Overcoming Creative Blocks as an Improviser

Despite what everyone thinks, being creative isn’t easy. You don’t just suddenly find yourself with talent one day and immediately start creating great works of art. It takes years of hard work to develop artistic skills and once you have these skills, it’s no guarantee that your artistic vision will always find a way to express itself. Creative people of all types encounter a block at some point in their work. There are a number of outside sources that can cause this block: nerves, pressure, fear, exhaustion, etc. But, the ones that really hold us up are the obstacles that come from within ourselves.

We’ve all heard of writer’s block, however creative troubles don’t just affect that desperate writer struggling to start the first word of that first sentence, they affect artists of all types. The dejected composer sitting at the piano amid a mountain of blank staff paper. The sleep deprived painter with a glazed-over look, staring at a hopelessly blank canvas.

And familiar to all of us, the struggling improviser running through the chord progression to All the Things for the bazillionth time searching for a new line, a new sound, a new approach…anything new to play.

Sometimes this is the way it is, you just hit a wall.

Being inventive, imaginative, and spontaneous on a daily basis isn’t easy and when you finally hit that wall it can be a huge hurdle to get over it. No ideas, frustration, boredom, and a complete creative standstill.

At one time or another we all hit a creative wall and if you are working on developing as an improviser, this happens more frequently than you might think.

“Everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”~Sylvia Plath

Rather than try to avoid this creative block, it’s more realistic to find ways to overcome this inevitable wall. If you learn some key tactics to overcoming this musical brain freeze, you can find a way to be creative and productive everyday.

Here are 5 tricks to unblocking your creative flow as an improviser:

1) Pick one idea and stick with it

If you find yourself stuck on a tune, bored with your playing, or at a loss as to what you should practice first, the problem is a simple one, yet one that’s hard to see. You’re trying to tackle too much at once: too many tunes, too many chords, too many harmonic concepts, too many scales, too many lines, too many transcriptions…

It’s simple Information overload.

When your mind is confronted with unlimited possibilities, it freaks out and shuts down. With too many options to think about as you improvise your mind draws a blank and reverts to it’s old habits.

When this happens, turn the tables on the creative process. Instead of looking at that chord progression as having limitless possibilities, pick one simple idea to focus on. With this singular idea, your mind will automatically start to come up with new ideas. Other options, other permutations, other ways to – now the creative engine has started running.

You can even make a game out of this concept. Take the tune that you’re working on – the one where you’ve completely run out of ideas and are stuck in a major rut on. Maybe it’s All the Things You Are.

On a piece of paper you are going to write out “creative ideas.” This could be different rhythms, it could be language you’ve transcribed, it could be a harmonic concept, it could be an articulation, or even a mindset.

A sample list might look like this:

“Creative Ideas”

  • Play triplets instead of eighth notes
  • Tri-tone substitution on V7 chords
  • Use a Major line from a transcribed solo on Major chords
  • Start lines on the upbeats – no downbeats
  • Play in the low register
  • Begin or end your lines on the 3rd of every chord
  • Sing a chorus instead of playing it on your instrument
  • Use more space: play for four bars, rest for four bars
  • Use the intervals or rhythm of a transcribed line as a motif for your solo

Put all of these items on separate note cards. When you’re practicing a tune and you feel like you’ve run out of ideas, pick one of these note cards out of the stack at random. This will be the one idea you’re going to use for your solo.

Let’s say you picked “tritone substitution on V7.” For your next solo you’re only going to focus on substituting those V7 chords. Or say you picked “Use more space,” play an idea then rest for four bars, then play another idea.

This simple exercise will break you free from your ingrained habits and stale mindset. One idea will spark new ideas and different possibilities. Instead of trying to incorporate every harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic idea ever created into your solo, take that one idea and vary it a little. This is what our minds are good at, this is creativity at work.

2) Pretend you are another jazz musician and play in their style

Remember when you were a little kid and played dress up? With a child’s imagination, you could put on a costume and become a character, you could create a new world full of possibilities. Even a simple prop like a hat, a cape made from an old blanket, or a pair of your parents’ glasses was enough to fuel the imagination to create another character.

When your own creative juices have run dry, this childhood game may be just the thing to find your creativity again. Its time to step outside of yourself for a moment. Become another character, another personality, another improviser.

