The good news is that improvising is one of the most exhilarating feelings in music.
The bad news is that, for most of us, it takes a fair amount of study to figure out how to do it. Most of us start out by just diving in and fumbling around until we stumble on to something that seems to work.
To be sure, a certain amount of experimentation and self-discovery is a necessary element in the process of defining yourself as an improvisor. But I have grown to believe that those elements are best served if they rest on a foundation of pedagogical preparation. You know what that means, right?
It means you have to know your chords and scales.
Yeah, I know that’s no fun. But a basic understanding of harmony is the key to being an effective and purposeful improviser, especially if you are working in a nuanced genre like jazz. If you just want to play in a blues band, then once you’ve mastered that basic vocabulary, you’re pretty much all set. But if you want to blow on a tune like “Behind You” from the Little Phat Band record “An Elusive Man” then you are going to need a deeper understanding of harmony. Of chords and scales and how they fit together.
Bring More to the Bandstand
There are plenty of good method books that can give you this information, and I encourage you to seek these out. Please trust me – the more you know about this stuff, the more diverse tools you will have at your disposal and the more effective and expressive you will be as an improvisor.
Your goal should be to fill your musical tool-kit with as many options as you can. In time these tools seep into your subconscious and inform your intent as your play. These tools enhance your instincts and emotions.
Please do not buy into some people’s premise that says that this kind of study will pollute or distort your own personality as a musician. This kind of thinking is an endorsement of fear and advocates for ignorance. More information is always better! You should try to learn all that you can about music, about various styles and trends, and about other practitioners of the art.
Which leads to the other big recommendation. Which is simply, listen.
Listen to Everything
Go on YouTube and listen to the masters of the art of improvisation – they’re all up there. Listen to the old guys, listen to the new kids. Listen to musicians you like and also musicians you don’t. Listen to your peers, to others in your own band.
And don’t just listen to your own instrument. You can learn much from a greater understanding of all instruments, and that is one way the jazz evolves – when someone like Jaco Pastorius learned to play Charlie Parker solos on the electric bass. This led to a brand new viewpoint for what an electric bass can do, all from one guy (admittedly, a genius) who thought out of the box.
Listen to You
And finally, listen to yourself. I strongly recommend recording yourself regularly, then sit back and evaluate. Try to take an objective look at what you played, and see what your strong points are, as well as your weak points. And here is where SmartMusic is of great value, since you can easily record yourself as many times as you want!
This is very important. The feeling you have while playing an improvised solo can be fleeting because in most cases, it’s an “in-the-moment” kind of thing. Five minutes after you’ve finished, you have forgotten most of the details that were in your mind as you were playing. Being able to listen to a recording of yourself allows you to slow things down and analyze your playing in a way that leads to clarity and improvement.
In our next blog post, we’ll talk about some methods you can use to train your brain and get it used to reacting quickly in real time.
Gordon Goodwin is a GRAMMY and Emmy award-winning composer, arranger, and performer. He’s the leader of Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, the critically-acclaimed ensemble made up of LA’s finest musicians.
Goodwin’s scoring and orchestration can be heard in many films including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Get Smart, National Treasure, The Incredibles, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Majestic, Enemy of the State, Star Trek Nemesis and even Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes.
As a composer, arranger or performer, Gordon has worked with Ray Charles, Christina Aguilera, Johnny Mathis, John Williams, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Brian McKnight, Quincy Jones and many more. He has also conducted world-renowned symphony orchestras in Atlanta, Dallas, Utah, Seattle, Toronto and London.