How to Breathe Life Into Your Improv Practice...

Courtesy of Ryan Sargent... 

The practice of listening and phrasing are strategies that many improvisers don’t practice often enough, but they are critical skills for all improvisers... 

When improvisation looks effortless it looks cool – until you try to do it. In reality, spontaneously composing is one of the most difficult things a musician can attempt, and it takes practice - a lot of practice.

There are no doubt a number of crafts that a musician must master to be a good improviser. Technical ability and music theory knowledge are important, but in this article we'll look at three ways to also practice listening and phrasing...

1. Communicate an idea using only one instrument
Practice improvising completely solo – no other musicians, no backing tracks, no audience. Focus on the musical statement you want to make. Think about what this improvisation is going to say or express.

Improvise until you feel you’ve made that statement. Because you’ve eliminated all external impulses, you have complete musical freedom. There are no chord progressions, no rhythmic pulse, no constraints on your playing.

Attempt, for example, to play the color yellow, the feeling of jealousy, or your favorite vacation. Use multiple attempts to help refine your playing. What matters here is not how successful you are, but that you’re working on expressing your ideas musically in real time.

2. Connect your phrases
Motivic development is a common skill among some of the best composer and improvisers – it’s one of the musical skills that Mozart and Miles Davis have in common. Train yourself to master motivic development by setting constraints on pitch (the first two notes of the next phrase have to be the same as the last two notes of this phrase), rhythm (I can only play short-short-long), or contour (all my phrases have to ascend, then descend).

Not only will you get to know your own playing a lot better, but you’ll also start connecting your phrases in more concrete ways. Your solos will start to sound far more complete and also more connected.

Ready for a more advanced version? Make the entire solo mimic the pattern you’ve assigned to each phrase. Really want to take things up to a hard level? Then try making each of your phrases end in successively stronger cadential material. Or, solo using phrases that don’t match the phrases in the melody of the piece that you’re improvising over.

3. Improvise with your favorite bands
People play along with their favorite records all the time – but usually to try and match exactly what their heroes are doing. Instead, join the band! Try and find new chord extensions, improvise your own counter-melodies, and take a solo instead of listening to theirs.

Enjoying the music means you’re more likely to let loose and let your ears guide you, leading to more free improvisation from within you.

As you do this more and more, start writing down some of what the band plays. Rather than doing a full formal transcription, catch snippets or segments of melody and use them when playing over other tunes.

Build a musical vocabulary by working with the phrases of your musical influences.

Improvisation is hard, but there are simple ways to get started. Listening and phrasing are crafts as much as they are arts, and practicing them using these three techniques can pay huge dividends when it’s time to improvise on a gig.

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Ryan Sargent is the Social Media Manager for MakeMusic, Inc., where he writes about music education technology 140 characters at a time. A graduate of Baylor University, he has shared the stage with Maria Schneider, and Wycliffe Gordon, studied jazz arranging and improvisation with Alex Parker and Art Lande, and taught classes on popular music performance, theory and history to students at middle schools, high schools, and colleges throughout Colorado. Ryan is also an active funk and jazz trombone player in the Denver area.