A vital part of learning improv: Slow down!

The dominant culture of classical music has recently rediscovered improv after having banished it for the past 100 years or so. It’s going by fits and starts, but it’s starting to be recognized as important — in my opinion, far more important that winning competitions playing other people’s music more quickly and with less error than the other kid.

But there are still a lot of strange beliefs about improv floating around, and I either would like to dispel them, or else simply add mine to the mix, which is usually how this sort of thing turns out. It’s sort of like how software and hardware companies always respond to the proliferation of standards by publishing another standard.

What makes improv so hard (for me)?

Okay, so when I talk, I don’t need to stop and think, “Hold on, how do I make an /h/ again … ?” before I say, “Hello.” If I had to, I’d probably never manage to get an idea out, because my thoughts of meaning and what message I want to say would constantly be getting interrupted by thoughts of how to hold my mouth to make a certain sound.

This is why you need to know your instrument cold. This is why you need endless amounts of technique, so the physical nature of the device isn’t an obstacle between you and whatever it is you want to say.

This means you need years of technical training.

But that very need will get in the way of your ability to improv if you aren’t careful. In order to improv, you need fabulous chops, but the relentless process of chopification may tense you up to the point where it’s hard to let go.

You need to do a sort of 80/20 thing where for 80% of your practice time, you work on the technical junk and for 20% of the time, you just let yourself noodle around. Teachers must reinforce this. If they can’t do it themselves, then they need to learn how or else partner with someone who can, because training little primates to win competitions playing other people’s music is not the way forward. If they refuse to do it because they believe that learning to get your trill 17.4% faster is more important, get another teacher. Never fail to end a practice session with at least 10 minutes of fun and aimless noodling without sheet music, just to see what sounds come out. Pretend you’re humming to yourself. (And by the way, hum to yourself even when you aren’t at your instrument.)

Okay. On to the next obstacle to improv, once again related to the fact that I don’t have to stop and think about how to make a /b/ before saying “before.”

Suppose I did. Suppose I had to stop and deduce my way to making a /b/ sound, and by mistake a /d/ sound came out. How many words do you think I’d manage to choke out before getting totally off track because that /d/ was drowning out the /b/ I was hearing in my head? The really annoying thing is that I could probably hear what I wanted to say in my head quite nicely as long as I stayed silent, just as I can hum a very nice melody to myself but still have to go very slow and pick it out on the piano, and not without errors.

When you are still in pursuit of the ability to improv, and you aren’t there yet (as I’m not), the sound of the instrument will drown out the sound in your mind. And I’m not a fan of the “who cares, bump, scratch, and fart on your instrument and call it improv” business. I can hear much, much nicer things in my head than random noise. I want my improv to be that, not random pounding. Improvisational speech isn’t burping and lip bibbles, it’s words.

But when you are still getting in touch with how to get the sound out of yourself and onto the keyboard smoothly, the inevitable goof-ups and discrepancies in the PEBCAK area will trip you up. The sound of the instrument will drown out the sound in your head.

And I’m getting the feeling that the solution to this, as is the case with every other musical challenge, is simply to go slow. I really do think that slow practice solves many more problems than we think. If you want to learn to improv, slow down! Gradually, you’ll be able to move more and more quickly, but at first, just hear a melody and/or chord progression in your head, and run through it very, very slowly in your mind. Slow down not just your playing, but your mind in reeling out the silent improv it’s generating in the first place.

So first, get very, very, very good in your instrument. Second, always reserve time at the end of every practice session for improv. Third, slow down.

Okay, fourth: be patient.