5 Solutions to Improvisation That Are Hidden In Plain Sight

Let’s face it, improvisation is hard enough as it is, even when we do spend the time in the practice room. But however much we study or practice, there are some key factors that can destroy our creativity and ability to improvise in seconds. We’ve all experienced this feeling before in performance. You hear an idea or a line in your head and for some reason or another it doesn’t come out of your instrument. It seems that something is preventing you from playing over those chord changes with ease. Sometimes it’s even hard just to find a good idea to play!

All too often we think the excuse lies in some area that we have no control over or we look for some hidden problem that is keeping us from playing the way we envision.

We get questions all the time from people encountering these issues with improvising. Most of the time people are looking for some hidden problem that is holding them back. I totally relate with this experience and remember looking to advanced harmonic concepts and special techniques to solve my problems.

Nine times out of ten however, the issue lies with one of 5 key areas of musicianship that I’ve listed below. Think of this list as the 5 pre-requisites that you need to have down before you graduate to improvising on the stage.

Without them, improvising is like trying to take the final exam after you’ve skipped all the classes – you’re going to be completely lost, frustrated, and utterly confused. However, once you’ve studied these pre-reqs and overcome their initial challenges, you’ll be much more successful in all the areas of your playing.

I. Instrumental technique

If you’re having trouble getting sound out of your instrument or something in your technique is making it difficult to play, this can create big problems when you attempt improvisation. When your first thought as you go to solo is “How do I play that note?” or “What is the fingering for that chord?” you’re going to have a hell of a time trying to be creative.

To fix this, just take a look at the way you practice. Yes, it’s fun to get into the practice room and play along with your favorite records for hours, but if you ignore your technique altogether it is going to hinder your ability to improvise. Etudes, long tones, finger exercises, articulation patterns – this is what it takes. Sure, it’s not as fun as mindlessly messing around with your favorite records, but at the end of the day you’re going to see improvement.

When your goal is to improvise with ease, sound production and technique on your instrument must be effortless. If your articulation is getting in the way of your flowing eighth note lines it will be hard to improvise. If your fingers are fumbling when you play in less familiar keys keys, it’s going to be difficult to improvise. If you are working too hard to produce sound on your instrument, you’re going to tire yourself out before you even start your solo.

Honestly, it will be hard to just play your instrument, let alone improvise at all, if technical issues are continually getting in your way. Do yourself a favor – master the technical aspects of your instrument: articulation, fingerings, proficiency in all 12 keys, sound production, range, and so on. You have enough to think about when you’re improvising and the basic mechanics of your instrument shouldn’t be something you have to worry about.

II. Theory

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.~Yogi Berra

There is a basic amount of music theory that you need to know to get by as an improviser. It may surprise you, but some people have completely ignored this aspect of improvising. Trying to play a ii-V line in E when you don’t know what the ii chord or the V chord is in the key of E is like trying to read without knowing the alphabet. Of course it’s going to be hard to improvise!

You don’t need to know a ton of music theory to get by and the good news is you can get most of it down through simple memorization and repetition. Start with the basics:

  • Know all of your Major scales, inside and out
  • Arpeggiate every diatonic chord in all 12 keys, (1, 3, 5, 7, 9 from every scale degree)
  • Understand all 12 keys and how they are related
  • Study the harmonic functions and qualities of each diatonic chord: I chord, ii chord, iii chord, IV chord, V7 chord, etc.
  • Know the basic chord progressions and harmonic relationships in every key: V-I , ii-V-I , iii-VI-ii-V, I-IV7-V7, etc.

You can go as far or get as advanced as you like, but this is a good place to start. Instead of skimming over each with a surface level understanding, aim to master each of these areas of theory – this is what you’ll need as an improviser. If you come across something in your practice that you don’t know, try to figure out why it works and if you’re still stuck, ask someone who knows.

If those theory basics listed above give you trouble, it just means that you need to do your homework. Use some visualization exercises or download this ebook for your practice room to study. Spend some time each day visualizing the diatonic arpeggios and the simple progressions in each key and burn them into your memory.

This might be the “easy part” for some of you and a challenging step for others, it all depends on how you were introduced to the music. If you began by studying music theory, this will be natural, however your ears are probably lacking (the section below is for you!). And if you learned predominantly by ear, you might need to brush up on your theory.

Either way, be honest with yourself and see where you stand. There are always areas in our playing that need improvement.

III. Ear training

We are all initially drawn to music with our ears, however for most us, we begin learning music with our minds. Scales, theory, chords, triads, time signatures, modes… these are the things we encounter in our very first music lessons. Almost instantaneously, that magical thing that we loved to listen to is turned into this jumble of confusing abstract information. We still avidly listen, but as we continue down this educational path, our understanding of music moves further and further away from the sound itself.

After awhile, we forget how to use our ears to analyze sound. We can still hear those melodies and chord progressions, we’re just stuck inside our heads trying to figure everything out. Sadly we don’t even give our ears a chance to get better.

Ear training is the number one thing holding most aspiring improvisers back. Not that they have bad ears, they just have ears that have gone undeveloped for years. Their ears have been ignored while allowing their minds to do the work for them.

If you continue to ignore your ears, improvisation will always be this difficult mystery that you’re fall short of solving time and time again. Transcribing will be this long, painstaking task. Identifying chord progressions and melodic fragments will remain an elusive pursuit. Learning melodies from the records will take hours instead of minutes.

