About Learning to Improvise

Over the last eight episodes, we’ve covered a lot of ground: we first looked at the right mindset for improv, then dove right into how to use rhythm, scales, chords, harmony, structure, and form to really get your spontaneous playing off the ground. In this episode, we give you an overview of how you can approach the task at hand – learning to improvise!

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So we are now at the end of Improv Month here at Musical U, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of episodes focusing around the topic of improvisation.

We’ve covered a lot in the last eight episodes and so I thought it would be useful to wrap things up with an overview of how you might approach learning to improvise, given everything we’ve been discussing on the show.

What I’ll be talking about is guided largely by our new Improv Roadmap at Musical U. We’ll actually be talking more about Roadmaps in general in our next episode, but for now I’ll just say that what I’ll be laying out here is the basic outline of how we’ll be teaching members to improvise inside Musical U – and as always it’s totally personalisable and flexible based on your own background, interests, and progress.

One thing I’ll be talking about on the next episode is how vital it is to have the overall understanding of how a musical skill is learned, step by step. Otherwise it’s far too easy to continually put in effort in different directions and using different resources and feel like you’re making progress – only to realise later on that you’re not actually any closer to that skill you dreamed of having. That’s where Roadmaps come in and although this will be just a very brief overview I’m hoping that this episode can serve that purpose for you to. To draw together the various ideas we’ve talked about and give you a sense of how you can go forwards from here and learn to improvise – whether that’s as a member of Musical U or using other resources, like those from the terrific guests we’ve featured in Improv Month.

Approaching Improvisation

So the starting point for learning to improvise is to get your mindset right. As we talked about in episode 51 on “Approaching Improvisation”, there are a couple of traditional approaches to learning to improvise that are actually incredibly frustrating and limiting for musicians. One is to strictly stick to memorised rules and patterns and essentially choose notes at random within that. The other is to learn particular licks, riffs and runs that you know work well and then just reproduce this “vocabulary” when the time comes to improvise.

If you want to improvise in a way that’s truly free, creative, and brings your own musical ideas out into the world, then step one (and in my opinion the most important step) in learning to improvise is to decide not to follow those approaches. Yes, there is value in each of them and they can be part of your improvisation toolkit. But you want to decide from the outset that improvisation means bringing your own imagined musical ideas out from your head into the world through your instrument.

That means that improvisation will be about developing your brain and ear to understand the music you hear, remember or imagine. Improvisation becomes a process of “playing by ear what you imagine in your head”. At first this will take a lot of practice but over time you’ll build up those connections to the point where it becomes easy and instinctive. I hesitate a bit to use the word “instinctive” because that can imply something you do without really thinking or understanding – and that’s not what we’re talking about here. It’s instinctive in the sense of happening automatically and nearly effortlessly – but you have consciously learned how it all works and you thoroughly understand what it is you’re doing when you improvise.

It’s also important to discover at this early stage that you do have a musical imagination! It takes some practice to build up your ability to audiate, meaning to imagine music in your mind. But I assure you, if what I’ve said about imagination and creativity have you worried that you’re not particularly imaginative or creative – don’t worry! You definitely are, because you’ve spent your life listening to music and all that experience is in there waiting to come out. It just takes the right mindset and some simple mental frameworks and exercises to unlock it for you.

So that’s step one. At Musical U have a training module called “Approaching Improvisation” that explores this idea in detail and gives you some exercises to start really connecting with that mindset. We also had our Resident Pros for guitar, bass and piano produce resource packs specifically for those instruments on this topic. That’s how important we think it is to get your mindset right if you’re going to succeed and enjoy improvising.

