Courtesy of Anthony Cerullo
To the untrained ear, improvisational music may sound easy, yet it's anything but. Improvisation takes extreme focus, theoretical knowledge, confidence, and great technique...
Of course, these qualities don't appear by themselves. They must be built up over time with a series of repeated exercises. There's a word for this that even the most experienced musicians hate: practice.
Practice, while not always fun, is essential to improving as a musician. Many think practice is just limited to learning scales, intervals, and progressions. While that's true, one can apply practice to all realms of music. Even improvisation.
It may sound like Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, or Miles Davis are playing random notes to their heart's content, but there's a method to their madness. The effortlessness they exhibit does not simply come from instinct. It takes practice. There are numerous ways one can go about practicing improvisation with your band, but here are just five to get you started.
1. Try call-and-response
Let's say you want to improve the substance of your music. You've spent hours learning every scale and riff in the book and can play them at lightning speed. First of all, great job. Not to negate those achievements, but anyone can learn a scale with enough time. It's more difficult learning to improvise licks that resonate with people.
One practicing method that can help accomplish this is call-and-response. Basically, call-and-response is a type of mirroring exercise. It forces you to listen while also developing your ear and mind. The scales and riffs take care of the fingers; now it's time to connect those skills with the brain.
It's easy to tell when someone is not listening. Their fingers are on an autopilot of sorts – jetting up and down the scale at furious speeds, while memorized patterns are spat out all over the stage. Call-and-response will help rope those wild fingers in and unleash the creative mind.
To get started, grab a band-mate or compile a few of your favorite licks. Think of these licks as a question of sorts. When responding to a question, you don't need to repeat it word for word. Instead, build off the question with an original response that adds to the conversation.
At first, you may find your responses aren't that far off from the lick, but with repeated practice, you'll be spinning out creative responses back and forth like a full-on musical discussion.
2. Learn a melody by ear
Reading sheet music is a wonderful skill that any musician should learn, but don't forget about the importance of ear training. Relying on the ear is an essential skill when improvising with a band. To be an effective improviser, you should be able to hear a note and locate it on your instrument with ease. It'll be difficult at first, but like all things in life, a little practice can go a long way.
It might not seem that learning a melody by ear has anything to do with improvisation and, in a way, it doesn't. The purpose of learning a melody by ear is to get used to a different style of playing. For those who've spent their whole lives reading music, ear training will open up a whole new realm of how to go about their instrument.
In addition to strengthening listening skills, learning a melody by ear can transport you into the head of another musician. Learning a lick from Jimi Hendrix, for example, will help you better understand his playing and, eventually, it can become part of your style. If you continue to do this with a variety of music genres, your arsenal will become more diverse.
3. Pick a scale and master it
This is another one of those tips that may seem tedious and irrelevant to improvisation. Well, it's certainly tedious, but it's more helpful for creativity than you think. While improvising, the process goes along much smoother if your head is clear and focused.
Let's say you're jamming in the Enigmatic scale (an unusual scale, but just go with it), and you're not all too familiar with it. The majority of your focus will be directed towards trying to figure out the scale on the spot instead of listening to your bandmates like you should be. By mastering a scale, it'll be easy to cruise over all the notes without a second thought so you can fully direct your energy to create music in the moment.
When mastering a scale, it's essential that you do so properly. For starters, it helps to figure out the proper fingering before you get started. Not only will this make playing the scale easier, but it's a good habit to get into as a musician anyway. From there, pick a scale, and get going.
One way to practice this is by going an octave at a time, plus one note ascending. For example, say you're playing a C major scale. You would start by playing the scale and adding one more note at the end of the octave. Do this seven times all while thinking about each note before you play it.
If you feel you can increase the difficulty, try the same exercise in different inversions. Only increase the speed if you feel completely comfortable. A good rule of thumb is if you can't double up your speed, don't speed up at all.
4. Learn the part of someone else in your band
This exercise is fairly similar to number two, but different enough that it's worth mentioning. If you're in a band that's serious about improvising, a good exercise is to learn the part of another member. Even if you aren't interested in improvising, it's a good way to practice.
Just like learning the melody from another song, learning your bandmate's part will put you inside his or her head. It'll open up your mind to what he or she has to go through and hopefully ignite some new creativity in the process. After all, everyone thinks differently, so it's always healthy to get a new perspective. That way, when you're in the midst of a jam, that person's playing will become more familiar to you, and the music will seem more cohesive.
As an added bonus, learning everyone's part will mean you know the song better. Outside of improvising, learning all parts of a song can only benefit in its performance.
5. Rotate leads in a jam
Improvising is a more selfless form of music, sure, but even so, there's always a bandleader. A bandleader keeps things focused and pushes the direction of the improvisation.
That being said, band leaders shouldn't get all the attention. It's important for them to step back and give up the control to someone else in the band. Even if you don't play a melodic instrument, it's possible for you to take control of the music, and doing so should be practiced regularly.
Let's say there's a trio of guitar, bass, and drums. Obviously, the guitar player here will take the lead most of the time, but it's nice to have the other members take the reigns now and then. While practicing improvisation, have the bass take over the melody for a while as the guitar plays rhythm. Instead of having the drummer simply hold down a beat, let him or her change up the feel of the jam and take it in a new direction.
Being able to fall back and let someone else have a say in the music is essential to the successful improvised piece. It will create more balanced, respectful, and patient sound that everyone can benefit from.
Anthony Cerullo is an avid keyboard player, writer, and world traveler. He has spent the past few years touring the US in bands, and now finds himself exploring the musical spectrum that various countries of the world offer.