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“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” (Bilbo Baggins, Lord of the Rings.)

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I always tell my students that the whole point of improvisation is  just make it up and do what you like. Yes. Seriously, just make it up. Dive in and swim. Or fly. Within obvious parameters – sort of negotiated around a consensual structure, theme, duration, or genre, number of limbs, digits, or keys or strings. Or not. Life is improvisation, unscripted. Any semblance of order reveals itself to be a persuasive illusion, based on perception.  As Bilbo Baggins says, you never really know what will happen when you walk out of your door.  It’s an adventure! As in martial arts, learn the laws and guiding principles but bear in mind that in application, you may be flying by the seat of your pants.  Either unlocking feats and flights of fancy you never knew you had – or just as likely, reverting to your most simple and effective idea – that hopefully takes care of business. The following thoughts form a holistic guide for vocalists, pianists, and guitarists. As a natural polymath, I feel that self-expression is a universal language and these principles traverse many artistic disciplines and instruments. I have purposefully treated the subject with a light touch, to alleviate the fear that comes up, especially with music students:

”What??!!!!!! You want me to improvise? I’m no good at improvising!”  Er that’s because you don’t do it. etc.

I enjoy a list…but the concept of  linear sequence here is completely up for grabs. Knowledge is a sphere that can be explored from any angle, all roads leading to the centre. Beginners and advanced practitioners can experience the exact same material, each to their appropriate level, depth or ability.  Feel free to enjoy this list backwards, one a day, applied to one instrument, as applicable to performance, private rehearsal and study, students or anything else. Fold it up into a ball, or cut it into pieces.  In short, improvise.

TOP TEN TIPS:

1. Know your instrument.  Freedom comes with vocabulary. Know the long and short of what your instrument and you can do. Get in that woodshed and become one with the guitar, piano or voice. Love your scales. Every song you will ever play is just a combination of notes in relationship. Therefore you can’t afford to ignore your scales. Know where they are (fretboard, keyboard, vocal register) and then learn them. You want a working toolkit of scales, licks, chops, trills, ornaments, double stops, harmonics, riffs, stabs, blues variations, pentatonics, modes major + minor, cadences + intros, chords and arps + inversions, + substitutes, key progressions.

2. Know your parameters. What’s the brief, so to speak? How many bars? Theme? Any ‘avoid’ notes? Key signature, time signature? Trading licks with another player? Count. Listen. Watch. Stuck for inspiration on your vocal solo? Choose a colour and the weather and 3 or 4 words that rhyme. Or a name, or a question. Playing with others can be a conversation, a throw-down, a game of chase, copy or contrast.

3. Rhythm.  Tuned instruments can produce brilliant percussion solos. Dampened guitar strings, (Gabriela Quintero), voices that mimic wah pedals, pianos struck with all fingers at once. At times, free yourself from pitch and think like a drummer.

4.  Minimum effort = maximum result. In other words, take shortcuts and experiment. Get an instinctive feel for chord inversions. Familiarity with major/minor relationship and chord substitutions means that your fingers will always locate something suitable. Playing sweet (relative) major 7th arps over dark (relative) minor riffs can create interest and texture. Use chromaticism to evoke an instant jazz mood. Bored with a simple melody? Play it in unison octaves. Done on the guitar, with plenty of slide and vibrato, 4ths and 5ths, this brings a pleasing Wes Montgomery feeling of authenticity. Free yourself from bar chords. Use the 5th string open shapes to create jazzy altered 7ths, #5ths and #9ths. Move them chromatically.

5. Life is movement. Remain unstuck by not stopping. Flow. If you have to produce rubbish at first, remember that the good stuff lies on the other side. So get through it. All is motion.  No way forward but through. Coming out with clichés and formulae? Move forward anyway. Make it into a game. Make mistakes. Enjoy them. Style it out.

6. Art is supposed to be for pleasure.  Often, we over-think in the pursuit of perfection. Which is ironic. Most of life’s fun is in the errors. Have you turned your play into work? Turn it back into play, as that’s what the punters come to to see you do.

7. Renaissance thinking. Think synthetically, synaesthetically, metaphorically and symbolically.  The language of one discipline can illuminate the other. Visual artists train to ‘take a line for a walk’ across the page. Treat your melodies the same. Let your vocal or guitar line carve the space just as a dancer would. Be interested in the silences, the blank page. Give your composition some sturdy ‘architecture’. Let the tones and textures of your singing be ‘dark blue’, or ‘crumbly’, ‘angular’ or ‘golden.’

8. Watch other artists perform on a regular basis. Don’t just listen, you need the visual, physical information too. In these days of YouTube, there is no excuse for not studying this way.

9. Improvisation has a spiritual aspect.  What is life, if not a leap of faith against all odds? Open up your awareness and ask for guidance, in what ever form you understand it.  A sense of ritual about what you do imbues ‘performance’ with the sacredness that it deserves, and once had/has in traditional cultures. When you pick up your instrument or open your mouth, you are conversing with the spirits, are you not? Have some faith, some trust in larger forces than yourself that want something spontaneous to be expressed – through you. I like the concept that the song, or phrase already exists fully made – all we do as artists is ‘download’ it, via the ‘allowing’, not the effort.

10. Simplicity is profound.  Do one thing well and let the context be the variant. 20 years ago, I was involved in a vocal workshop with veteran Jazz improviser Lisa Sokolov. She did with us the generic and (sometimes derided) ‘name game’ – each go round the circle and sing your name. One word – infinite exploration. Some accomplished singers in the room were too cool for this and frankly said so. ”We have already done this.”  Lisa put them right. ”You have never done this, with these people.” If in doubt, strip everything back to basics – you’ll find a new perspective.

Resources:

‘Improvisation’ (Book/CD) by Larry Coryell.  Hugely entertaining biography of one of the world’s greatest but less visibly known jazz fusion guitarists. Gripping, illuminating and hilarious anecdotes of life in the ’60s and ’70s hanging out with Keith Jarrett, Eric Clapton, Dizzie Gillespie,  Jimi Hendrix,  Paco de Lucia, and Miles Davis, to name just a very few.  Having read it, you’ll want to head over to YouTube or Amazon to check out – and improvise with – Larry’s duet album ‘Together’ with the (sadly deceased) jazz guitarist Emily Remler, (herself  worthy of an entirely separate blog feature .)

Anything by Joe Bennett in the ‘It’s Easy to Bluff…’ book series.

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