Have you wished you could improvise, but found the whole thing intimidating, overwhelming, or just a complete mystery?
There’s one thing I can tell you, in just a few minutes, that will let you begin improvising today and set you up for continued success.
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Hi, my name’s Christopher Sutton and in this video I’m going to share a mental framework and a simple exercise that can get you improvising today – no prior knowledge or special talent required.
First though, I want to briefly mention what *not* to do, to learn to improvise.
And that’s to see it as a strict, rule-based, formulaic process – or as a matter of memorising particular licks and riffs.
These two approaches, the rules and the vocab, are extremely prevalent – but they are not the route to truly free improvising.
Music theory rules, scale patterns, and memorising “vocab” do all have their place in improvisation. But if you think that’s all there is to it, you are never going to feel truly creative when you improvise. In fact, you’ll have made improvisation into something that’s barely more creative than performing repertoire from sheet music.
At Musical U we’re big believers in a truly free approach to improvising. One which says your goal is to be able to imagine any musical idea in your mind, either before or while you play it, and bring that same idea out through your instrument.
This is an approach that works for any genre and any musical situation. Whether you’re taking a solo over the middle eight of a jazz standard or you’re playing lead at the local blues jam, or you are playing alone and composing an entire original piece on-the-fly. If you can play whatever you hear in your head, you are truly free.
Easier said than done, right?! That is our end goal, but of course most musicians don’t have the ear skills or audiation ability to do that on day one of learning to improvise.
So at Musical U we’ve developed a framework which does get you going on day one, with zero prior knowledge and certainly no so-called “talent” required. But it’s a framework that does allow you to move gradually to that ultimate goal of fully free improvisation.
There are several components to this framework and I won’t go into all of them here – I’m just going to share one big idea that you can take away and apply immediately.
This is the idea of giving yourself a “playground” to improvise in.
We define a “playground” as a particular musical context where you’ve set things up so that you basically can’t help but sound good. Like a real-world playground for kids, it’s designed to be the perfect balance of interesting adventure and fun experiences while keeping you “safe” at all times.
You’re going to give yourself a particular playground and then just spend a few minutes (or longer), experimenting in an improvised way in that playground.
So that’s the purpose of a playground – but what exactly is it?
We define a playground as a set of constraints. These are the particular rules or boundaries we’re going to stick to in our improvisation.
Here are a few examples of constraints:
- You might restrict the note pitches you’re going to play, to just the notes of a certain scale, or even just a few particular notes.
- You might decide to only use straight quarter notes and rests for your rhythms.
- You might decide to only use the notes or stick to the rhythm of a particular lick or riff you like.
- You might impose a certain structure, like playing call-and-response phrases in alternating measures, over a 12-bar blues.
Simple enough, right? Now here’s where it gets interesting. We combine this idea of constraints with the idea of dimensions. For any note or phrase you play in music, there are a huge number of dimensions you could explore.
If we take just one note, that note has pitch and duration. But it also has volume, it might have a certain articulation, it might have a variation in pitch such as vibrato or a slide, you might have a variety of timbres available to you on your instrument. And of course extending that to a series of notes, there are a large number of ways you could stretch, bend or alter the music in different directions.
The point is that whatever our constraints might be, we are still left with a huge number of dimensions we can explore, creatively.
Okay, let’s get concrete. I’m going to give you an example of a playground suitable for a complete beginner – which can also be mind-blowing for somebody’s who’s already been learning music for a while.
One of the exercises in our improvisation modules at Musical U is designed to help you start improvising with zero risk. Your playground is to take the constraint of using just three note pitches. That’s right, you’re only going to draw from three notes: C, D and E.
More than that, you’re going to begin with just *one* of the three. Spend a minute or two seeing how creative you can be without changing note. Really explore rhythm, timing, dynamics, articulation.
For the first minute or two don’t worry about making it sound musical, just explore the limits of what’s possible. And then start using what you’ve found to create something more musical sounding.
See how musical and interesting you can make your playing with just that one note. After a while, introduce a second note pitch and see what you can do with just those two – it’s a whole new world! And when you finally introduce note three it’s another revelation.
Notice how dramatically this changes your perspective on improvising.
Particularly if you’ve come from the world of intricate scale patterns, harmonic music theory or memorised vocabulary. We’re stripping right back to the purest fundamentals so that you can see just how much improvisational freedom you actually have with each and every note.
Notice too how this exercise gets you in touch with your musical instinct. We have many members at Musical U who join thinking they don’t have the instinct or creativity to improvise – but when they do this exercise and all the complications and expectations are stripped away they get to see that actually they do instinctively know what sounds good and how to change their playing to achieve a particular desired effect.
So that’s a terrific playground to start with. Just three notes, but you’ll be amazed how much creativity is possible.
That’s just one example of a playground, of course we’ve got a lot more detail on this framework and exercises to try inside Musical U. But start with this one – and you’ll probably immediately start with coming up with ways you want to extend or adjust your playground, or combine it with other ideas or activities in your musical life.
Take five minutes today and try this new outlook on improvisation, thinking in terms of playgrounds, constraints and dimensions. Try the beginner playground of using just three notes and introducing each one gradually.
And start feeling that improvisational spirit flowing through you – you’re becoming an improviser!
Want a clear, step-by-step guide to getting started with improvising, which works for any instrument or genre, with no prior knowledge or special skills required? Get our 5-Day “Intro to Improv” Practice Plan for free, just click the link or visit the shownotes for this episode at musicalitypodcast.com.