Improvisation, Part 2: Not as Spontaneous as You Might Think

We all make a myriad of decisions each day of our lives. Many are made on the spur of the moment. What coat do I grab as I run out of the house in the morning? What route do I take for my drive to work today? Do I hit the brake or the gas pedal at this yellow traffic light? In this sense, we largely improvise our way through life. But when you think about it, some of these decisions we make are pretty sophisticated. We draw on our past experiences, our accumulated knowledge, and our perception of current conditions. And we do so incredibly quickly. Especially in the case of that yellow traffic light.

Improvised music may be one of the most sophisticated forms of human decision-making. Great improvisers can create a melody that, only moments before, they didn’t know they were going to produce. So in this sense, musical improvisation is undeniably spontaneous. Yet with closer consideration, we can see that improvisation is not entirely unplanned and without preparation.

The music that skilled improvisers make is preceded—if only by a split second—by the idea or intention to make it. Such musician don’t accidentally play that beautiful melody that fits the moment perfectly. It may be unrehearsed, but it’s not random. They are expressing themselves. The amazing thing is that they’re able to generate a musical idea so instantaneously, and do it repeatedly, and so quickly that each idea in succession is but a fleeting thought.

How do musicians come up with ideas that sound good in the moment? The ability to generate such ideas comes from much exposure to the style of music they’re playing or singing in. Musical improvising is necessarily preceded by much music listening. There are some great books out there about improvisation, and some great music teachers who can lead you through some great exercises. But these things are merely supplements to the requirement of doing lots and lots of listening.

But having ideas of what to do is only part of the process. How do ideas actually get realized…and so effortlessly at that? To explore this, let’s jump outside of music for a moment (as you can probably tell, I enjoy applying musical concepts to other aspects of human experience, and vice versa!). Let’s look to the world of comedy. In his book Blink, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell spends several pages considering the workings of an improv comedy group. He describes a team of comedians who can bring an audience to tears of laughter with a skit presented so smoothly that you’d swear they rehearsed it for days. Yet he clearly explains how “improv isn’t random or chaotic at all” but rather “an art form governed by a series of rules.” Gladwell maintains that within group improvisation like this, the amazing spontaneity is the result of hours of practice. The members of the troop have never rehearsed the specific skit that plays out for the audience in that moment, but they’ve all done things like it many times before. He states it articulately: “How good people’s decisions are under the fast-moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”

To become a fluent musical improviser, you need to practice. But the meaning of practice here is broader than is often used by many musicians. Improvising can be developed by formal practice or by more informal means. Formal practice might entail repeating scales, arpeggios and other motifs, in order to build a repertoire of patterns that is so assimilated that they can be drawn from immediately while improvising. But practice for improvisation can also be informal, and done in more authentic musical contexts. Many young musicians develop their improvising skills by simply jamming together, messing around while playing a vibe, and just “noodling” on their instruments constantly. There’s also a kind of middle ground between formal and informal practicing, such as when aspiring jazz musicians learn other performers’ improvised solos from recordings. (This is sometimes called transcribing a solo, although they don’t necessarily write it down.) They apply a deliberateness to this exercise that’s reminiscent of formal practice, but the material is definitely authentic music.

So although the specific contents of any single improvisation are created on the spot, that music does not happen without advanced preparation and planning. But by the time skilled improvisers hit the stage, they’ve logged a great deal of that preparation (through listening and practice), such that the planning or “ideating” happens almost reflexively. Jazz great Charlie Parker is said to have offered this advice: “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”

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14 responses to “Improvisation, Part 2: Not as Spontaneous as You Might Think

  1. Great post again, Bob. Now here’s my “big picture” reply:

    I find much of the typical pedagogy of improvisation to be governed by the same restrictive attitudes of classical right/wrong notes. Whereas the supposedly non-improvisational classical musician is in fact improvising the exact expressive nuances over the set notes, many of the more traditional jazz or pop improvisors are similarly strict, they’ve just moved the bar. In other words, both cases involve improvisation and rules, as you suggest in your post here. Jazz pedagogy can be very specific so that exact arpeggios and scales and patterns are used in a certain context. Flamenco guitar is in between jazz and classical: specific rehearsed melodies and such are used but the spontaneous improvisation involves which bits and what order.