And I don’t want to labour this point too much because hopefully if you’ve been following along with improv month you’re on board by now. We heard from David Reed from Improvise For Real, whose program lives up to its name and really focuses on that ear-led approach to improvising freely. We heard from Nick Mainella of the 10-Minute Jazz Lesson podcast who emphasised that learning vocabulary or transcribing solos needs to be combined with analysing them and developing your ear to actually understand what it is you’re learning so that you can apply it in your own creative way. We heard from Brenden Lowe of Jazz Piano School who explained you need to learn improvisation like building with legos, and see it as a natural part of everything you learn and hear in music. And we heard from David Wallimann who despite being a leading guitar educator and well versed in all the pattern-based approaches to improvising on guitar had one simple piece of advice: put the guitar down! And connect with your imagination first, then use your ears to bring that out through the guitar.

So we heard the same core message from multiple angles and multiple experienced and admired instructors on the topic of improvisation: Don’t get trapped in patterns and memorisation, or improv becomes just another example of reproducing the music that other people have created. Connecting with your imagination and your ear is the path to truly free, creative and enjoyable improvising.

Play By Ear Skills

Aside from taking that fundamental message to heart, there’s another reason it’s important to focus on this mindset choice early on. And that’s because it really affects the training you’ll do in learning to improvise.

As I said before – this is really about playing by ear what you imagine in your head. And so the brain and ear skills you need are very much the same as for playing by ear. We’re talking about relative pitch and things like interval recognition or solfa, recognising different types of chord and chord progression by ear, honing your sense of rhythm and understanding rhythmic patterns and styles, and so on.

So as we built out our new Improv Roadmap at Musical U it was a lot of fun because we could leverage all the training modules we already have for those areas. And our new Improv modules could just focus on the heart of what makes improvising unique.

You will find courses out there that treat improvisation as an isolated skillset, something you can just follow a straight-line course to learn. And that’s generally because they’re taking one of those other two approaches to learning to improvise. They’re just teaching you rules or patterns or vocabulary.

The truth is that if you want to be truly free as an improviser then you need a good musical ear, and so a lot of “learning to improvise” is about ear training and play-by-ear skills.

So that’s the second step to think about. Once you choose this path towards free, creative improvisation you’ll want to explore ear training and select the resources and training that will develop your musical ear to support your improvisation learning.

At Musical U what we do is we provide guidance on how to incorporate material from our Roadmaps for playing melodies and chords by ear along the way, and we also have a module specifically on Improvising Melody that lets you gently start exploring improvising even before you develop those ear skills, and lets you apply those skills as you develop them. This is also where some of the ideas from episode 53 about improvising rhythm come in, as we really encourage you to explore the different dimensions available to you as you choose what notes to play when, and how.

So improvising is part of your learning process throughout but you’re able to draw on all those other ear training resources to accelerate your understanding of how music works and what you want to create with your improvisation.

Introducing harmony

Once you get going with improvising melody it’s time to start thinking about harmony. As we talked about in episode 55, this is something that’s relevant and powerful whether you play a harmony instrument or not. So pianists for example will start thinking about improvising left and right hands together and how chords and melody interrelate. Guitarists can think about leveraging their chord knowledge to guide their improvisation. And brass and wind players can think about how to choose their melody notes to really match up well with the chord progression they’re soloing over – or even to imply a chord progression when playing without accompaniment.

This is such an important topic we’ve dedicated two of our new improv training modules to it at Musical U – one is about the idea of chord tones and how choosing notes which do and don’t belong to chords is a really effective way to create a musically compelling melody line. And the second is specifically about the tension and release effects you can create by playing around with the interplay of harmony and melody.

This is kind of a superpower in improvisation. The relationship between melody and the underlying harmony is a really important part of what distinguishes a solo that sounds like a stream of randomly-chosen notes from one that really sounds musical.

You can get there purely on your ears and the kind of approach I talked about earlier, translating what you imagine in your head out into the world. But you can really accelerate that learning process by incorporating some understanding of what’s going on with the chords, to help guide what you imagine and what you choose to play.

