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October 06, 2004

Improv 101

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Any musicians out there? Any musicians who can really, really improvise? If so, I am astounded, impressed, awed even. How do you do it? I tried my hand at piano a few years back, with a teacher who was to put me on the path to jazz improv. Nothing happened of any consequence.

For the life of me, I could not begin to fathom how musical improvisation could possibly take place. Indeed, but for the fact that accounts of it happening seemed credible, I could just as easily have believed it was all an elaborate ruse, like the doctoral student in Ionesco's The Lesson , the one who could neither add nor subtract but nonetheless performed prodigious feats of bogus calculation after memorizing all possible multiplication tables.

Then I read a very interesting book entitled Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. It helped clear up some of the mystery.

Among other things, it made clear that the principles of musical improvisation carry over to the most mundane activities, like speaking out loud, which then appear quite magical as a result. How in the world does it happen that we can articulate cogent sentences, short talks and even eloquent statements without really knowing first what we are going to say? Indeed, if I did not experience the process first-hand, I might suspect it, too, all a ruse.

So it's nice to know I improvise, and do it every day. It helps me understand better what is going through the minds, and fingers, of those jazz pianists I tried unsuccessfully to emulate. I'll stick to speaking and writing.

By the way, here's a nice quote from the book:

Looking out, now, over the ocean, the birds, the vegetation, I see that absolutely everything in nature arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits.

Stephen Nachmanovitch



posted by Fenster at October 6, 2004


Unfortunately, my own improvisatory abilities on the classical guitar aren't that great. I'm a little better on piano, but everything I can come up with sounds new-agey; I couldn't improvise jazz or classical to save my life.

Now J.S. Bach -- there was someone who could improvise.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on October 7, 2004 1:30 PM

I've read that book as well, and I have the same problem with my improvisations as Stuart - overuse of the sustain pedal and Maj7 chords can really make it seem like I'm channeling the spirits of Windham Hill.

As "Free Play" discusses, the other problem with "learning" improvisation from books (and maybe teachers) is the reliance on the analytical side rather than the intuitive side in improvising. Yes, in the great improvisers you can dissect what they did and put it into rules - which a ton of jazz books have done. And no doubt that these improvisers do know what they are doing technically. But it is obvious that their improvisations don't come from knowledge of the rules - it really comes from an intuitive response informed by a lot of knowledge until it is second nature. That is why I think a better approach to learn improvisation may be to develop that intuitive sense first (by easy steps) and then learn what the rule is from what you did.

Posted by: Jim on October 7, 2004 1:47 PM

The secret to improvisation, as far as I can tell, is to walk in with a specific shape, goal or plan in mind. Look at Kind of Blue, an album from which you can learn fundamentals of jazz improv. Davis' solos in particular have a clean, rigorous line to them; they rise and fall in arc-like patterns. But all the soloists seem to have a clear idea of where they're going and how they'll get there.

In Bach's era, most classical musicians were improvisers.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 8, 2004 12:52 PM

In terms of verbal improvisation: I would think that the person most likely to come up with the more interesting, varied sentences or phrases, is the person stocked higgledy piggledy to overflowing with all kinds of unrelated information -- a voracious reader with catholic tastes, for example.
Of course, such a person could also be a boring pedant.
But without a rich stew of words and references to draw on improvisation is necessarily limited.

Posted by: ricpic on October 8, 2004 2:44 PM

From my own experience as a jazz pianist, I think people tend to overemphasize the significance of "improvisation" in jazz.

I can see how to someone trained in playing "through-composed" music there might be some mental blocks associated with suddenly having to make it up as you go along.

But I think learning the vocabulary of jazz (harmonic, rhythmic, etc.) is by far the bigger task for the would-be jazz musician.

That's why someone with only a little experience sounds like a windham hill record -- it's not that you're lacking some spontaneous creative insight which would suddenly let you churn out Bud Powell licks -- it's that those all-white-key major sevenths are the only thing your fingers really know how to do (yet).

And even after the laborious enterprise of learning the jazz vocabulary, I think the more subtle refinements which a fluent musician works on have a lot more to do with phrasing, timing, dynamics, etc. -- basic musical concepts which apply equally to non-improvised music -- than to trying to play something so spontaneous it's never been done before.

Unless you're Keith Jarrett or something.

Posted by: Dave on October 12, 2004 12:51 PM

Jazz improv comes from exhaustive practice of scales and fingering patterns (I played trumpet) until those patterns are second nature, until you don't have to think about what notes to play under a B flat chord. And listening and dissecting the greats, I'm talking endless hours. It really takes a tremendous amount of effort. I was OK back inthe day. I was fortunate enough to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1986 with the High SChool All stars that included Josh Redman (was called Josh Shedroff at the time) and many other fantastically talented musicians. We would sit for hours analyzing a Coltrane solo note by fucking note, like "why did he choose to play the flatted fifth." Really tedious stuff to an outsider. One of the alto players, Ben Ball, could play sosls by Miles or Coltrane or Cannonball Adderly note for note.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that god improv is the result of 1000's of hours of practice and listening.

Posted by: sac on October 13, 2004 4:27 PM

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