Four Tips for Improvisers

1 Feb

Many have reacted warmly to my Seven Tips for Composers; thank you all!

Here are some ideas regarding the unique art of improvisation.

1. Learn Languages.

If you want to improvise, study what other improvisers do. It is essential.

It’s surprising to see how many young players seem to believe they will be able to get ahead without it. I think that’s impossible. Also,why would you want to skip it? Why not tap into beautiful universes filled with musical ideas that were created on the spot by masters?

Most improvisers want to be original, and look for general concepts that will allow them to shape their own ideas; That’s fine. But avoiding learning the common and/or obscure vocabulary of improvised music (be it in the realm of Jazz or any other musical world) is not practical.

Why? Because you can only create something personal if you know what you’re doing.

Imagine someone who wants to express profound and beautiful ideas using the Spanish language, without having learned Spanish vocabulary, grammar and so on – for fear of becoming less original.

Now imagine a great poet, who, out of her deep knowledge and understanding of the language and its contexts, can eventually create singular, personal and powerful work.

2. Record and Analyze Your Improvisations.

An invaluable process. When you’re improvising, you’re so busy coordinating all the various musical elements, that you hardly get a clear picture of what it is you’re doing; especially in the beginning of your life as an improviser.

If you never record and listen back, there’s no way that you will be aware of everything that was going on; there’s no way you’ll be able to say that you liked what you just played, and be sure.

Listening to recordings of yourself can be cruel, but it’s an effective way to understand – according to your own taste and judgement – what are the things you want to improve.

3. Separate the Elements.

Let’s say you’re listening back to a recording of a solo you just played, and you’re not happy with one of the elements in your playing.

Examples:

1. Your time rushes when you get excited.

2. You tend to begin your phrases at the same place in the bar.

3. You don’t go out of the prescribed harmony enough, to your taste.

4. You’re not using various dynamic levels in your solo.

And so on and so forth.

Now is the time to work on an element that lacks quality, according to what you hear in the recording.

To do that, the best approach is to begin by working only on that single element.

For example, you practice beginning your phrases in new and unexpected places rhythmically. You work on it, disregarding all other elements.

While you practice this concept, you don’t care about anything else: quality of melodic ideas, using various registers, anything you would normally care about – you stop caring about it for a while. You play as if the only important thing in the world is to begin phrases in interesting places.

Then, when you feel you’ve made progress with this topic, you isolate another element and work on it.

Later you can combine two of these; now you’re worrying about two things – where you begin your phrases, and playing more “out” harmonically, for example. Slowly but surely you bring those improved aspects into your general playing, and actually hear yourself becoming a better improviser.

4. Why are you playing?

This doesn’t have anything to do with music per se. It’s a human, spiritual, existential idea.

Practicing can be a technical activity. The actual playing of music, once you’re performing, rehearsing, or even practicing ‘real’ playing, should not feel technical.

The situation: You are creating music on the spot, on a given day and time, at a given country, city and venue, in front of a given audience, and with given collaborators.

The uniqueness of each event is what lends improvised music its incomparable magic.

It shouldn’t sound the same every night. You are never in the same exact mental state, and if you sound the same, that means you’re ignoring that fact.

Some of your current emotions, ideas, thoughts and so on, should find a way into your playing on a given night. There should be a reason why you’re playing what you’re playing tonight. It has to be that you must play what you’re playing. What story do you have to tell?

When a good friend asks you how you’re feeling these days, you always have something to say. Improvisation can have some of that quality too.

For me, this is crucial in generating a great, even a needed, improvisation.

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7 Responses to “Four Tips for Improvisers”

  1. Haggai February 1, 2012 at 11:37 pm #

    Milim KeDorbanot klein! This blog is really becoming something man, love it

  2. Noé February 2, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    Thank you for this great article!!

  3. Guy Vago February 2, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

    Great tips.

    I would add something that lies side by side with your #4.
    It took me years to really understand the meaning behind my mentor’s question.
    He asked me “when you improvise ? what are you saying ?”

    Are you showing off your speed, agility, technique, speed ?
    Are you challenging music theory ? rhythm ?
    Are you telling a story ? like a spoken part in a middle of a song.

    When you know what you want to say then more of you get mixed into it and it’s no longer a bunch of notes or a fancy idea – it becomes music. your music.

    Vago

  4. Shai February 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm #

    Omer, great stuff man. Beautifully written.
    I wanna add a small thing, something Sam Yahel had taught me.
    Often things that I practice don’t stick, there is a tendency just to forget about them cause there are so many.
    Sam offered to ALWAYS play in an emotional context. Never practice anything in a mechanical way. Practice as if you had to preform what you are practicing. It can be a very slow tempo, but it has to have an emotional value to it. That way, when you are on stage, and you feel something, your’e brain had already made the connection between the feeling and the action back at the practice room, then it just comes out naturally.
    It proved itself as one of the best advice Iv’e ever got.

    • omerklein March 13, 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Thanks man! I certainly agree.

  5. Asa February 17, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    I have question about the first tip,
    when you say learn languages you mean just get out songs you like and play them on your own ? or you mean to analyze them and look what someone plays on each chord and stuff like that?

    • omerklein March 13, 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Dear Asa,

      Thanks for your comment.

      What you’ve described is simply two different levels of how deep one can go when studying music. “Just” learning the song is fine, and digging dipper is also great of course. Depends on what you wish to achieve. The deeper you’ll dig, the more interesting things you’ll probably find out.

      Best,
      Omer

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