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Improvisation in Music

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

There are many instrumentalists and vocalists who wish they could come up with their own music on the spot without fear of failure. How does one develop this amazing skill?

four men in a jazz group - one playing a trumpet, one playing saxophone, one singing and one singing and playing tamborine

I once heard a Brazilian jazz musician speak of his formative years learning to play music in his living room among family and friends. Everyone would sit around and play together without the aid of sheet music. As a teacher, I believe there is a need to give young musicians the tools to fully and authentically express themselves without needing to memorize. Of course I believe that learning to read musical notation is a vital part of becoming a functional musician; there will be times when they are handed a page of music and asked to play it immediately. However, training musicians to rely on having sheet music leaves them helpless if they are spontaneously asked to play something. If they have nothing memorized, they will most likely freeze, panic, and ultimately decline to play. Also, musicians who can #improvise will be more likely to continue playing even after formal lessons cease. There is just something about “owning” what you do as opposed to imperfectly reproducing what someone else has written.

So what is the best way to equip solo musicians with the ability to take creative risks with confidence? To answer this question, we might observe the #improvisation that is all around us. One could say that we improvise everyday when we have conversations. If your life were a reality show, you would be making everything up as you go. Almost everything you do, you have done before, but conversations and food choices will vary, you will have on a different outfit, or you may take a different route to work. In the same way, #musicians (and actors when they improv) are stringing together a series of ideas and musical intervals that they have produced previously just in a fresh way. It may not even be the words or the notes that are different; perhaps it is the intention or emotion behind them.

So if we improvise everyday, why is it so hard to do when it comes to playing music? Humans are constantly doing activities that ensure our survival (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), but most aren't playing instruments and spinning out musical phrases all day long. Music should be a stream that flows out of a performer like words that flow out of their mouths into sentences. Jazz artists say that when musicians play together, it is a conversation. In an ideal world, everyone that professes to be a musician, regardless of what genre they do, would speak this language as freely as words.

It all starts with developing #musicianship skills such as ear training which can involve sight singing* and rhythmic dictation. Educational institutions have long required participation in choir and orchestra. Hearing other instruments and voices play contrasting pitches, rhythms, and musical ideas while you carry on with your own line, builds confidence and strengthens aural skills. Also, these ensembles usually do a fair amount of reading music at sight, which is another activity that contributes to understanding of musical intervals and trains the ear for improvisation.

The skills to improvise start with knowing all the scales, chord progressions, and voicings possible. What is most important is to start improvising. Just start small. Begin with a note, and change its length, articulation, dynamics, or emotion. See how many ideas you can come up with for two minutes. Make up a pattern and embellish it, play it in the dominant, change the rhythm, and be able to do it in all 12 keys (major and minor).

My own journey with improvisation is similar to what I described. These days I find myself improvising vocal music regularly in my voice and vibes jazz duo, #IntangibleYou. I also study improvisation on the piano. As an educator, I find this topic to be fascinating. It can be challenging to consistently make time for this in lessons, though I do give my students exercises to help them create their own music. I am working to set up a class in which instrumentalists and singers can improvise and collaborate in a structured way. The most vital why of learning to improvise is to create music in a way that is authentic to us and conversational with others. Then we can find greater fulfillment in our music making and spread a little more joy throughout our community.

*Check out #SightReading courses with Gerald White, offered in Los Angeles and online at

Check out pianist Gabriela Montero for a fabulous example of someone who regularly incorporates improvisation into her concerts, taking suggestions from the audience and creating variations on the fly.

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