Learn to Improvise the Way You Learned to Talk
by Keith Hill © Manchester 2005
To master improvisation, it is important to have a strong foundation in
the basics. This is as true for improvising using language as it is for music.
The assumption that you can side step the basics in any art leads to a dead
end or a barrenness of idea. Building a fertile groundwork for musical
thinking means that at some point you need to build the habits and
confidence of experience that can only be acquired by such a basis.
The beauty of the basics is that practically anyone can learn them.
They are even more easily learned by an experienced practicing musician.
Because of this I find it odd that more musicians don't improvise.
What I share with you is how I solved the problem of learning to
improvise. Although other solutions to the problem might work as well. To
begin, establish the following habits and ways of thinking needed to secure
those habits. They will lead to convincing results.
1. Begin by improvising only one line of music.
There are 3 reasons for beginning with one line.
First, learning to intend music means learning to “talk” music.
Learning to talk music is best accomplished by keeping the three elements of
music: melody, harmony and rhythm all under intentional control. This is
most easily accomplished with one simple line. However, don't be fooled by
the mistaken notion that what appears simple is simple. Creating a complete
musical experience with one line is extremely challenging. The best models
for the study of music that involves one line are the suites and partitas of
Bach for solo violin, cello and flute and the solo instrumental works of
Telemann and Biber. Being restricted to a grand total of one note at a time
forces you to be resourceful to invent music that is both interesting and
The advantage of starting with one line is that it offers few real
challenges to your technical ability. This gives you full freedom to develop
intentional accuracy, speed, and memory. As you become more accurate in
playing the note that you intend, gradually increase your speed until you can
play what you intend at any speed suitable for the ideas you have in mind.
Also, as you gain facility in these two skills, you can begin to memorize the
ideas you have, that are especially interesting, for use later during the
improvisation. Memorizing your own music as it happens lets you keep the
formal construction of your “oration” more succinct.
Second, the process of learning to talk music is the same as learning to
talk in a language. As such, learning to talk music needs to be systematically approached in the exactly same manner as a baby learns to speak. First, a
child learns to make the sounds. This is called babbling. Next comes
combining sounds, followed by making sound combinations in short series,
and ending by making sound combinations in prolonged series. During this
process, the infant is learning which sounds elicit what responses. From this,
meaning is deduced. The entire process of learning to communicate begins
with crying and ends with complete sentences. The important point to
remember is that the sounds generated are uttered to express intention.
Meaning is obscured when the sounds fail to accurately communicate the
Learning to improvise by the intentional method needs to follow this
process because it cultivates expression of intent and along with it
discrimination and taste for what works and communicates best. Without
intention and taste behind it, little in music is interesting because meaning is
missing. If you sidestep learning to intend one line of music, be aware that
the most important aspect of babbling--that of making enormous quantities
of errors, fearlessly, is what you give up. Should you run into difficulties
because of expressive infertility later on, you need only to return to this stage
again and start over to build it right.
Whenever I get a new idea about how to improve my improvising, I
automatically return to this stage in order to incorporate the idea without a
struggle. After starting over more than seven times, I have gotten used to
starting over and have come to enjoy the cleanliness and speed of learning
that results from it.
Three, music is so complicated that to attempt mastery of its
complexities all at once is an unreasonable goal. The desire to begin at a
complex level comes from the preconception that one should be able to
improvise “pieces” which in turn comes from a culture of only playing pre-
composed pieces. Playing notated music and improvising are two different
skills. Performing from scores supposedly develops the skill of interpreting
and communicating the composers' intentions. Whereas improvising
develops your skill as both a composer and an interpreter of your own
intentions. It is common in today's culture to think that just being able to
play a Bach Fugue or a Chopin Etude accurately is a sign of musical
sophistication--a somewhat naive delusion. At best, it is a sign of technical
sophistication not musical. In my judgment, a person is musically
sophisticated when he or she can extemporaneously invent a fugue or etude
of a quality equivalent to the works of Bach or Chopin. But, the notion that
improvisation is somehow supposed to compete with thoroughly worked
out compositions persists.
In the past, great improvisers probably began improvising before they
could even read music. Learning to read music came naturally as a young
musician found that more could be learned about improvising and
composing by being able to read music. Learning pieces was a stepping
stone to composing. In the realm of language, it takes years to master the
art of oratory so that an improvised delivery assumes the natural quality of a
carefully crafted argument. Why should things be different in music? Being
able to improvise music so that it sounds like a prepared piece is a laudable
GOAL. Nevertheless, this goal should never be allowed to cloud our
judgment about developing mastery of the basics.
So, begin learning to improvise with one line of music and stick with it
until you have mastered it. Build more and more complexity into that line
until no more can be made of it. Then go to two. Have it as your aim to
make one line of music at least as interesting as Bach.
2. Express what you intend not merely what occurs to you.
The purpose of the intentional method is to develop musical intention.
