Improv Tactics – Strong and Wrong

If you only take away one thing from this series, I hope it’s this. The biggest obstacles that musicians face when learning to improvise are fear and lack of confidence. Sure, practicing your instrument for hours can give you some confidence, but in order to truly bask in the glory of improvised music, you have to stop caring about what other people think of your playing. You must play without fear.

“I can play memorized music in front of people, but why am I so afraid to improvise?”

Improvised music is very personal, which is an intimidating thing for some people. When you play written music in front of others, you may expect them to judge your technique, or your overall ability to reproduce the song. When you improvise, you may feel as though people are judging you instead. Suddenly you feel like you have to prove yourself or impress everyone in the room. This makes you incredibly nervous, leading you to play very timidly or not play anything at all.

Does this sound like you? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s something that most (if not all) musicians struggled with at some point in their career. Honestly, the best advice I can give you is to stop caring so much.

“But…but…what if the people I’m playing with make fun of me?”

There are many types of musicians out there, and they will all react differently to your playing. Some may smirk and make fun of you, some may provide harsh yet constructive criticism, some may say nothing at all, and some may cheer you on no matter how you sound. Those that make fun of you clearly haven’t matured past 12 years, but those that encourage you or provide constructive feedback are the true musicians. Regardless, no matter who you’re playing with, it’s always better to play something and play it proud, than it is to squeak out a few notes with a red face of pure shame.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve feared jam sessions with musicians that I thought were better than me, clammed up when it was my turn to take a solo, and suffered through countless measures of whimpy, shy notes. In the end I realized that the only way to get “better” was to just play and stop caring so much.

So what happened? Well, the walls didn’t cave in, the world didn’t end, and I wasn’t banished from the world of music as “that guy who couldn’t improvise”. Sure, I may not have have shattered any hearts or brought people to tears of joy (maybe tears of pain), but jamming with people became much more fun. If I felt like my solo was weak, I tried not to get embarrassed about it. Instead, I tried to use that as incentive to solo even more. I became excited for my turn to come around again so I could try something else.

Yes, some people may make comments or even jokes, but you have to learn how to deal with them if you want to continue with music. If someone is clearly being immature, ignore them. Hell, turn up or play louder for them. If someone is heavily critiquing your playing in a harsh and pretentious manner, try not to take it personally. Take their criticism as advice and keep it in mind, but move on.

Just remember, a vast majority of musicians won’t be jerks. Most of them will be happy you had fun and contributed and either not say a word, or provide some thoughtful and constructive feedback for you. Stick by those people, as they understand what it’s all about.

Strong and Wrong

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud so everybody else sounds wrong”

– Joe Venuti, Italian-American jazz musician

My guitar teacher used to tell me that even if I played a “wrong” note, I should play it with confidence. “Strong and wrong”, he used to say. Confidence speaks volumes in music just as it does in everyday conversation. Besides, music is so subjective and interpretative that what may sound “wrong” to you may sound great to someone else.

So stop caring so much about the technical side of music. Stop worrying about what other musicians think of you. Get out there and play in the wrong key and trip over your own notes. Have fun with it, laugh about it, learn from it.


2 comments on “Improv Tactics – Strong and Wrong

  1. Paige says:

    I know everything you say is true…but unfortunately (and irrationally), the thought of being judged still makes me feel like my heart is lodged in my throat and about to explode. That’s why I love faster tempos…I am so painfully self-conscious and if I have time to worry about or criticize the last beat, I am more likely to flub the following beat, and so on. When the tempo is fast enough so I just stop thinking and switch to autopilot, I’m way more accurate and it’s just an incredible relief- like the only time I ever *relax*. I always try to end practice with something fast for this reason.

    I stumbled onto your blog in the course of googling articles to figure out why/how music evokes emotion. It’s pretty excellent. I just started drumming and haven’t studied anything related to music in over a decade, so I appreciate the clarity of your writing. Plus the topics I’ve read about so far are all things I think about a lot. Two thumbs up; fine holiday fun.

    • dflomusic says:

      Thanks for your comment, I really appreciate it. Don’t worry I completely understand about the fear of being judged. While it’s irrational, it’s pretty normal. It’s something that will take time to get over. The fact that you recognize it’s irrationality is definitely a sign of progress in my eyes.

      I’m guessing from what you wrote that you’re a drummer? Improvisation on drums is definitely an interesting spin on this topic. My only experience with percussive improvisation is on hand drums (djembe, bongos, etc…). I’d love to learn to play a full drum set one day when I have the space for one.

      Even though improvising on a percussive instrument is a different animal than improvising on a melodic instrument, the fundamental concepts still apply. Stay confident and have fun (I know, easier said than done).

      It makes sense that you prefer a faster tempo when improvising because you can switch to “autopilot”. Since the tempo is so fast, you focus more on the technical side of playing rather than the creative side. When it’s slowed down, you are completely exposed. The same goes with melodic instruments. Guitar players often learn the pentatonic scale and can shred faces off at fast tempos, but when the tempo is slow, the pentatonic scales sound kind of…dull. You can definitely play emotionally and creatively with the pentatonic scale, but if you’re used to using it as a tool to play at blazing tempos, you feel very lost and exposed when the focus is more on the melody than the speed. Same goes for percussive instruments.

      While I’m not the greatest candidate for drum-kit related advice, all I can say is to keep it simple. Try focusing on maintaining the overall groove of the song first, then start adding a couple of extra hits for flavor. Over time, that groove maintenance will become second nature, and you should find it easier to add more and more to it to make it YOUR solo. After even more time, you should be able to feel the groove within yourself, and will be free to play whatever your heart desires, but still be able to keep time and come back to the regular beat with no problems. That’s my two cents, at least.

      If it’s a matter of not knowing what to play, I still think my advice can be applied. When you’re listening to music you like, tap out some improvised percussive beats on your desk or in your head. Remember that drills are great for technical ability, but to get better at improvising you have to let loose and have fun. Lock your door and wail away on some drum pads to your favorite tunes. In that situation, it doesn’t matter what you play, it’s just fun. Once you get the courage to transfer that mindset to a jam situation, you will see tremendous improvement.

      I’m glad my blog has been helpful for you. This feedback definitely keeps me driven to post. I hope I can continue to help!

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