Improvisation doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, it can be a game! By learning to treat musical improv as a game you free yourself up to experiment and learn the skills in a much more enjoyable way.
Jeffrey Agrell of ImprovInsights.com has published 7 books and regularly writes new articles about improvising music. He specialises in improvisation games.
Why? Because games are a great way to begin improvisation and are a useful tool for capable improvisers too. They can help you overcome the main hurdle most musicians face with improvisation. Read on to discover the major lessons you can away from our recent interview with Jeffrey.
This is a summary post.
→ Read the full interview
It’s Not Just Jazz
Improvisation is not just for jazz musicians. In fact any player can improvise, in any style of music.
Improvising music is like conversation: you don’t need a huge vocabulary to communicate your ideas. You don’t need to create everything from scratch – just take what you know well (the language’s words) and rearrange it to express what you want to convey.
That means it doesn’t take 10,000 hours of practice to become an improvising musician. You can actually start improvising from day one of learning to play an instrument.
Improv games are fun and effective
Treating improvisation as a game instead of an exercise makes it fun and actually helps you learn.
Classical music training normally focuses on “exercises” simply because they’re easy for the teacher or examiner to grade. But they’re not necessarily the best way for the student to learn!
You can learn the same musicianship skills through playing musical improv games instead. Every improvisation game provides an opportunity to practice both instrument technique and inner musicianship.
Improvisation is a lot like conversation, exchanging musical ideas. Like in conversation, those who are best at improvising tend to be those who are the best listeners.
To give this a try, play Call-and-Response games with a friend to practice. Have one of you make up a short musical phrase and then the other one should try to “reply”.
The important thing is to listen to yourself and to the other musicians. Particularly when improvising in a group you must make sure each person is listening to the others and not just off in their own world playing solo!
Don’t Fear Wrong Notes
The hardest thing when starting improvisation is fear of making mistakes. Classical music training teaches us to aim for perfection and avoid “wrong notes”. This is good for performing repertoire in concert but it’s unnecessarily limiting for real musicianship and creative music-making!
Overcome improvisation fear by starting simple: play just one note! Then experiment from there. Try changing the length, the pitch, the volume, repeating it, and so on.
To improve fast, go for quantity at first: meaning improvise a lot! You can begin by imitating things you hear and trying various different ways of “messing around” with it.
Instead of aiming for a note-perfect performance, treat music-making as an experiment. You can start by trying to play simple tunes you know (like nursery rhymes) by ear. Then try creating your own variations of the tune by changing the melody, harmony, rhythm, articulation, etc.
For now don’t worry about music theory or “doing it right”. Just do a lot – and have fun with it!
Start Playing the Game
Don’t let fear of mistakes stop you from improvising music. Instead of treating improvisation as an exercise or a skill to learn, learn to treat it like a fun way to play around and experiment with music.
Improvisation games let you have fun with music with friends, while improving your musicianship.
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