Much of our musical careers are spent playing in a very structured manner, reciting from memory or sheet music. But incorporating improvisation sessions into our practice and performances can be enormously valuable.
Improvisation is the art of creating music on the spot and without preparation. It’s commonly seen in jazz or blues music where musicians routinely improvise solos or melody lines.
Improvising can improve your musical ability in many ways. It helps you better understand which note sequences and chord progressions work well together. Improvisation is often the first step towards composing.
Having strong improvisation skills also gives you the confidence that can get a performance back on track if you were to forget a section of the music. Researchers Charles Limb and Allen Braun found that improvising used completely different parts of the brain compared to areas used during recitation of memorised music.
More specifically, improvisation doesn’t involve the cortex that is associated with self-monitoring. Therefore, it’s possible that through improvisation, you can teach your brain to perform in more of a “flow” state—using muscle memory rather than conscious thinking.
For some, the thought of improvisation strikes fear into their heart. Here are a few ways to overcome that anxiety.
Practice in Private
When you think of improvising, maybe it conjures up images of Miles Davis flamboyantly riffing on stage. But no one starts off like that.
The best way to reduce your inhibitions around improvisation is to get familiar with it—and familiarity comes from practice.
Start off as simply as possible. Pick a few scales or arpeggios and begin to embellish them; add some additional notes here and there and try to work out what sounds good. There’s no right or wrong method, so just have fun with it!
Embrace Your Nerves
If you’re improvising in public, it’s very common to get nervous. Many people try to counteract or reduce nerves, often not very successfully.
Most performers see better results by acknowledging their nervousness and attempting to channel this energy in a positive way. A great way to do this is to use a technique called “centring”.
Here are the steps to centring:
- Focus on your breathing.
- Find your centre. Focus on clearing your mind from any distracting thoughts and concentrate solely on your music and what you’re playing.
- Redirect your energy.
Similar to meditation, centring is something that takes practice to perfect. The best thing to do is to begin incorporating these steps into your practice sessions. The more you can replicate performance conditions in your practice, the more comfortable you will become.
Remember, You’re Automatically Mistake-Free
Remember: the beauty of improvisation is that there isn’t a right or wrong answer. Your audience doesn’t know what’s coming, so your performance is automatically without error!
Of course, you could play a bum note that clearly doesn’t fit the context. But remember that every “wrong” note is only one step away from a “right” note, and by practising different improvisational exercises and having a good understanding of various chord progressions, you can drastically reduce the chances of this happening.
The key to improvisation, as with music in general, is to remember that you’re taking part in this for your enjoyment. Take a lighthearted approach to it, play around with some things, and see how it pans out.
Do you have any great techniques for overcoming your improvisation inhibitions? Share in the comments.