Structure and Form

So after step three of learning how to factor harmony into your improvisation, the next step follows naturally. Those chords have already given you experience of how important and powerful it is for your improvisation to follow a structure of some kind, and how that lets you more easily take the listener on a journey. That chord-by-chord thinking is just one level of structure available to you though.

So step four is to start thinking in terms of structure and form. If you have four bars with the same chord, are you going to do anything different with your melody in the first two bars than the second two? If you have a 16-bar section to solo over which naturally splits into two 8-bar sections, how are you going to make each one different and interesting? How are you factoring in the music’s own form, maybe a verse/chorus structure, into what you do with your improvisation? Or if you’re improvising entirely freely, what overall structure of sections can you put in place to make it sound like a real piece of music that keeps the listener engaged rather than just bar-after-bar sounding all a bit the same?

There are lots of tools and constructs you can apply here, to structure and shape your improvisation which we cover in the new training module on this topic. And again, this is going to level up your improv to sounding more creative, interesting and compelling for the listener.

Improvisational Styles

The final step in our Roadmap – which of course probably won’t be the last step you ever take in learning to improvise! That’s going to be a long and continually interesting journey for you. But the final step to think about is how to adapt your improvising to different styles of music.

It’s funny, because a lot of improvisation courses will start here. They are essentially trying to teach you a shortcut method to mimic true improvisation, and so will teach you licks or patterns that “work” in blues, or fit the rock style, and so on.

And again, that stuff is valuable – but it’s a bit like putting the cart before the horse.

So if you’re taking this different mindset to improvisation, that it is first and foremost about expressing your own creativity in music, then it’s really more about adapting your improvisation to fit a style – rather than learning a specific skill of improvising in that style.

So our last new module released this month is all about improvising in different styles. Building on the ear-led approach to improvisation you’ve been learning it gives you the guidance and examples needed to feel comfortable fitting in to the traditions and expectations of popular genres like rock, blues and jazz.

And that’s really how I’d encourage you to think about it, whether or not you’re following the Musical U Roadmap. Improvisation is about you and your instrument and the music you want to express. If you bring that ability to rock, great! If you bring it to blues, great! And if you want to go deep into jazz, great! These are all different flavours of the same core skillset – they aren’t just sets of patterns, rules and vocabulary to be learned and reproduced.

The nice thing is that when you approach learning to improvise in this way, led by your imagination and using ear skills to bring that out into the world, these last couple of steps about structure and different styles – there really isn’t a ton you need to study or practice. Because you’ve been listening to music your whole life. With a bit of active listening and a bit of improv practice you’ll find that you can simply leverage the fact that your musical imagination already pretty much knows how music works and how different styles sound. If you’re in a blues context, you’ll imagine something bluesy and play that. If you’re improvising in a different genre then you’ll imagine a different flavour of music and play that. Yes, it takes a bit of practice, but it’s all the same core skill of musical imagination coupled with ear skills to bring it out into the world.

So that’s the Roadmap we’ve been building out at Musical U and it’s a path you can follow yourself.

  • Step one: Get your mindset right. Decide that you will pursue truly free, ear-led improvisation.
  • Step two: Connect with ear training and start exploring the dimensions of improvising melody.
  • Step three: Integrate harmony and explore how melody and harmony work together.
  • Step four: Make use of structure and form in your improvisation.
  • Step five: Learn to adapt your improvising to a variety of musical styles.

All that remains is to say a few things. The first is: thanks for joining me for improv month! I hope you’ve really enjoyed these episodes and that they’ve helped a few lightbulbs to go on for you.

The second is that if you’d like to follow the path I’ve outlined here then our new Improv Roadmap is waiting for you and we’d love to have you with us as a member of Musical U. As always check out musicalitypodcast.com for a special offer for podcast listeners.

And finally just to wish you luck and happy music-making as you explore this new improvisation journey. There really is nothing as enjoyable and satisfying as creating your own great-sounding music on-the-fly, powered purely by your own imagination. So go out there and have fun learning to improvise!

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