Jim Oshinsky believes that every musician should improvise from the start, but that’s not usually the case. As a staff member for the organization Music for People, he teaches at improvisation workshops in the US and Europe. “When we learn to improvise, we learn instrument fluency; we learn the natural connection between a musical idea, its manifestation in sounds we can control, and we learn to link sound devices to our own musical voice,” he says.
Unfortunately, if musicians often don’t learn to improvise early on, when they finally have the opportunity they are hesitant. “We fear being judged by others,” he says. “The trick is to dismiss that fear and play on.”
Aside from the self-gratification and joy, improvising can open doors. “If you can play spontaneously in a variety of styles; if you can lay down a groove for a partner, imitate their sounds, and take solo chances when they arise, you can play with anyone, anywhere,” he says.
Here are some improvisation tips to help get you started.
- Let go of the need to be perfect and be playful instead. Improvisation can be spontaneous, and not competitive. Take yourself lightly, laugh at your awkward places, and release criticisms.
- The core of musicianship is listening. Listen more than you play, and imitate sounds. “You are always playing a duet with the silence around you,” says cellist David Darling, founder of Music for People. Even the rhythm of a conversation or rain falling can be inspiration.
- Go off the page. Play the first few notes of a song you have learned, then leave the melody and make up your own middle and ending.
- Find some friends to jam with, and make improvisation a social activity.
- Jam along to your favorite recordings to practice and build your confidence.
- Don’t focus on just the notes. Use phrasing, dynamics, and rhythmic variations to make a tune your own.
- Learn some theory and study your scales—major and minor, blues, pentatonic. Learn what notes sound good in a key.
- Knowledge will builds confidence. If you don’t know a song, ask about it before jumping in. What key is it in? What is the style and mood of the song? For example, a slow, sad usually means a minor scale; fast and joyful a major scale.
- Don’t think too hard. Improvisation is about playing what you feel in the moment. Be bold and trust yourself.
- Study your idols. Learn the solos of your favorite players in different genres. Pay attention to their use of phrasing, rhythm, and dynamics. It does not have to be exact; results will come with time.
- Like any playing skill practice is critical. The more you practice improvising, the stronger your intuition will grow, and the more confident you will be.
- Sing what you play, and play what you sing. The best entry into improvisation is through voice.