4 Myths About Improvisation

Improvisation, the most widely practiced of all musical activities, is probably the least recognized or understood. Vague descriptions like, “making it up as you go along” or “playing off the top of your head” give no idea to the pervasiveness and power of improvisation in music. Perhaps the air of mystery that surrounds it is inevitable.

Derek Bailey, On the Edge: Improvisation in Music

Photo by Steve Korn

Common myths about improvisation contribute to the “air of mystery.” I’d like to address four of them.

1. You can’t practice improvisation

Although master improvisers don’t know exactly what will happen in a given performance, they have diligently practiced the process of creating music spontaneously. The same is true for great improv comedy groups.

This type of practice is different than the efficient and systematic practice we use to build technique and learn repertoire. Here are a few important elements:

– Experimentation

Creative improvisers work in a musical laboratory. Like scientists, our curiosity leads to experimentation. We learn as much from failed experiments as we do from successful ones.

– Play

We still say “play music,” although drilling hard passages, methodically practicing scales and long tones, and preparing for high-stakes performances may disconnect us from a playful practice.

In Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch writes,

Galumphing is the immaculately rambunctious and seemingly inexhaustible play-energy apparent in puppies, kittens, children, baby baboons. . .Galumphing is profligate, excessive, exaggerated, uneconomical. We galumph when we hop instead of walk, when we take the scenic route instead of the efficient one, when we play a game whose rules demand a limitation of our powers, when we are interested in means rather than in ends. We voluntarily create obstacles in our path and then enjoy overcoming them. In the higher animals and in people, it is of supreme evolutionary value.

Some of the best musicians I know are like kids on a playground when they play music. What may appear to be inefficient wandering is actually an important creative process at work. The play itself is fulfilling and rewarding.

Play Music by Ear

– Risk

Our best work in the practice room and on stage involves an element of risk. There is no risk-free dummies guide to becoming a creative artist. I encourage my students to embrace the mantra, “this might not work.”

We’re not flying airplanes or designing pacemakersthere are no life or death consequences to a failed musical experiment (although our inner critics may tell us otherwise!)

– Limitations

Self-imposed limitations are a proven strategy for inspiring creative work across many disciplines. See my article, “Unlock Creativity through the Power of Limits.”

2. You need a strong foundation in technique and theory before attempting to improvise

This myth is perpetuated by jazz education methods which front-load improvisation with a mountain of theory, scales, licks and patterns. There is no need to put off the creativity, you can improvise with the tools you have.

Some Suzuki teachers incorporate improvisation in the earliest lessons. A music school I teach at (Creative Music Adventures in Seattle) introduces improvisation to four-year-olds in group piano classes. This enriches their lesson experience and actually enhances their abilities to read music and memorize repertoire in the long run.

Of course, if you want to improvise over challenging jazz repertoire or improvise a cadenza for a Mozart piano concerto, you need a strong technical and theoretical foundation. But they are not prerequisites for playing creative music

3. Classical musicians don’t improvise

Today very few do, but for centuries, classical musicians were improvisers. See my article, “Improvisation IS the Classical Tradition.”

4. Composers and improvisers have a magical gift

I can’t tell you how many classically trained musicians tell me that they think that they lack the talent or creativity to improvise. Our culture and music education system may have conditioned them to think that way, but we don’t have to accept the false barrier between creation and performance.

Lack of natural talent and creativity is an imaginary barrier. For most musicians, the actual barrier is fear.


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