5 Ways to Make Improvisation Less Scary

Posted by Anthony Cerullo on Oct 4, 2016 06:00 AM

Image by Michael Hoefner via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

For those who don't know, the man pictured above is none other than Ornette Coleman. Coleman was a pioneer of the free-jazz phenomenon that exploded onto the scene in the 1950s and 1960s. To most, free jazz is anything but easy listening, and it's no wonder that it created such an uproar among casual listeners. A large part of this controversy had to do with fear. People fear what they don't know. They fear the unpredictable. Improvisation is the embodiment of unpredictability in music, but you shouldn't fear it.

The unknown can be a cold, dark, and unfamiliar place, even though it holds a wealth of fresh ideas waiting to be found. But it's a large risk to take. It's this risk that tends to keep musicians from exploring creativity in every possible way. Instead, they'll stay in the warm comfort of familiarity. They'll repeat the same standard licks heard all across pop music, turn down risky career ventures, and generally stay away from opportunities that may present failure.

It sounds like a terribly boring way to approach music – and it is. It doesn't have to be like that, though. With these five tips, you'll be on the way to exploring improvisation without fear.

1. Create a plan of attack

The best improvisers venture into the unknown with seemingly effortless vigor and bravery. The funny thing is, it looks this way because of practice. Improvisation is not all about throwing the music rules out the window and diving in head first. Even the best free-form jazz musicians have some sort of plan. There's a difference between mindless noise and meaningful improvisation, and having a course of action will help you fall in the latter.

If you're new to improvising, ask yourself, "What do I want to accomplish with this music? Am I doing it to find new ideas? Tell a musical story? Do I want the music to end in a certain fashion?" Whatever questions you many have, write them down.

It's perfectly fine to have some goals. It won't destroy the nature of improvisation. In fact, it will only help improve it. When you're not worrying about where the music will end up, your brain can remain in the moment. As a result, you can better focus on the music itself.

2. Learn to trust your instincts

While a plan will help ease anxiety, don't go overboard with it. At some point, you'll have to trust your instincts. Despite the planning you've done, forks in the road will come up. Sure, you could freak out, but that won't benefit the music at all. Instead, have faith in your abilities. Dive into the music and try not to worry about the end result. 

Research shows that unconscious reasoning (like our instincts) delivers more positive results. Even if it doesn't work out, you got to an interesting place musically that you probably never would have otherwise. The thing about creativity is that we never really know where it will take us. By trusting in our instincts, though, we can be confident that our creativity will take us somewhere special.

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3. Go overboard on idea generation

The whole point of creativity is to create something new. Improvisation is great for this, but you won't create many ideas if you stifle some of them. Don't be selective with idea generation. Good or bad, ideas are ideas. Allow yourself to have as many as possible.

Idea generation is a simple exercise in probability. If you only have two total ideas, the chances of one of them being a really good idea are far less than if you had a thousand total ideas.

Try not to criticize your ideas. Just spit them out regardless of what they are. This is especially helpful with a partner. Perhaps an idea you thought was bad is a gem to someone else. Improvisation is a team activity. You never know what someone else can do with your discarded thoughts.

4. Have fun with experimentation

Remember, this is music. It's supposed to be fun! Adopting a playful approach to music will keep your mind limber and open to ideas. This will also help you separate the good ideas from the bad.

For example, if you're recording a segment of improvisation and then listening back to it over and over again, it could go two ways. If you're dreading the process, you won't listen attentively and just want to get through it. Having fun with it, though, will make it a pleasurable experience and you'll find joy in listening to the music, picking out good ideas, and fixing the bad ones.

5. Don't give up

What it comes to improvisation, perfection is impossible. There will be good days, and there will be bad days. The only way the good days will pay off is if you actually have them. That won't happen unless you try in the first place. Regardless of the outcome, it's important to strive forth and remain determined.

You may have a bad week, month, or maybe a year of music. The good ideas are out there, and it's going to take some hard work to find them, but you can absolutely do it.


Next up: 3 Unique Ways to Breathe Life Into Your Improv Practice


Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft


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