Anyone can improvise! – The phrase rolls off the tongue with the banality of many a late-night infomercial. “Anyone can get ripped abs! Anyone can make millions from home! Anyone can speak Navajo!” But when it comes to jazz, is this statement really true?
This has been a debate in the jazz education world since it’s institutionalization. Can improvisation be taught in a classroom? Can you take someone off the street and teach them how to play over a blues? Is everyone actually capable of improvising?
Over the years, I’ve often heard these phrases uttered in private lessons, music schools, and on gigs by a number of people: “I can’t improvise. I’ve never learned how to improvise. I don’t do the jazz thing. Making up solos is just not for me. I don’t understand how to pick out which notes to play.”
Some were accomplished musicians and others were absolute beginners, but when you hear the above statements across the board, it makes you wonder: Maybe some people are just not cut out for this.
However, it can be all too easy to make rash decisions when things are challenging and frustrating at the outset. If you look at what actually goes into the process of improvisation, you’ll find that it’s much more accessible than it appears to be.
Improvising is a skill
The first thing to realize is that improvisation is a skill, not some magical power that a few chosen people possess. Changing your mindset in this small way can be instrumental to your success. To see what I mean, let’s consult the pages of Merriam-Webster:
- the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance
- dexterity or coordination especially in the execution of learned physical tasks
- a learned power of doing something competently
- a developed aptitude or ability
In the definition above, nowhere do you see the word talent or innate ability. Instead, you see the words knowledge, learned, and developed ability. By looking at improvisation as a skill, it becomes clear that everyone has the potential, with some practice and acquired knowledge, to improvise in some way, shape, or form.
Some musicians are naturally drawn to improvising, while others find it initially foreign and uncomfortable. It isn’t important how your first encounter with improvisation ensued, rather how hard you’re willing to work at improving from that point on.
Avoid the misguided “you either have it or you don’t” mindset that persists with a number of people in everything from sports to music. If you are dedicated you can not only learn how to improvise, you can even exceed your own expectations.
You must develop this skill
Even though improvisation is a skill that can be learned, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be easy or come to you without any effort. Learning to hear chord progressions and play over standards takes years of work – skills that must be developed, no matter who you are or at which level you begin.
An apt comparison to improvisation, is that of drawing.
Like improvising, it takes years of dedicated study, practice, and imitation to become adept at drawing; and because most of this work happens behind closed doors, most people view it as a talent – not a skill.
For many of us, our first exposure to drawing began when we were children and for the majority of us, this is where it ended. It seems logical that our skills would remain at this grade-school level, yet when we attempt to sketch something as adults we hastily declare: “I can’t draw!”
It’s not that you can’t draw, it’s that you’ve neglected this skill for years or have never even developed it to begin with. Like any skill, you must keep working at it to maintain your ability and to eventually improve.
If your first attempts at improvisation are not successful, don’t give up right away, keep at it. With some serious listening and practice you can develop the skills you need to sound good on any tune.
Keep in mind that you must be objective as you attempt these skills. Oftentimes we immediately compare our early efforts at a skill with the finished product in our mind’s eye.
For example, as we complete our first feeble attempts at drawing, we immediately compare the marks on the page with the definition of art in our mind – usually the artwork hanging on the walls of museums. Because it never matches up, we become discouraged and mentally conclude that we have no skill.
You may have had the same experience with improvisation, as I’ve often had. When you are working on a tune for awhile and then listen to a great player improvise over the same tune, the contrast is like night and day. “Why aren’t my lines sounding like Trane’s? I suck!”
In these instances, remember that you are developing your skills, and this takes time. The player that you’re listening to on your favorite records has already developed and perfected these skills; what you’re listening to is the finished product. You do have the ability to improvise, you just are at a different stage in your development.
Wherever you are in your skill level, you have the potential to improve. Push to that next level from the last place you left off, whether it was yesterday’s practice session or a time years ago.
What motivates you to play?
The crux of everything lies with this one question: Why do you want to improvise?
Before you head down the path of learning to improvise and pursuing jazz, identify exactly what it is that motivates you to play. If you look at the greatest improvisors, they have an inner-fire when it comes to the music and are constantly striving to improve. They simply must play music and improvise; it’s not an option. This factor alone is the key to succeeding at improvisation, and can transform any player into a great improviser.
Among musicians though, you’ll find that everyone has a different reason for pursuing improvisation: Some are trying to improve themselves in an area they feel is lacking, some are fulfilling the requirements for a college degree, some are propelled by a desire to be better than others, some want to be the best at something, some are out to prove themselves, and some are trying to uphold an image.
Competition, deadlines, social pressures, and the other aspects listed above all push you to improve. However, these should not be the main reasons that you’re playing music. Eventually these reasons for playing will fall short: there will always be someone better than you, you’ll graduate from school, proving things to others will lose it’s appeal, etc. At the end of the day, the crucial factor is how you feel about the music.
If you’re inspired by hearing, practicing, and performing jazz, then improvisation can be a fulfilling pursuit wherever you may be. You can be listening to some records, working on a tune in the practice room, or performing for an enthusiastic audience, and the result will be the same. You will feel enthusiastic and excited about dedicating yourself to this music that you love – and this is a factor that will definitely create a successful improviser everytime.