Embrace the following insights into the true nature of Composition and Improvisation and revolutionize your ability to write and speak the language of music.
The Language Analogy
We compose and improvise as we write and speak each and every day. Our ability to express ourselves verbally is so commonplace, and we are so good at it, that we take it all for granted. But this remarkable ability did not materialize overnight. The words that flow so easily now are the fruit of a lifetime of effort: talking, listening, reading, and writing.
That said, no one would argue that our verbal language skills constitute a special talent. Likewise, the ability to compose and improvise music with confidence and conviction is a very learn-able skill… equivalent to learning to speak a new language… with all the the joys and challenges of learning its particular grammar and vocabulary.
Meaningful composition & improvisation, like meaningful speech, requires three main ingredients:
- Intention. A commitment to something worth saying.
- Experience. A lifetime of experiences that give you a variety of interesting things to talk about.
- Vocabulary & Grammar. A common language rich enough to translate your intentions and unique experience into something other people can understand.
As you accumulate new experiences, vocabulary, and grammar, you expand your ability to express yourself spontaneously without worrying about the details.
The secret to success is that there is no secret to success. Successful improvisation is enabled by doing your homework… by listening to others, experimenting, studying and practicing scales, chords, chord voicings, chord progressions, licks, riffs, runs, intros, endings, and other useful musical patterns. Successful improvisation is the inevitable reward for studying and practicing the right musical stuff the right way.
Your creative intuition is liberated by, not stifled by, your mastery of the nuts and bolts of musicianship: scales, chords, chord progressions, rhythm, ear training, form.
So, study-practice the musical patterns you like. Practice them until they are mastered as complete musical ideas, not individual notes. Practice them in all keys that you expect to play. And know this: Every musical pattern that you master has the potential to magically appear in your improvisations as needed, just as words appear spontaneously in your every day conversations.
There is a reason why the blues sounds like the blues, rock sounds like rock, country like country, ragtime like ragtime, gospel like gospel, Baroque like Baroque, jazz like jazz, and so on. It is because each style is a set of very characteristic vocabulary and grammar… patterns that define that style. If you want to learn to improvise in authentic style, then you absolutely must study the patterns that make that style tick.
All great composers and improvisers are relentless explorers. They do not wait and hope for inspiration. They are always seeking useful musical ideas from various sources: favorite recordings, live performances, books, videos, youtube, on-line forums, the piano-ology website! Success belongs to the curious!
With child-like abandon, play around with musical building blocks to see what you can build. Keep on trying out new ideas to see which combinations of notes, rhythms, articulations, voicings, and other musical patterns sound and feel right to you. Keep what you like and reject the rest.
The more words you know, the more you will have to say. If you know only four words in Spanish — sí, no, hola, gracias — your capacity to express meaningful thoughts is very limited. Likewise, if you only know how to play a C chord and a C major scale, your capacity for musical expression is very limited. Successful improvisation requires an ever-expanding musical vocabulary that is accumulated over time by studying and practicing the style of music you want to play.
Great players learn from other great players. All serious writers have read great literature. Likewise, a vast library of recorded music awaits serious music students to re-discover what the masters discovered before them. Listen to many renditions of the tunes you want to play. See what you like (or not) and add those ideas to your bag.
Don’t calculate which notes you are going to play. Commit to an idea and play it. Play musical words and sentences, not just musical letters. The basic formula for success is to commit to an idea and allow all of your previously mastered skills to spontaneously contribute to the realization of that idea.
Mastering scales is necessary and important, but extremely limited preparation for improvisation. Rattling off bits and pieces of scales is not improvisation, just like rattling off bits and pieces of the alphabet is not poetry. Once you’ve learned the notes, your precious study and practice should be all about finding and mastering useful musical ideas that you will actually use in performance.
Once you commit to an idea, let the idea tell you where it needs to go. Don’t try to boss it around. This requires awareness that can only come from listening and feeling, not from thinking and trying to control things.
It is very easy to get sucked into thinking about what you want to play next. In the meantime, you are going to miss the enjoyment and inspiration that flow from what are you playing now!
Don’t play to impress. Play to connect… with the music… with yourself… and with others.
Don’t Mumble. What do you want to say? Speak up and say it like you mean it!
The rests are as important as the notes. Space and silence are powerful musical forces.
It is tempting to play too many things at once or to try to play everything you know in every piece. Going deeper and closer to home is far more effective than going broader and farther away.
You cannot try to develop your own voice. You should not try to be unique. All you have to do is be yourself. If you do, your voice will emerge spontaneously from your unique choices of chord voicings, licks, riffs, rhythms, and other patterns, as well as your technique, articulation, phrasing, and artistic sensibilities.
Nobody can tell you what and how to play any more than they can tell you what and how to write a poem. They can only offer suggestions and describe the nature of the process.
So, be yourself! Play what you know… using the ideas, vocabulary, and grammar that are unique to your experience… in only the way that YOU can play them.
And don’t compare yourself to others. Real music is not a competition.
You are learning a brand new language. You didn’t learn to speak English overnight and you will not learn how to improvise overnight, either. But if you keep exploring, studying, and practicing, you will be able to communicate musically in an ever-expanding sphere of fluency, guaranteed!