    So if we consider this whole issue to be just a continuum from the subtly improvised nuances of classical to the still rule-based structures of jazz, we see (as I think is your point) that there isn’t really any change of mentality necessary to move along this continuum. Therefore, a great teaching approach is this: move along the continuum bit-by-bit. For example, go from (a) strict notes with improvised articulation to (b) strict pitches with improvised syncopations or other rhythmic variance to (c) add improvised note variants like move notes here and there to alternate chord notes to (d) add extra connecting notes passing / neighboring etc. to (e) improvise alternate melodies to come to set arrival notes to (f) choose alternate chordal arrival notes etc. etc.

    While all of that is great, I still have some personal problem with the fact that this still sticks to the same type of attitudes that gave us the classical musician who is so nervous about improvising. We follow implicit rules when improvising in language because we care to be understood and language has lexical meaning. So music doesn’t necessarily need to be as strict because its meaning isn’t so strictly referential. Whereas mixing grammar and vocabulary from multiple spoken languages along with totally free spontaneous gibberish does not function as effective language, I really enjoy musical fusions and truly free musical spontaneity. In order to have that though, we need to be able to sometimes actually drop the entire premise of rule-following and style-patterns. And we need to be less judgmental and more open to improvisation from the beginning — regardless of amount of musical exposure.

    While I agree with the points in your book that it is not healthy to actively avoid the influence of outside music (as classical musicians sometimes to when determining their own particular interpretations of a piece), I really sympathize with the concern that leads to this: the idea that following all the rules and influences homogenizes music and kills potentially exciting novel ideas. This idea may be flawed, but there’s something to it. The formally schooled traditional jazz musicians with their rules for improvisation often leave me flat as a listener. I like it best when the improvisation is truly open enough that “wrong” notes actually happen because the improvisor doesn’t follow rules.

    I think my biggest point is simply:
    One can maintain the right/wrong strict dichotomy while improvising more and more, but I think the deepest value comes when we drop that attitude entirely. We can still learn rules (or not), but we have to be comfortable with “errors”. Think of football: how many fans would go see a choreographed game, or even one where everyone carefully followed all the rules strictly enough that no errors were made… boring…. Improvisation is far more exciting and real when concern about mistakes are minimized, and risks are taken, and musicians are not so perfectly practiced in their scales and other bits, and everything is more raw, at least for my taste.

    • Aaron – Great thoughts again. I’m kind of flattered that you choose to offer them here on my blog instead of your own great site. :)

      Your football analogy is great. Some coaches would love to see their players execute the play exactly the way they draw it up in Xs and Os. Yet, it rarely happens like that. The really exciting players are those who can work within the system of the offense or defense, yet make things happen in the moment. They improvise…and if they’re good at it, they do it to their fans’ delight. But even at their most spontaneous, they’re still subject to certain “rules.” A running back is not going to be hailed as “creative” if he runs the wrong direction or illegally passes the ball. In the same way, in music, I think there remains a lot of room for originality while still fitting within the broader rules that define the genre. But what you’re probably getting at, is that every so often someone comes along who breaks even broadest rules and redefines the genre. Or creates a new one.

      • Thanks, Bob. I may in fact rewrite my reply here for a post at my site (and maybe link back to yours as well).

        I think what I’m getting at is actually that I am not a big football fan. I enjoy participating more than spectating, both in sports and in music. And while I truly acknowledge the value and deep cultural heritage of the rules of the game, I also appreciate Calvinball.

