5 Ways to Make Improvisation Less Scary
by Jessica Brandon
Improvisation began its roots in jazz, but today it’s done across all genres so it’s become a useful skill for musicians to keep in their arsenal, however, it’s a daunting task for some so there remains this one pressing question. How do we make improvisation less scary?
- Identifying the Key
There are many different methods of identifying the key and finding out which scale to use. I think the simplest is finding the common tones between chords and progressions. Let’s take a simple 2-5-1 progression in C Maj. We have Dmin7 first, then G7, then C Major7. We can do a few things with this. For some more developed musicians, D could be considered a tonic because it’s the first chord. One could play a D Dorian scale (D minor with raised 6), but another option is seeing that C major is our arrival (I) chord, we could also play C Major, but either scales work! It’s important to look at the first and last chord in the progression as those will oftentimes tell you what key you’re in or what scale you’re using. As my jazz teacher said, “Don’t look at the individual trees. Look at the entire forest”. What he means is to look at groupings of chords rather than one chord at a time. You’ll overload your brain with information looking at each bar and overthink yourself into freezing up. If your first chord is Bb Major, odds are the song is in Bb Major and you can use that scale. This is not always the case, but for simpler 4 chord progressions this rings true.
- Take Things Slowly at First and Break it Down
You’re going to be enticed to want to open up the song and start soloing over it at the written tempo, but like most other acquired skills, it’s important to take your time and play through it slowly. Start by taking it at half tempo and playing the arpeggios of each chord one bar at a time. For instance, if my progression is I-vi-ii-V in C (C Maj7, A min7, D min7, G7), I’ll play a C Maj7 (I) arpeggio for one bar, then an A min7 (vi) arpeggio for the second bar, then a D min7 (ii) arpeggio for the third bar, then a G7 (V) arpeggio for the final bar. This will get you familiar with the chord changes, and it’ll allow you to hear where the tune is going. If you get the arpeggios down, you can start to play scales over each chord. What I do is I play the scales starting on the root of each chord one bar at a time while staying in the tonic (I) key. My first chord here (using the previous I-vi-ii-V progression) is C Maj7, so I’d start in bar one with a C Major scale for 4 counts. In bar 2, I have an A min chord (vi), so just start on A (the vi scale degree) and move up C Major from there for 4 counts. I can do this for the next 2 chords as well and I can start to connect those scales to build ideas!
- Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes and Use Repetition
One of my favorite things about the idea of soloing and improv is that mistakes are inevitable, however, there’s a really important lesson that ties into life which is, mistakes will happen but just keep going. What you can do on top of that to really sell your idea is to keep repeating your mistake to convince the listener that it’s really intentional. You’re always a half step away from the “right” note so don’t be afraid to keep repeating that mistake and all of a sudden finishing a half step up or down to make the phrase sound complete. Repeating a mistake doesn’t make it a mistake anymore, because it begins to sound intentional. Change up the rhythm of your mistake and make it start to groove! When you feel you’ve built the tension and the audience has heard enough, move a half step up or down and hear the resolution. The worst thing you can do is make a face or worse, stop playing entirely so don’t stop! Play it off like a pro and odds are the audiences won’t even notice.
- Transcribe Solos
This helps immensely when it comes to learning improv. Have a solo someone played that you like? Write it out, or play it back really slowly and try to play along with him. This does a few things that are really helpful. First, you’ll be able to hear what he/she did over the chords and you’ll be able to start figuring out what scales they used. It’s very important to write the chords in the bars above the written solo line so that you can really see what notes they played over each chord. Secondly, you could borrow licks from their solos and start to incorporate them into your solos! Music (and specifically jazz) was built upon the foundation that we can borrow each other’s ideas and start to make our own variations and twists to them.
- Practice, Study, Memorize
This is the most important point by far as all of this knowledge is great, but a huge part of becoming successful in music is practicing and applying that knowledge. A good start is knowing your 12 major scales and if you got that, try moving onto the minor scales! Once you get that, start learning some simple progressions! Knowing your keys is an integral part of being able to identify scale degrees and being able to solo effectively. Memorizing songs and tunes is a great way to help you in your improvisation too. As you memorize the tunes and progressions, that knowledge gets placed in your long-term memory and makes you have to think a lot less on the fly and you can begin to just start doing it!
For more information on the 17th Annual IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), go to: https://inacoustic.com/enter-here
Great article! Just my five cents: you win if you improvise rather than plan ahead! And don’t forget about timing… in your life…