How Rock Climbing Taught Me How to Approach Improvisation

The torrential rain won’t stop. Day after day it pours, keeping us inside. After an epic winter, the weather lightens up and the sun soaks up the moisture on the rocks. Finally, rock climbing season is in full swing. I make the trek up to the boulders, chalk up my hands, and go to town. I know what you’re thinking. What does rock climbing have to do with learning how to improvise? Am I even at the right site? What the heck is he talking about?

Relax. You’re at the right site. This is a site about jazz improvisation. But learning how to improvise is not so cut and dry. And many aspects of your life will provide surprising insight into how to approach your musical endeavors.

I’ve been an avid rock climber since I was in my early teens. The serenity of nature combined with the superhero-feeling of ascending vertical towers of rock; there’s nothing quite like it.

Steadily improving at this deceptively cerebral activity has led me to some unique ideas about how to approach learning improvisation. No need to be a climber or to even have known that it was a sport to gain value from these points. And perhaps it will inspire you to look to other parts of your life for alternate perspectives on how to learn this music.

Returning to a solid base

The endless rain I described at the beginning of this article accurately describes the weather of this past year in much of the States. Unfortunately, rain makes for horrific climbing.

After much time spent indoors, the weather cleared up, and I finally got outside to the rocks. You’d think after eight months of climbing I’d have to start at a significantly lower level than I was used to, yet I simply hopped on the same climbs that I worked up to last season.

How’s this possible? Go months without doing something and just be able to start up where you left off. It’s possible because I’ve spent years building a solid base and ingraining the basics of the sport, the body movements that make up many of the same situations one will encounter. I’ve “wired” the precise movements of particular climbs to the point that I don’t have to think about them. I just do them.

Similarly, despite time away or less time spent practicing because of a busy performance schedule, building up a solid base in the realm of improvisation results in the ability to consistently return to a particular level of competence.

Thinking in terms of developing a solid base curbs the overwhelming feeling that learning jazz improvisation is endless because it puts a finite amount of work on the infinite amount of information you could explore.

Start by determining what you would consider a solid base and focus on it until you’ve got it. Here’s a suggestion for what this base could include:

  • A Blues, known inside-and-out, fluently in all keys
  • A Rhythm changes tune, known inside-and-out, fluently in all keys
  • A ballad, known inside-and-out, fluently in all keys
  • A few standards at various tempos, known inside-and-out, fluently in all keys
  • 10 pieces of jazz language, known inside and out, in all keys
  • A clear idea of what you want your sound (tone) to be

You can handle that, right? Putting it this way, at first glance it doesn’t appear to be much work, but actually playing how you want to with this finite amount of material takes time and dedication. Just think though if you could always, at the bare minimum, return to this base of knowledge every time you pick up your horn even if you haven’t played in months.

By building this base, you’ll always have something to append your new knowledge to. Over time, your base expands to include this new knowledge and you’ll consistently return to this higher-level in the future. Thinking in terms of developing a base and constantly expanding it will help you learn a smaller amount of information in a deeper manner. You’ll find yourself retaining more information and learning to concepts with ease.

Approaching tunes like “Boulder problems”

Each climb is about problem solving. Whether it be a “route,” (a full-fledged climb, typically involving ropes), or a “boulder problem.”

Although once strictly used for training purposes, over the last few decades, bouldering has emerged as it’s own art from. Rather than using ropes and ascending hundreds or thousands of feet, bouldering typically uses no ropes and stays much closer to the ground.

To differentiate between these tall climbs, the name for each climb in the genre of bouldering is a boulder problem. The idea is exactly what it sounds like. Each boulder problem presents some sort of unique challenge, solved through critical problem solving, not unlike working out a math problem.

Tunes are similar to boulder problems. They each have their own unique problems that you learn by returning to again and again, each time approaching them with more insight than before.

Often a climber will pick a boulder problem and work on it day after day, figuring each move in the sequence, and slowly link them together. They’ll lap the sections that give them the most difficulty, until the strenuous sections are wired.

Again, treating tunes in a similar fashion will produce successful results: work on a tune day after day, isolate each section looping the most difficult, and eventually link them together.

Approaching one boulder problem at a time is also very common.They call this focused-effort a “project.” They have their standard circuit of boulder problems they run through, but then they also have something that they’re working on that’s just above their current level. By focusing concentrated effort on that particular problem, they naturally expand their ability.

Similarly, as a musician, your circuit would be what you build up in your base as disscussed earlier. Then, your project would be a tune, progressions, or technique that’s just above your current level.

Thinking of tunes like boulder problems may seem like a stretch, but the way one successfully completes a boulder problem and the way an improviser plays a successful chorus on a standard share a similar mode of thought.

Discovering beta

Beta is the collection of little tricks that help a climber climb a boulder problem or route. Often, the most minute detail, the way you grab a handhold or the angle of your foot, will keep you from completing a problem. Knowing the correct beta is the difference between “sending” (sending means completing in rock climber vernacular) and falling.

When you first start to climb, you get Beta one of two ways: by watching other people climb or by other climbers sharing it with you. As you become more familiar with the various tricks that pop up time and time again, it’s much easier for you to discover the beta to a climb on your own.

The same is true with each chord, progression, and tune. Each has their own “musical beta” which when you know, makes it quite easy. For instance, the first time I transcribed a ii V from Sonny Rollins, I had a revelation. I thought I knew what I was doing before, but in reality, things were just slightly off. These slight discrepancies in understanding make all the difference in the end result. This is just like discovering the beta to a boulder problem.

It’s all in the subtlety. One finger gripping a hold incorrectly and you’re not sending. Same with improvising; a subtle way you phrase or articulate, a specific string of notes…these minute details that seem like no big deal are the difference between sounding the way you want and fumbling over the changes. Contrary to what most self-help books say, in rock climbing and improvising, do sweat the small stuff.

Just as in climbing, in improvising you initially learn this beta one of two ways: you hear somebody do it and copy them (like watching a climber do the problem you want to do), or somebody guides you step by step through the process. And again, like climbing, the more you learn beta from people that know what they’re doing (in this case, the jazz legends) the more you can figure out the beta to a chord, progression or tune, by yourself.

Looking in unlikely places for clues

Use this article as a model. Take it unto yourself to draw parrells from your own activites in your life to music, figuring out how one can influence the other. Maybe you’re a painter, or a writer. How could these things lead to breakthroughs in your music? They could affect the way you practice jazz as rock climbing has done for me, or they may change the way you perform.

Look beyond the obvious for new perspectives. You’ll surprise yourself with how much your expertise at one thing can help you learn another.