        I also dislike the ethnocentrism of most rule-following musicians. No football player ever equates the particular rules of football to “how sports work,” yet Western musicians especially have a tendency to ignorantly imply that the rules of the Western game of music explain music as a whole. This leads me to want to actively break the rules in part from some resentment for that ethnocentrism. In situations where this ethnocentrism is absent, I’m less inclined toward such iconoclasm… On the other hand, breaking the rules can be the best route to testing their validity: if the broken rule really damages the result, then we know it was a good rule, so I’m also motivated by my curiosity about music. I acknowledge not all musicians have my attitudes though.

        Look for a future post at my blog on this… thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Excellent…thanks for posting this, Bob! It succinctly covers all the important points about “practicing and preparing for improvisation”. Well done.

    Eric Richards

    • Eric – I’m so glad you stopped by to check out this post. Given your expertise on the topic, your feedback is greatly valued. I hope we have a chance to talk more about these things very soon!

  3. I love your point about “noodling” and “messing around” as valid ways of practice. I think this exploratory mentality is important not only for use in improvisation or in creating melodies, but in all aspects of performance and study (posture, tone, etc.). The tricky part is integrating this idea into the classroom – total license for students can be unhelpful and unhealthy, but the opposite is just as detrimental to long-term growth and musicianship. Finding that balance can be difficult for teachers, especially when they feel that progress is not being made fast enough, or that classroom management is slipping away from them, or that they have no idea how to assess outside of a right/wrong, yes/no paradigm. We’re comfortable with yes/no, because we were often taught that way and it’s easier to assess. Any tips for aspiring (or for that matter, firmly entrenched) teachers on how to inculcate this type of thinking from the very beginning in all aspects of musical study?

    -Pondering in South Dakota

    • Ben – I appreciate your comments. I hear where you’re coming from too. It’s kind of overwhelming to think about changing music education to truly instill a valuing of improvisation. That said, many teachers are doing it. As for your question about how to do it, I plan to address that in the third (and final) installment…

  4. Its interesting to explore the concept of improvising music as an extension of our every day lives–speaking, acting, reacting, etc. I wonder where we draw the line between rehearsed performance and improvising? The graduated scale that, for the most part, is a blend of the two is perhaps what makes improvising so intangible and special. Thanks so much for the post!

    –Adam

    • Adam – Thanks for visiting! You bring up an interesting point about the line between rehearsed performance and improvisation. Probably a great deal of music making (and speaking…and acting…) happen in between the two. As a general rule, I’m all for the blurring of lines. Maybe it’s the older I get, I’m gaining more and more appreciation for the gray area!

  5. Catherine Shefski

    Bob,

    I’m looking forward to that 3rd installment … about teaching improvisation.

    I’ve had the most success with the very youngest students when I have them tell me a story and then we put the story to “music” on the piano. They haven’t learned the “rules” yet. As the students get further into their piano studies, the harder it is for them to break the rules. Many are self-conscious, others are just not interested.

    What I’d love to do is instill some “garage-band” mentality into my piano students. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on this..

    Cathy

    • Cathy – Good observations. It may be a normal part of musical development for children to go from being eager improvisers to more inhibited. It could be that they are just becoming more aware of what “real” music sounds like and can identify the difference between what they do and what they hear on recordings and in more advanced musicians. So it’s probably really important to work to make lessons (and other musical settings) a safe environment for them, where they can experiment musically and expect the feedback they get to be approving rather than critical. In many formal musical settings, however, that’s not often the case. We operate by identifying the problem spots in a piece of music, or work on improving students’ weaknesses. It could be that a key component of the garage band mentality is greater acceptance of musical exploration, and less concern about doing things correctly. Thanks for bringing this up…you’ve got my mind racing again!

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  7. I am with you, Bob — I am appreciating (and actually enjoying!) the “gray area”, as you mentioned to Adam, more as I get older. And, a great point to be made, — about being prepared with each of the elements of musicality so that during improvisation these can be “grabbed” whenever needed.

    Again, great post!

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