Take one of your musical heroes and step into their shoes for a moment. Rather than approach soloing from  your stale mindset, approach it from completely different perspective  – that of a musical master.

This is easy to do, just turn on a record of an improviser with a unique approach and imitate that style. You don’t have to transcribe the solo note for note, just copy their sound, their articulation, the style of the way they swing. Get that sound into your ear and then try to become that player.

As a trumpet player I might put on a Clark Terry record and imitate his articulation, his style of swing, and his sound. Again, you don’t have to transcribe for hours, simply listening to one tune will get you into that space. It’s all about the subtleties.

After immersing yourself go back to that tune you were having trouble with. Put on Clark Terry’s hat, try on Chet’s glasses, or speak with Freddie’s accent. Become that musical personality and see the music through their eyes and ears.

Now try improvising another chorus. You’ll be shocked at what a little musical role playing can do for your creativity.

3) Practice with a friend

When we’re practicing alone, completely left to our own devices, we tend to fall into the same pattern over and over again. We play it safe and stick to what’s familiar and comfortable. This in turn, leads to reinforcing the same material over and over again.

It’s not that much fun to have a conversation with yourself, believe me I’ve tried. However, this is what improvising with a play-a-long in the practice room is like – a one-sided conversation where you know exactly what is going to be said word for word.

To be creative, we need outside input, another mind or minds providing musical input. Fresh ideas and a sounding board for the ideas we are coming up with.

The solution is simple, find someone else to practice with. It could be someone on your instrument, a drummer, a bassist, a singer – anyone. There are a number of exercises out there to spark the creativity when playing with another musician or even by yourself.

Hearing someone else improvise will spark ideas in your mind. You’ll be forced to come up with something new. It’s like a type of performance, you don’t want to play the same stuff in front of an audience, you need to find something original. Those old licks and patterns have to be thrown out, it’s time to really improvise.

4) Stop playing

Yes you read that correctly. Stop playing right now. Get out of the practice room and get away from your instrument.

If you’re feeling creatively stuck, playing the same solos over the same tunes everyday and can’t come up with anything new – you need to hit the reset button. It’s time to think about something other than music and chords and tunes and scales.

It’s easy for our minds to get stuck in the same pattern of thinking, especially when we do something everyday. Routines and thought patterns become hardwired into our brains. Day after day we are reinforcing these patterns and lines and eventually we develop a musical tunnel vision. Improvisation turns into memorized licks and predictable patterns.

If this sounds like you, this is a wake up call that you need a break from your stale routine. Get out of the practice room, listen to some new music, something that’s not jazz. Break your routine, go for a weekend trip, go see a movie, whatever it takes to refresh your mind and musical approach.

When you come back, you’ll find that you can see these familiar chords in a new light. You will have recharged your creative battery.

5) Find some inspiration

Being creative is about finding that creative mindset, that space where you can be free and productive everyday. Think about creativity like an internal fountain that you can tap into; somedays you’re swimming in ideas and other days it’s as if the well has run completely dry.

On tough days finding that creative inspiration can be especially difficult and seemingly impossible, but on good days we can barely keep up with all the ideas that are pouring out. When you encounter a particularly tough day, just remember that you can always tap into that flow of creativity if you know how to look for it.

It’s all about getting into the mental space where you are excited and energized about being creative. Remember how it felt when you first discovered your favorite record or improviser or saw a concert that totally blew you away. You couldn’t wait to get into the practice room and you couldn’t stop thinking about playing.

This is what you’re aiming for as you go to practice improvisation. However transitioning into this creative musical mindset is sometimes a feat in itself.

You are not in the most creative space after a long stressful day of work and when you have a deadline approaching, it seems like the creative process comes to a standstill. The majority of musicians I know have a limited amount of time to practice. This is just the reality of living as a musician. You almost have to be creative on demand, turning on that creativity when you can find a few spare minutes to get into the practice room.

This can be an artistic buzz kill, but if you know how to tap into your intrinsic creative flow you can be productive even in the most difficult of times.

The solution can be as simple as some focused listening to the music that moves you, watching a video that inspires you, or being around musicians that push you to be better. The potential for a great practice session is always there. Connect with that beginning musician inside of yourself that is enthusiastic about the music, where there are no limitations and infinite possibilities.

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