Dissolve the Fear of Improvisation (Video)

Fear and anxiety are the biggest roadblocks to creative music making. The good news is the right strategies can ease the most profound phobias.

“Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie” by William Gottlieb. Courtesy of The Library of Congress

The fears of being put on the spot, making a mistake, embarrassing ourselves, not knowing what to play, and being judged are variations on a common theme: not wanting to look like a fool in front of other people.

The fear of social rejection runs deep in our biology—it actually activates the same neural alarm system as a physical threat. This is why any type of public speaking or performance can so terrifying even when there is no physical danger. The typical jazz education model amplifies these fears when students are asked to take turns playing solos in front of their peers (often with inadequate preparation).

Actors have been using games to build trust and generate new material for decades, but musicians are late to the party. For new improvisers of all ages, community games and activities solve the anxiety problem in two important ways:

1. Connection

Community-building games align the practice of improvisation with our deep-seeded need for social connection and acceptance. When we’re having fun making music with our friends, the fight-or-flight response melts away.

2. Focus

Attainable and novel challenges drive our focus into the present moment. Too little stimulation leads to boredom, and too much challenge instils anxiety. Choosing the right game or activity can hit the sweet spot of “flow.” This is why sports, video games, music, crafts, and hobbies can absorb our attention for hours at a time. The latest research shows this level of focus shuts off the brain’s inner-critic. 1

Watch me lead a round of “Guess the Animal” at the 2017 Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival with a mixed group of middle and high school instrumentalists and vocalists.

On the surface, the musical results are goofy, but this process is a gateway to deeper creative practices: jazz improvisation, composition, fearless performances, and more. One of my mentors W. A. Mathieu says “the purpose of musical games is not to generate a polished product, but to make musicians feel safe, adventuresome, and confident in the creative process.”

Earlier this month, a friend of mine was teaching blues improvisation in a low brass sectional and asked for my help. Immediately a little tuba player huffed “I am NOT improvising,” to which I replied, “That’s fine, we’re not improvising. We’re playing the ‘Question Answer” game. You play a phrase that ends going up, and your buddy will answer with a phrase that goes down.” Suddenly everyone jumped in and had a good time playing call and response phrases. (Later, I had to break the news to tuba kid that I tricked him into improvising.)

These prompts, games, and exercises help build trust, camaraderie, and a culture of creativity. Nurturing this type of culture is my secret for launching successful middle school and high school jazz programs, and it forms the foundation for my Game Symphony Workshop for classically-trained musicians.

Download free materials and start playing:

Summer Workshops

Interested in joining me and a community of musicians for a workshop this summer?


Game Symphony Workshop
August 12 – 13, 2017
Seattle Pacific University
Registration is now open, only 20 spots available
See the workshop in action and register at http://gamesymphonyworkshop.com/

High School and College Students

I’m the improvisation director of the Common Tone Arts Music Academy, a program that trains musicians to thrive artistically and professionally in the 21st century.
June 25th – July 1st
Whidbey Island, WA
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1. See Charles Limb’s groundbreaking research on the neuroscience of improvisation and The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance by Steven Kotler.