What Should You Think About While Improvising?

Playing what your hear? The chord changes? The melody? Listening to the band? Remembering licks you practiced? Nothing at all?

Finding the Zone

Some of the greatest improvisers describe a peak speak of non-thinking, known as being “in the zone” or a flow state. In a 2014 NPR interview, Sonny Rollins says, “When I play, what I try to do is to reach my subconscious level. I don’t want to overtly think about anything, because you can’t think and play at the same time — believe me, I’ve tried it. It goes by too fast.”

Here’s saxophone master Chris Potter describing the same state:

Of course, simply “not thinking” doesn’t usually work. After reading Kenny Werner’s Effortless Mastery in college, I tried to not think while performing. But when thoughts popped up, I started thinking about not thinking. This didn’t generate great results.

Attention Training

Flow is a state of deep concentration, not just an empty head. Before arriving at the pinnacle “not thinking, music flowing” stage, we can direct our attention to specific areas that allow us to improvise better music. What areas are these? This is where you get to experiment.

In his Beyond Practicing course, performance psychologist Noa Kageyama (Juilliard, The Bulletproof Musician) tells us that practicing for performance is an entirely different mindset and skill set than perfecting our skills in the practice room. He points to decades of research in sports psychology that will help musicians perform at our best, even under pressure. Fundamentally, in performance, we want to direct our attention to the sound of our performance in real-time, rather than focusing on the mechanics, theory, or motor skills needed to execute it. After many hours in the practice room, we can trust our bodies to create the sounds we want to hear.

Focus Anchors

Flow only happens in the now, so focus anchors help us direct our attention to the present tense. The point is to keep your conscious mind engaged and occupied with an anchor, and to begin trusting your subconscious mind to take over.

These strategies are only effective for tunes you have totally internalized. If you are concentrating on the mechanics of playing your instrument or trying to remember what chord change is next, you won’t have the bandwidth to focus on the anchors. Choose a piece you know really well, or start with a free improvisation. In Harmonic Experience, W. A. Mathieu notes, “transcending knowledge is different from not having any.”

Shift all of your attention to a single point of focus and improvise a solo. Be sure to record yourself, because you may not remember what/how well you played. Announce each anchor out loud so when you listen back you know which are most effective. This list can get you started, but experiment with any point of focus that drives you into the present moment.

Before playing a note:

  • Imagine with total clarity the music you seek to create.
  • Recall the performances where you played and felt your best. Where where you? Who was there? What did it sound like? Most importantly, recall how the experience felt in your body at an emotional level.

Physical Anchors

  • The physical sensation of the vibrations of your instrument
  • Deep diaphragmatic breaths (especially for wind players)
  • Relaxing key muscle groups (shoulders, arms, brow, etc)

Auditory Anchors

  • Get absorbed in the tone of your instrument
  • Focus on the sounds of a specific instrument (cymbals, bass etc)
  • Listen to the entire ensemble
  • Observe ambient sounds in the room

Visualization Anchors

  • Imagine the visual shapes and colors of the sounds you are creating
  • Imagine a scene or narrative
  • Assume the persona of one of your favorite players (or non-musicians)
  • Chanel a specific emotional state

Limitation Anchors

Focus on a specific approach to improvisation:

  • Lyrical
  • In the pocket
  • Motivic
  • Variation on the melody
  • Interactive call and response with rhythm section
  • Get more ideas in my book Creativity Triggers for Musicians which you can download for free.

Come up with your own—the possibilities are endless.


A meditation practice is stellar concentration and focus training. In addition to lowering anxiety, it helps us direct our attention exactly where we want it to go. (Tara Brach’s guided meditations helped me start a daily practice: Web, iTunes.)

Even if you don’t get into the effortless, “the instrument plays itself” zone right away, this level of deliberate focus can make a huge difference in your playing. And it may be your gateway to the zone.

– ST

Download a free copy of my Amazon bestselling book Creativity Triggers for Musicians when you subscribe to my email newsletter.