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.


Improv Tactics – Record Yourself

Writers have notebooks and word documents.

Illustrators have sketchbooks and Photoshop files.

Photographers have scrapbooks and digital galleries.

Don’t forget that musicians have manuscript paper and sound recordings.

All too often I feel that musicians trying to learn how to improvise neglect this. When practicing any type of art, it’s necessary to jot down your ideas. Music is absolutely no exception.

I have multiple manuscript books filled with random musical ideas. Melody lines, chord progressions, lyrics, etc. I also have hundreds of Finale files and little sound recording snippets on my computer. About 95% of this content is musical “scribble”, if you will. I have audio files that last no longer than 5 seconds and Finale projects with 2 measures of notes.

While for the most part, most of these snippets never grow into a full song, I can’t tell you how many times I have sifted through my “musical scrapbook” and found inspiration. All it takes is a few notes to remind yourself of a great idea you came up with a few months ago, and those few notes will turn into the basis of your next musical creation.

That’s great for songwriting, but I thought this series was for improvising!!!!!!!!

Remember what I said in the first post? In order to improvise, you need to think creatively. Remember what I said in the second post? In order to think creatively, you need to let musical ideas flow through your head all the time. While our brains are capable of storing an enormous amount of information, you can greatly accelerate the speed at which you produce ideas by jotting them down as they come to you.

Alright, so what should you do? First of all, buy a manuscript book. Carry it around with you wherever you play your instrument. Second of all, arm yourself with some means of recording. You don’t need thousand dollar microphones or professional music software if your goal is to quickly record your ideas. Most computers come with microphones built into them now, so all you really need is software to record on.

If you play an electric instrument (electric guitar, bass, etc…) I strongly recommend getting a DI box. This will allow you to plug your instrument right into your computer (very handy if it’s late at night and you don’t want to blast your amp).

As for the computer software, you’ll have to find a convenient list of free software somewhere online to get you started. Good luck with that!

(Just kidding, here you go)

Finale Notepad:  Music notation

MuseScore:  Music notation

Frescobaldi (combined with Lilypond):  Music notation

Audacity:  Audio recording, multi-tracking

Ardour:  Audio recording, multi-tracking

There are many other programs out there, free and non-free. Some programs are better fit for beginners, but try experimenting with anything you can get your hands mouse on. Don’t forget to explore whatever operating system you’re on for any built-in audio recording software. Now go out there and take advantage of modern technology!

Improv Tactics – It’s All In Your Head

Improvisation can be a very daunting concept for beginners. If you want to play your scales faster, you can practice with a metronome. If you want to learn cooler chords, you can look them up in books (or websites). However if you want to improvise, what do you do? What can you practice? What is that “on” switch? It’s different from scales and chords because it’s almost entirely mental.

So how do you “practice” improvisation? Yes, you can practice scale patterns, but those are scale patterns. You can work on your technique, but that’s technique. Scales, chords, technique, etc, are not improvisation. They are a means of transferring your improvised ideas from your head to the audible world. You could improvise with a single note by playing that note however you like, however long you like, at whatever rhythmic pattern you like. You can create a beautiful melody off the top of your head but play it with terrible technique. Does that mean your improvisation is bad? No, that means your technique needs work.

My point is, don’t think that you can’t be “good” at improvising if you don’t know the most hip scales, or have the most amazing technique. Those concepts have their place, and can open new doors for your creative thinking, but in order to really start with improvisation, you have to use your own head.

Think before you shred

I’m absolutely serious when I say that the most useful way to polish up your improvisation is to improvise in your head all the time. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had melodies playing through my head constantly, melodies that I had made up. When I’m taking a walk, sitting on the subway, or grocery shopping, I sometimes entertain myself by thinking of a chord pattern and a melody to go along with it. Now, I’m not talking about composing symphonies or analyzing atonal theory, I’m talking about whatever comes to mind. Everyone gets songs that other people wrote stuck in their heads, why not your own material?

Here’s the catch. Try not to think too hard about it. The creative side of your brain will freeze in it’s tracks if the analytical side comes knocking. Don’t think of it as an exercise or a chore, just let it happen on it’s own. Maybe you heard a sweet bass line in a song recently, and you can’t get it out of your head? Good, keep it in your head, play around with it. Think of your own spin on it, let it repeat forever. This is your head and you can do whatever you want. Go ahead and remix some Justin Bieber, or come up with a hip hop version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. No one can hear your ideas but you, so if you think it sounds stupid, why should you care?

In your head, your fingers don’t get sore, your embouchure doesn’t weaken, and your technical ability doesn’t get in the way. Think out your wildest musical fantasies. What would you want to hear if you took a guitar solo in front of 50,000 screaming fans? A violin solo at Carnegie Hall?

For me, it’s something that I can’t help. I don’t sit down on the train and think “I’m going to write a melody in my head today”, it just happens. It’s the same as getting lost in a daydream. I’m not saying that you will have the exact same experience right away, but I’m willing to bet that if you think creatively long enough, you also won’t be able to help it.

And the reason is…what?

Think about it. Your brain is the source of all improvisation, so it only makes sense that you should start there. All the scales in the world won’t do you any good unless you have improvised music running through your head. Someone who aces AP English can still flunk out of Creative Writing. The idea is that you will eventually have thousands of new ideas flying through your head constantly, so that when it’s your turn to blow people’s faces off at a jam session, it’s just a matter of unleashing those ideas with the scales and chords you’ve been drilling.

If you have any thoughts, opinions, criticisms, or questions on the matter, feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail. If you like where this series is going, please subscribe to keep updated. Happy thinking.

Improv Tactics – Introduction

I’ve finally realized that the only way for me to keep the blog up-to-date is to write smaller posts, and post more often. My habit of writing posts long and detailed enough to be their own book chapters has led me to produce one lengthy post every month or two (same with my videos, but that’s another monster entirely). Who would want to follow a blog that releases a post every 2 months, with the off-chance that it will be about something they kind of care about? I sure wouldn’t, and this is exactly the reason that I’m going to start breaking posts into a “series” format.

So, rather than bombard you with a wall of text covering everything about improvisation I can think of, I’m starting a series called “Improv Tactics”, which will contain posts dealing with different methods for learning how to improvise with any instrument. If you haven’t already figured it out from the title, this initial post is simply an introduction. I do plan on releasing other posts in-between this series, so don’t un-bookmark my blog just yet if you aren’t interested in this topic! Let me continue this introduction with some bold text simulating the question of a curious/confused reader.

What exactly will this series help me with?

Great question. This particular series is geared toward those of you who are just dying to “improvise” on their instrument, but have absolutely no idea where to start. After all, improvisation is arguably one of the the most difficult musical concepts to teach. Sure, you can practice scale after scale after scale, but nothing will matter unless you can think creatively (cue shameless self-promotion), and how do you really practice that?

There is no quick fix, no secret exercise, no shortcut. Learning how to improvise involves changing the way you think about music. It involves creative thinking with and without an instrument at your fingertips. Throughout this series I will convey to you the methods and thought process that worked for me. My goal is to take away that fear you get when it’s your turn to play, that sinking feeling of uselessness during a jam session, and most importantly, that boredom that strikes when you’re tired of memorizing songs.

Stay tuned.