Although doing what occurs to you may be how you end up improvising,
from the beginning it is essential to learn to play what you have in your mind
to play. Mastering this early will give you the skill and power to realize more
complex ideas later on. The principle behind this instruction is that your
musical intuition can only provide you with inspiration based on the kind,
quality, and character of the foundation you build for it. A foundation that is
shallow, weak, and poorly formed will support almost nothing. It is to your
advantage to build as deep, as strong, and as beautifully constructed a
foundation as you possibly can. This translates into: train yourself to turn
your musical thought into sound as accurately as possible. Never mind that
your initial thoughts might seem boring. They should be. Strive for accuracy
first, speed second, and memory third.
Bear in mind, however, that intending does not always mean having
specific sounds in mind. Sometimes you may intend aesthetic principles.
Intending aesthetic principles means deciding to use aesthetic principles
(Principles of Contrast, Proportion, Harmony, Intensity etc.) to govern what you
will do next. For instance, beginning with four notes rising, you might
intend to contrast them with motion downwards, playing anything that
comes to mind that moves downwards. Or you may begin with four notes
rising and create a proportional “tail” that complements the effect of the four
rising notes. The principles of contrast and proportion guide the general flow
of thought but do not determine the exact outcome.
Whatever you can imagine as an intention should be experimented
with. Intend an Affect; like sorrow, or joy, or majesty. Intend an Effect; like
the sounds of war, or wind blowing, or water rushing, or a hummingbird
flying. Intend a condition; like limping, or being followed, or nervousness.
Intend a state of mind; like wondering, or listening, or intending. Intend
ornaments on a set of notes. And so on. The more varied your repertoire
the more variety your improvisations will have. If you ask others to give
you suggestions, you are drawing on them for ideas but you are also getting
them to act as correspondents in the improvisation. When others give you
an idea, they will then be able to determine if you played something that
expressed that particular intention. If you play something which you thought
expressed caressing, and your audience thought it was nonsense that you
were expressing, you need to figure out what you were doing wrong that
caused them to “read” nonsense instead of caressing.
3. Don't try to be creative or original and don't worry about being
There are two major problems that afflict artistic people in the
twentieth century. First is the desire to be creative and original. And second
is the mediocrity that happens in the attempt to be creative and original.
These two afflictions cause mostly unintelligible and uninteresting results in
the music and art of the twentieth century. Both of these maladies stem from
Fear #1: The fear of not being creative or original is the most easily dispatched. If you understand that no two musical backgrounds are identical,
you would realize that everyone is original by definition. So don't bother
trying to be creative or original--let it occur naturally. True creativity arises
from attending to the needs of your materials and your situation. It never
comes from forcing. Therefore, imitate freely the best models of music
making. Understand that no matter how hard you may try, you can never
perfectly imitate another person's music. Your improvisations may suggest
the sound of some composer or other (which should come as a great
compliment to you). Eventually, you will sound like yourself even if you are
using another person's “language”.
So don't get “hung up” on being original. Mozart never worried about
being original. He took his language from others. What makes Mozart
“Mozart” is that he used the language more effectively than anyone else
during his time. Originality isn't worth diddlysquat if it isn't more
meaningful and relevant. It is better to be competent using someone else's
style of expression than to be incompetent and mediocre using some
irrelevant language that is entirely original.
Fear #2: The fear of doing something and have it judged as mediocre
or incompetent. If this fear afflicted children while they were busy learning to
talk, language would soon die out. The process of learning is based on
making errors, noticing, and eventually eliminating them. Errors are
important stepping stones to success. No one can avoid them. Learn to
notice and eliminate them as quickly as possible. Whatever is judged to be
mediocre or incompetent is usually loaded with errors that weren't noticed
and eliminated. Anyone who strives to become more and more sensitive to
what doesn't work, to what isn't interesting, to what fails to communicate
clearly, to what irritates, to what doesn't vivify, to whatever needs
refinement, to what effects are being produced, to what wants to be
developed, et cetera, can, in time, learn to produce work of great
The biggest hurdle to overcoming these fears is the ego. Your
feelings will be easily hurt if you make the mistake of identifying with your
errors. Once you identify with your behavior, any criticism usually results in
feeling hurt or angry on your part. The alternative is to treat an error as an
error--not a crime or an unforgivable sin. Then compliment anyone who
points out your errors as being an astute judge. People who are swift
learners, learn quickly because they focus on correcting errors instead of
taking criticisms personally. Ultimately, the antidote is wanting errors to
happen so that you can objectively and systematically eliminate them.
4. Choose a style which feels the most comfortable for you.
Selecting a style to begin improvising in is like choosing a recipe book
to begin learning how to cook. French, Country, Amish, Italian, German,
Chinese, and Hungarian are all different styles of cooking. Everyone who
cooks in those individual styles will do things slightly differently. The style
merely mirrors the values and ingredients used by cooks who work in the
style. Styles in music are much the same. Choose one which most mirrors
your own values and tastes and learn to improvise using it.
