Improvisation – Can it be learnt?
Guest post by Simon Reich (pictured)
People ask me, “can you learn to improvise”, and my answer is, “YES, the majority of musicians can be taught”.
If you have only ever played from printed scores, then surely at times you have heard music in your head? It’s just a matter of coaxing that out via the instrument.
To some of you, not working from sheet music could be akin to performing a circus high wire balancing act, without a safety net! If this is you, then now is your chance to jump right in, despite the fear. You’ve got everything to gain and nothing really to lose. This could prove not only to be a great musical experience, but a lesson in life. How many new experiences are available to us, if we jump out of our comfort zones?
Here’s an analogy that might help you to understand the progression from playing music purely from written notes to composing your own. We all read books, short stories and articles, but does that mean we can move over to being an author? Well, think of your school days, when you were asked to write stories and submit creative writing assignments. In your eyes, some of these could have seemed disastrous, but with the 20th century’s constantly evolving writing styles, books today are written in “stream of consciousness” approach, naive texts, absence of grammatical rules – and basically any “goal post shifting” technique is considered “cool” and often wins literary awards.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that anything goes! If you like the sound of what you’re producing, then “hang” what others say.
But as with anything like this, it’s definitely in your best interest to keep doing it on a regular basis, as the learning / enjoyment curve will only increase. As much as I agree that improvisation can be taught, it’s also deeply personal how you approach your education and eventual “improvisational muscle training”.
So let’s put down some basic things that I suggest you get a handle on, to proceed your foray into improvisation.
1) A basic (or higher) knowledge of scales and chords.
If you don’t have a grasp of these, you will spend a lot longer on your instrument, “noodling” around to find what you want or hear in your mind.
In fact, some of us have scale and chord skills buried deep in our brains and don’t need to think consciously about it. A bit like riding a bike or driving a manual gearbox car, years of performing these tasks have now put them into our subconscious. This level is probably the optimum place to achieve flowing and constructive improvisation. (But once again, not 100% required, as I’ve seen / heard toddlers up to ten year old’s pick out lovely melodies on my home piano, without any music knowledge).
2) Some understanding of song construction.
This is helpful to create interesting tunes that don’t remain stagnant, but move through different chapters to engage the listener with some variety. A tune that moves through an intro, verse, chorus, bridge & outro means your audience (and you for that matter) will be led through a journey they’ll want to go back through over and over.
3) Playing by ear.
Having this skill, or honing it, can be a huge advantage in improvisation. You may “hear” a tune in your head and the act of playing the notes is merely coaxing the tune out of your head. Playing by ear can really help to hit those notes you are “hearing”.
4) Feeling comfortable to make mistakes.
Initial forays into improvisation, may yield more mistakes and disappointment than rewards, but keep on going! My best life (and musical) lessons have been from mistakes. “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.” General Custer.
Once you feel comfortable with this process, you’ll end up kicking yourself less and relaxing into a beautiful experience.
All I’m suggesting is that you will have more consistent results with personal theory backing you up. Then you’ll know the “so-called” rules and subsequently how to break them, to achieve the results you are after or understand the “happy accidents” you stumble on and why they are making the tune sound so good.
Picasso drew and painted photographic representations of his studies, but as time went on, he decided to move outside the established conventions and find his own style. He could either stay within the rules or bend them to his liking.
If you’ve never done it before or want to start again, sit down at your instrument and just play chords or any sequence of notes. Make mistakes, listen, fool around! Something might pop up and sound like an emerging theme, or nothing may happen and it all sounds a muddle.
Keep doing this! Nothing is wrong or right. I can almost guarantee something eventually will surface.
Try this as often as you can and to stop yourself feeling self-conscious. Do it when others aren’t around, so you don’t get silly comments putting you down during this crucial stage of development!
Really keen to hear stories of how your own exploration of improvisation goes and eventually, even some recordings of these pieces. My ultimate goal is that each of you explore and possibly find some natural highs from your experiences.
Jump out of your comfort zone!
Simon is a pianist and award winning composer from Victoria, Australia.
Further information : Simon Reich Music
Simon is a regular contributor to Pianodao.