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.”