"Gotta get to my study room!"

AC #15: Improvising: Can You Improvise? Can You Learn How To Do It?

My short answer is yes! Definitely! I feel that anyone who is fluent in a spoken language, has the capacity to learn how to improvise.  The way I see it, every time you engage someone in conversation, you are using a specific type of improvisation at which you are already very skilled! You might not even give this whole idea much thought because you do it so well on a daily basis. As you learn new things throughout your life and communicate with others about the new things you’re learning, you continue to grow, develop, and fine-tune your skills of improvisation!   

Consider Dictionary.com’s first two definitions of the word “improvise”.  

1. to compose and perform or deliver without previous preparation;
2. to compose, play, recite, or sing (verse, music, etc.) on the spur of the moment.

You don’t know exactly what you’re going to say throughout the day to each person you encounter, because in conversation, what you say is usually dependent on and relevant to what the other conversationalists say to you.

Although you may have excellent reading skills in your native language, you are not going to “read” everything you say to people in any given conversation, are you? Of course not!

You’re going to express yourself by tapping into and drawing upon the language data you’ve been storing in your own personal lexicon for years to organize and assemble your thoughts in a split second. Instantaneously, you express your thoughts by constructing words, phrases, and sentences–all within the confines of your current topic of discussion. In the context of music, the confines and current topic of discussion would be the song you’re playing at the moment. But again, you’ve been doing this for years with speaking and this all happens so fast that you don’t even think about the complexity of the process that takes place every time you speak. It is so “second nature” to us that we often take it for granted! But what you’re doing is spontaneously using all of the language data that you’ve stored in your brain to compose speech in real-time… IMPROVISING ! And you’re already very good at it! Now, all you have to do is to use those same improvisational principles and techniques and apply them to the language of music.

That’s right!  I think of music as a language and my approach to teaching musical improvisation centers around many of the same processes that you used when you were first learning to speak and improvise with your growing vocabulary and speech data. For example: in English, you have to accumulate vocabulary and do things like conjugating verbs through all of the tenses. In music, you have to accumulate vocabulary and do things like conjugating many rudimentary items through all 12-keys. Do you remember, in elementary English class, that when you learned a new word or phrase, you had to use it in a sentence in order to fully understand it? Well, that concept is alive and well in my improvisation classes. Whenever you learn a new motif or phrase, I ask you to use it in a musical sentence–preferably after you’ve done your 12-key conjugations.

My friend, the late Sammy Price, once told me that Willie “The Lion” Smith said he “would not take a musician seriously unless he or she knew at least 100 songs”. I believe in the wisdom of that statement. Imagine a person going into a foreign country equipped with only a few words and phrases from a “handy-phrase” tourist book. He or she will never be taken seriously as a speaker of that country’s language until they build up a serious vocabulary and demonstrate that they can hold a real conversation. So learn lots of tunes as you go about the business of learning to improvise.

If you practice your lessons well every day, your improvisation skills will improve and you will begin to witness your own growth as a musician. Stay on it!

“You have to practice improvisation, let no one kid you about it!” – Art Tatum

By the way, Jeff DeLangie, a very wonderful player and student of mine from several years ago, has found his way back to me and he’s asked that we center our work around jazz theory and improvisation.  Jeff has agreed to let me share his journey with you as periodic video posts. So check in from time to time and type his name into any search box on my site to view his progress on various homework assignments, songs, and special projects. 

Now if you need some help and you’d like to have some fun while we go about the serious business of working on your musicianship, don’t hesitate to contact me so we can get busy!

Here’s a quick recap of what Ray Charles once said about practice…   

 
See you next post… practice well!

Art

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