Learning to improvise is a path with many steps leading to many different levels. Contrary to the belief held by some that improvising is a talent, or even a skill allowed to only a special few, the truth is much simpler. Time and again we must tackle new concepts and tirelessly practice them until we have them in our ears and fingers. The wondrous aspect of learning improvisation is that it is a process that never ends – you can always improve and there will always be another level to strive for.
The difficult part, however, comes in pushing yourself to get to that next level.
In the process of learning to improvise, we immediately make big jumps in skill level. We go from knowing a few major scales to understanding chord structures, from hearing basic chord progressions to playing improvised lines over entire tunes. Eventually we transcribe a solo and begin to think about the concepts of phrasing, motivic development, sound, time, and articulation.
All of these steps are huge and it truly feels great when we accomplish them. We go from dealing with music superficially to actually creating something meaningful and personal. With each level, a whole new world of sound and possibilities is discovered.
As we become more advanced technically and more sophisticated harmonically however, it takes more and more work to break through to the next level. Despite our previous successes, roadblocks inevitably pop up in the way of our improvement: we get lazy, complacent with our playing, overconfident with our skill level, and discouraged with our rate of progress. Because it now takes more focus and work to improve, it can be hard to stick with your goals until they are achieved.
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful after all.”~Michelangelo
After those initial periods of exciting progress, weeks, months, and years can pass as we stay at the same level of improvisation: You’re sounding exactly the same on those few standards, you’re playing the same lines over every ii-V progression, and you’re having trouble with those same problem areas.
If this sounds familiar, don’t be discouraged, this is a natural process that everyone goes through as they struggle to become a better improviser. The good news is that you can always pick up where you left off and continue your musical progress.
So how exactly do you speed up the process of attaining the next level as an improviser? The answer is easier than you might think. Here are five ways to push yourself, both internally and externally, to get to the next level and realize your musical potential:
1. Change the way you hear
The first step in getting to the next level of improvisation requires that you change the way you hear. Just as your level of harmonic understanding and technical ability are constantly evolving, so to are your ears. As you progress as an improviser your definition of “great improvising” can and will drastically change.
If you stay in the same musical situation, listening to the same records, the same players, and going to the same sessions, your ears are going to go stale. In this situation, your definition of “great improvising” remains at the same level, and as you approach this level yourself, you become less motivated to improve. However, if you push yourself and seek out a higher level of playing, the results can be shocking.
Here’s a personal example. Before I moved to New York, I thought I had a solid definition in my mind of what “great playing” was and felt confident in my abilities as an improviser. However, after arriving in New York and sitting inches from Tom Harrell’s trumpet as he tore up rhythm changes or standing behind Mulgrew Miller as he played unimaginable lines over simple tunes, my definition of “great” was literally blown out of the water.
The result of this first-hand exposure to the masters of the music was that my ears were irrevocably changed.
With this new definition of “great improvising” in my ears, it was as if a whole new world of improvising and musicianship was revealed to me. I now had to set new goals in the practice room and aim for higher standards in my performance. What was once solid improvising or was a killing record in my mind, was no longer acceptable to my ears; I now held everything to this new standard.
When your ears change like this, every aspect of your musicianship is affected. In the practice room, you are forced to reevaluate your sound, time, articulation, harmonic understanding, rhythmic understanding, technique – literally every piece of your musicianship. It’s only when you change the way you hear, that you’ll truly be able to approach the next level of playing.
2. Who you hang around influences you
Whether we like to admit it or not, the people that we spend the most time with are the ones that influence us the most. Take a look at the five people that you are around the most each day, musically or not. Are these people motivated and striving to improve themselves on a daily basis? Or, are they wasting time and encouraging you to do so as well?
Nothing will motivate you faster than the actions of your peers. If the musicians that you hang out with are pushing themselves in the practice room, you’re going to do the same whether it’s through inspiration or the fear of being left behind. On the other hand, if they are satisfied with playing the same tunes and gigs at a mediocre level, you’ll be sucked into that black hole right along with them.
If you’re serious about improving as an improviser, you need to put yourself in an environment where you are pushed to succeed. Surround yourself with motivated and positive musicians who are striving to improve and will encourage you to do the same. Peer pressure is a strong force, and in this case you can use it to your advantage.
3. Seek out tough musical situations
One of the biggest barriers in getting to the next level as an improviser is complacency. We get too comfortable with our current level of playing and become satisfied with the small achievements that we’ve made in the past. Some musicians have even become so lax that they don’t even know what to work on in the practice room anymore. This is a sure sign that you’ve been staying in your own comfortable little bubble for far too long – it’s time to get out and challenge yourself.
There are a number of things you can do to remedy this. Start by taking a lesson with one of your musical heroes that’s playing in a city near you. A one-on-one situation like this with a great musician is an invaluable experience. Be prepared for an honest, no-nonsense appraisal of your playing and some priceless advice on how to improve…that is if you’re willing to accept it and are serious about getting to that next level.
Another great way to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself is to go to a jam session. As you are there listening and playing, take some mental notes: Do you know every tune that’s being called? Can you figure out the progressions by ear to tunes that you don’t know? Are you able to play tunes that are being called in different keys? How do you stack up against the other players? The answers to these questions are a good way to gauge your skill level and will quickly reveal what you need to focus on in the practice room.
Getting complacent with your playing is easy to do, but the remedy is even simpler. Nothing will make you realize what you need to work on faster than being put on the spot in a tough situation. Whether you seek out a lesson with a musical master, attend a jam session, or perform for a critical audience, you’ll be forced out of your comfort zone and instantly reminded of your musical strengths and weaknesses.
4. Motivate and discipline yourself
At the end of the day, the responsibility of improving musically lies solely on you. You can’t blame your schedule, the talent of others, or other outside sources for your shortcomings – it all comes down to how much you are willing to work for it.
Once you’re efficient with your time and are working on the right things in the practice room, you’ll see an immediate change in your playing and the next level will come sooner than you think.
5. Change your mindset
Striving for the next level of musicianship means continually returning to the mental state of a beginner – a feeling of not knowing anything, seeking out information from every angle, and going back to the basics to improve. This can be extremely difficult to do the more you progress and can even be a blow to your confidence.
One day you may feel like you’re in control of your instrument and easily navigating chord progressions and then, after a particularly revealing lesson or intense jam session, you may realize that you sound like a beginner over those same progressions and have only started to understand your instrument.
Remember, as your ears change, your view of your own playing changes along with your definition of “great improvising.” When you encounter this shocking state where your ears suddenly change and you realize that you know nothing…Congratulations!- you’ve become aware of the next musical level. Now you can begin to work towards these new goals in the practice room and on the stage.
Instead of fearing this beginner-state and avoiding situations that make you feel this way, embrace them. The best jazz musicians in the world are always learning and looking to improve with the same enthusiasm as a beginner. Beware of the times when you feel too in control of the music and at the peak of your abilities, you are on the verge of becoming musically stale. When you are striving to improve and continually searching for more information, you are truly on your way to the next level.