful in improvisational craft.
As a musician, you are now an inventor. An inventor that experiments with knowledge and skill, exploring to surpass the boundaries of the known.
As a musician, you are now an improviser. You are an improviser at the level of which you are capable of improvising at this point. You improve improvisational skill by practice, experimentation, and exploring the sounds your instrument is capable of producing.
Develop and hone your improvisational skill by using your musical framework to explore your feelings and how certain sounds connect to those feelings. This is how you improvise and practice from the heart. You choose at will and in the moment the notes that have special meaning to you, and you do it in new ways that you develop thru exploration. This act of exploration unto itself is improvisation.
Ultimately, it’s where one finds oneself. That’s how you know you’ve arrived.