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Start Improvising Intentionally

Learn to Improvise the Way You Learned to Talk

by Keith Hill © Manchester 2005

I enjoy hearing improvisations much more than hearing literature. My attitude is that I can hear literature any time I want by turning on my stereo system and inserting a CD. Why should I go to hear literature in concert except to hear a new player or to hear some literature I have never before heard? When I hear improvisation, I know I am hearing music that has never been heard before that moment and may never be heard again. An important question arises: am I alone in this way of thinking, or am I just one of many, some of whom, perhaps, are unable to articulate their feelings? If I am not alone, then improvisation may be an answer to reinvigorating concert audiences. Of one thing I am very sure: prior to the twentieth century, most concerts were part literature and part improvisation. To some extent, this tradition lives on in the popular music culture today. Do they know something we don't?

I am the first to grant that what one hears in improvisations is usually not the highest quality of music. For that one must hear the literature. But this makes no difference in how I feel about hearing improvisation. I always prefer to hear a mediocre improvisation to a well-heeled performance of a piece of great literature that I have heard many times before, just as I am always more interested in eating food prepared by a good cook who improvises with each meal than eating the same meal repeatedly, no matter how delicious. Eating the occasional blunder is a small price to pay for the opportunity to eat those supremely delicious meals that only the improvising cook produces.

Just as performance practice has improved greatly over the last twenty years, I expect that should improvising in public become the rule, twenty years hence the quality of improvisations will be astonishing -- far better than we might now imagine. The point is this: practice of anything makes it perfect. The more that performers improvise in public, the better they will become and the higher the quality of their work will be. I can only guess that the reason harpsichordists do not improvise in public is that they are afraid of the comparisons people are bound to make. Comparing infant efforts in improvisation to mature literature performances will happen, but only by those of little kindness and less vision. Audiences will love it. If performers will trust this they may be able to overcome their timidity about improvising in public.

The question then is this: how does one begin? The answer: begin wherever you like. You begin with whatever style, idiom, method of approach, or device is most comfortable for you. There are as many styles of improvisation as there are people who improvise. It is much like learning to talk all over again. However, there are several distinct schools or approaches to solving the problem of where to begin. Each approach has both advantages and disadvantages.

The schools of improvisation

There is the "noodling" school. Players from this school sit and noodle around on the keyboard making this sound and that, without any specific aim. As they noodle around, they discover interesting ways of doing things which they remember and add to their collection of things that work. Noodling is a "seat of the pants" approach. 
Noodling is an important way to begin learning to improvise--often the only way to learn. It is a way of looking for ideas. In my opinion, noodling is best done only in private. Yet one often hears noodling when one hears improvisation. This is because noodling is what you must do when you run out of ideas.

Then there is the procedural school. Here, players learn a set of rules which, like a road map, tell them what to play with each note in a given melody. Learning from figured bass is improvisation by procedure. One gradually builds up a facility at harmonizing bass and treble lines after having done it often enough. This school forms improvisers who have solid harmonic foundations to their improvisations but are largely tied to a printed or supplied line of music. When this approach is coupled with the noodling approach very good things can result--better than when each school is practiced separately.

Thirdly, the "lick" school. Players from this school memorize "licks" or passages from the literature. They have fun improvising by stringing the different passages together in various combinations forming a stream of unrelated but fun-to-listen-to passages. This creates an enormously impressive effect for anyone who is unfamiliar with early music. The licks can be sequences, figurations, scales, or even whole bravura sections of a piece of music. Licks are great for cultivating facility at filling up time. Those who learn by the lick method are well on their way to success at improvising. But the very facility cultivated with this method often leads to barrenness of ideas.

Next, the cliche school. These players learn the stylistic cliches of the period and style they are studying. Cliches differ from lick in that cliches are not passage work or figurations, what I call licks, cliches are short musical ideas that convey a strong feeling of affect. For instance, the appogiatura is a cliche. Each style has a characteristic cadence which is a cliche. Cliches usually form the foundation for licks and similar passage work. As with the lick method, cliche improvisers form their ideas based on a series of cliches, which they string one after the other. The cliche approach is not as impressive as the lick approach but has the advantage of sounding more deliberate and moving. Cliche improvisation usually sounds the most convincing in terms of style and content; by the same token it sounds the most original and authentic.

The "snatch" school improvisers, like those of the lick school, memorize whole snatches 
of pieces and cast them out in a variety of ways, creating the effect of a new piece using other composers' ideas. Because they needn't concern themselves with the ideas they use, these improvisers often cultivate a high level of skill at development. The main drawback of this approach is that overreliance on other people's ideas produces personal musical sterility. To develop a fertile mind, you must force yourself to generate your own musical ideas and materials. Improvising predicated on the memory tends to induce musical mimicry rather than invention.

Sixth, the modern or "self-expression" school. These improvisers play anything they feel like playing without any obvious point of reference. To the listener, ideas seem to come and go without any special connection. