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.