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.~John Cage

The solution is easy. Start by incorporating some ear training exercises into your daily routine. We’ve written numerous article about ear training on this site: Fundamental Ear Training, Seventh Chord Exercises, Hearing Chord Tones in Context. Pick one and put your ears to the test. Remember to start simple, though. You may mentally understand concepts like tri-tone substitutions and altered dominants, but our ears are often lagging behind our brains, stuck where we left them years ago.

You don’t want to be this emotionless robot or giant brain that is analyzing chords and computing scales in real time. Improvisation should be that moment in time where everything comes together to create – the mind, the body, and the spirit. Even though you may not realize it, there are melodies inside of you that are unique to you – turn on your ears and give them a chance to come out.

IV. Language

Have you ever transcribed a solo? Do you know any ii-V lines? Have you studied any common ways to play over a Major 7th sound or a V7 sound?

If you don’t have any language, improvising can be frustrating and painstakingly difficult. After awhile you’re going to hit a wall running those same scales and patterns up and down. Along with ear training, language is the other important factor that is missing in many people’s playing.

Language gives you a solid place to start, instead of stumbling around in the dark alleys of chord progressions and hoping that you’ll eventually find your way out. With a musical phrase or idea ingrained into your ears and fingers, you have something concrete to work with and build upon.

The solos and lines that you transcribe are the models that teach you to speak the jazz language. Without them you’re helplessly left alone to piece together scales and chords.

Imagine giving a precocious infant, bursting at the seems to speak their first words an English language phrasebook. “Ok kid, here you go, give it your best shot!” With no aural or spoken model to copy, this poor child is left to its own devices to figure out how to speak. The result is going to be incomprehensible gibberish that no one can understand.

And this is what you hear from a lot of well-intentioned, but unprepared improvisers – gibberish. They haven’t listened to the records, they haven’t studied the language, and they’re doing their best with the music theory they’ve learned. This is where we are all headed if we don’t stop and take the time to get out the records and transcribe some language.

Start by learning one line over a Major 7th chord or a simple ii-V7 line. Then, apply this line to the tunes and chord progressions that you’re working on. With a solid idea to start with, you’ll quickly see that creative ideas will start to emerge. You can alter that language rhythmically, you can change the starting note, you can combine it with other ideas you have, you can omit or add notes as you please. It all depends on what you’re hearing and feeling in the moment, not on a predetermined scale or pattern.

V. Mindset

Taking a new step, uttering a new word is what people fear most.~Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fear is the number one killer of creativity in anything that you do. It’s not easy to get put on the spot in front of an audience and improvise. To pull off a successful performance we must overcome fear, self-doubt, and a myriad of distractions. Even though it may seem like an after-thought, your mindset has a lot to do with your creativity and ability to improvise on the band stand.

One way to overcome this situation is experience: the more you do it, the easier it gets. Get comfortable with getting in front of people and improvising. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Fear, distraction, lack of preparation, mistakes, and a judgmental audience are just a few of the things that can get in the way of a creative performance. However, each time you perform and improvise in front of an audience, you’ll become more comfortable and confident; in turn, focusing on the things that matter like the music itself.

The other way is to prepare yourself in the practice room. If you have those tunes and progressions down, if your technique is like a well-oiled machine, if your ears are on, and if you’re focused and in the moment, when you go onstage, you’ll have the confidence to play with ease and be creative.

Learn to let go when you get on stage and focus on being in the moment. There are going to be distractions in any performance and occasionally we must deal with nerves and fear. Trust yourself and the preparation you’ve done in the practice room and you’ll succeed every time.

Separate but equal

All five of these categories are important, and each one is interconnected to the next. You need to effortlessly produce sound on your instrument, you need to understand some basic chord progressions and theory, you need hear these progressions, you need to have some language over these progressions, you need to have your technique worked out in all 12 keys, and finally, you need to acquire a creative mindset.

Without any one of these, the process of improvisation falls apart or becomes increasingly difficult. No language? You’re stuck trying to somehow make melodies out of chords and scales. Can’t hear chords or melodies? Soloing becomes this unfulfilling mental exercise. Careless technique? You can’t execute the ideas you’re hearing in your head or effortlessly produce lines on your instrument. Don’t understand the basics of music theory?…I think you get the idea.

When you’re beginning to learn improvisation it can seem like there are secret techniques or information that you’re missing. This is easy to do and I can remember searching for answers in this way as well.

The answers, though,  are much simpler than we think, they just require some work. The problem lies with the fact that we’re continually just skimming the surface of understanding with these five key areas. We’ve barely explored what it means to have “good technique”, we get by with a loose mental understanding of theory, we’ve hardly trained our ears, in some cases we don’t have any language that we’ve transcribed, and we improvise with a hectic fear-based mindset.

However, we turn a blind eye to these issues and look to other things that must be causing the problem. “I just need to study more tri-tone subs…maybe if I study this new chromatic approach…I should practice more arpeggios.”

It takes some honesty and courage to admit that these “basic” areas are lacking in your playing, especially the older you get. It wasn’t until I went back and worked on ear training, transcribed some language, and renovated my technique that I truly began to improve at improvisation.

So, take a good look at your own practice and performance. Are you just skimming the surface in your practice or are you actually solving the problems in your playing? A truthful answer to this simple question can make a big difference in your practice and turn your playing around today.