5 questions to ask yourself before you give up on improvising altogether + 5 ways to get the most of your next session.

improvisation memeWhat’s that? You’re struggling with your musical improvisation?

 No matter which genre you play, ask yourself these 5 questions next time you keep banging into Your Resistance:

1)  Have you accepted that your fear of it is part of the process of learning how to improvise? It’s not just you who is scared.  In Argentina, tango players say to play without a score is called ‘a la parrilla’ (to the grill) – literally throwing yourself into the cooking fire to be well, burned.

Why? I know from personal experience that not having a score can be downright well, exposing.  It’s frightening to not have that piece of paper in front of you telling you what/when/how to play. Why accept your fear? Because Fear is the rocket fuel, freedom is your reward (Thank you, Ms. Sharold Barr).

Try this: When you feel that sensation of being intimidated /fearful/ scared/ not feeling ‘good enough’ to improvise did you know that you don’t have to change anything about it? Nope. Just sit with it. Welcome that fear in with a Wide Open Heart. It is your teacher. Fear teaches us what we are fascinated with, enthralled and mystified by that which we don’t fully understand. These sensations are all excellent springboards for the creative process. The blood and guts — all the juicy innards– of creativity are in the unknown outcomes you bring to your musical table. That’s when the raw magic starts.

2) Have you given yourself some simple boundaries first as a starting point? Setting some simple ‘rules’ often is a good way to fire up the creativity that will lead to new, uncharted musical waters.

Why? Sometimes the more you restrict yourself, the more creative you have to be in order to use the only materials you have. Think of it as laying out your paper canvas. The canvas has visible boundaries where the painting is contained. And you will do the same, albeit in musical form.

Try this: Only play a melody using four pitches– choose them randomly. Now pick only 2 rhythmic values  in which to play those four chosen pitches. Set a timer for 90 seconds. What can you create within those imposed limits? Did it surprise you?
The next day, aim for a slightly longer session, say 2 minutes.  But choose even different parameters (rules about dynamics/ keys/ tone colours). Everyday keep inventing new, wild frameworks in which to use as your spring board for more. Someday your canvas will be larger. You’ll be painting murals the size of skyscrapers before you know it.

3) Have you left your ego on the backburner yet? Ego gets a bad rap, so we’re not going to be completely dissing your ego here. But when you are starting to improvise it really needs to be left at the door, checked in at the reception desk.

Why? Going to that place of to your soul’s level of unedited expression sans ego  is where the REAL work happens. This is the place where you become unaware of ‘how’ you are creating, or where you will even go next.

Try this: Allow yourself to just ‘go with it’. Even if your improvisations sound ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’, or you play with the incorrect fingerings and your tone sounds well, pretty crummy. Yes, even if you sound like you are a beginner learning your first 3 notes.  When you find yourself judging what is coming out of your instrument know that that is just The Resistance speaking, and perhaps a lot of years of self-effacement. Great improvisers are vulnerable. They take risks.

for4)  Are you being realistic with the initial outcome? When you first start improvising in any genre you probably won’t sound like Ian Andersen’s twin, even after months. That’s ok. The world doesn’t need another Ian Andersen. He’s still around.

Why? Ask any story teller that can captivate an audience, and they will tell you that it takes a lot of practice to formulate the exact words, the timbre of their sentences, the best way to present a new character into the story, where to formulate the pauses. It is an art that takes constant trialling. It also takes practice—just like anything, right?

Try this: Be gentle with yourself when you start improvising yet encourage yourself by monitoring your weekly progress. Keep track of your creations by creating a personal recorded diary of your sessions. Every time you practice your improv, make the effort to simply record yourself– with your iphone, your tablet, your old brown 1980’s Fisher Price tape recorder– whatever device you have handy. It doesn’t have to be a long recording. 60 seconds will give you an idea of how your improvisation is developing from week to week. Listen frequently, celebrate what you loved. Rethink what you weren’t sure about. Or, in the words of Osho, be realistic, but also be willing to plan for a miracle when you do the work.

copy cat5) Are you trying to copy someone else? Most likely you will not sound like an  improv God(dess) in the early stages (unless you are like this child miracle), but I am going to encourage you to move away from that  goal right now anyway.

Why? The art of improvisation is being ok with sounding just like you. Even if it’s not what you had imagined in your improvising fantasies. Even if you think sound like a squawking duck with a mumbled storyline. (You probably don’t. But even if you do? So. What.)

Try this: Let another artist inspire you, and find one to light your fire (for example, I love Bobby Mcferrin).  Listen often. But make your musical stories your own. Think of it this way. No one – I mean no one– can put two notes (or three or four) together like you do with that signature playing style of yours. Not our dear beloved Bach. Not Gillespie. If you were to copy a Picasso painting– what would be the point? You would learn the techniques he uses, the way he shades, his coulour palette, but why would you want to keep recreating what he’s already mastered but pretend it’s yours?

Go for it. Improvise often.  Humanity needs your song. Unedit yourself + go for it, already.

Have any tips to share about your improvising journey? Please do. Enlighten us in the comments below.


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