The late twentieth century is a time of unparalleled freedom of choice.
Whatever style you choose for yourself will be a post modern style. The
characteristic of the post modern style is that it is wholly synthetic--borrowed
from all other styles. This freedom is also a bane because it squelches
meaning and encourages nonsense. The reason for this is that whatever
sounds disjointed, chaotic, and arbitrary is easily perceived as irrelevant
meaningless nonsense. Avoiding the threat of irrelevance requires some
discipline in your selection of style. The more structured, flowing, and
integrated your style is the better your chances of expressing something that
listeners will find worth hearing.
5. Purposely establish modest goals for yourself at the outset.
Don't bite off more than you can chew. Insist on having a realistic goal
for each practice session. For instance, at the beginning, a good goal is to
merely be able to keep going. Another goal is to figure out what creates
interest. Yet another is to introduce only one aesthetic principle into your
music and learn how to incorporate it successfully. Having a goal for each
practice session makes the work you do during the session much more
focused and purposeful.
6. Do not hesitate to use printed music to help you get started.
This could be a popular tune or a church hymn or a chorale melody or
a page of music from one of your favorite composers. I prefer to use tunes
from the commercials from the '60's and '70's, nursery rhymes, chorale
melodies, and random selections from Bach's music. Bach himself was
accustomed to using someone else's music to help his musical juices flow.
7. View improvising as a series of personal challenges not as a daunting
When you challenge yourself, there are no losers, only winners,
because every tiny bit of knowledge that you gain or every tiny bit of
interesting music you produce makes you a winner. You lose only when you
give up because your expectations for how you ought to be doing squelch
your intuitive self. I call this “shoulding” all over yourself. Improvisation
needs to be fun to be worth doing. Unrealistic expectations just dowse the
fires of enthusiasm for doing it at all.
Once you have started improvising regularly, and you learn to control
your intentions, start to expand your vocabulary of things to say. Enlarging
your repertoire of things you can intend and execute is the basis on which
this will grow. You will, naturally, be restricted in this endeavor by the
spiritual content of what you normally spend your time contemplating. If
you spend your time normally absorbed in mundanities, what you have to
say will likely express mundanity. If you like to think about frivolities, your
music will probably be playful. If you think about questions like: what are
the salient features in a stirring piece of music that make it have the property
of being stirring? or How is it possible to make what I am doing more
interesting? and so on, your improvisations will probably come out
sounding more stirring and interesting.
What follows are questions that might help you curb your tendency to
do more than you can actually control.
1. How can I use this idea?
Every idea has it's best form, it's best rhythm, it's best
instrumentation, it's best structure, it's most complementary ideas, it's best
use. Learning to become sensitive to the possibilities of what an idea has to
offer is what becoming a mature improviser means. Ideas that are
complicated have the most restricted possibilities. Therefore, stick with ideas
that are as simple and straightforward as they can be. Keep your materials as
spare as possible so that you have the possibility to ask the next question.
2. What can I do maximize this idea?
The principle of integrity is the key to making the most of any idea.
Once you have something in mind for your improvisation, it is important to
hold to it until the end. This will make your improvisation sound more like a
written out piece of music.
To create integrity in music, start with a simple idea and break it up
into its component parts. Then manipulate those parts in every way possible
until you get tired or you run out of possibilities. Beethoven's Fifth
Symphony, the first movement, is a classic study in maximization of an idea
through integration. Do not be afraid to repeat an idea as long as you show
the idea in some new light or as yet unexpressed way. Listeners can easily
tolerate repetitions of an idea that are in some way varied. They have real
problems following a constant stream of new ideas. The simpler an idea is
the easier it is for those listening to follow all that you do to it.
3. How can I make what I am doing more interesting?
This is perhaps the most encompassing question of all concerning
improvisation. Answering it would probably fill twenty or more columns. It
will suffice for now to say that making your improvisation interesting
depends entirely on how easy it is for the audience to follow what you are
doing. It is a stressful experience for a listener to endure more than a few
moments of music that sounds jumbled, obtuse, and willful. Such music jerks
the listeners around and eventually alienates them. Being interesting begins
with being predictable. But more than a few moments of going nowhere also
frustrates the listener. Creating interest means having a balance between
music that is easy to understand and music that demands more attention of
the listener. There is no fixed formula for what the best expression of a
musical idea is.
Investigate this question yourself by listening to what in music
interests you. The more clear you are about why certain music fails to hold
your interest, the more interesting your own music will become. The more
precise you are at isolating the factors in a piece of music that make it
constantly interesting to you, the more compelling your own music will
become. In this way, studying improvisation is really just a study of yourself
and your attention, and a process of understanding how and why your
interest was preserved or lost.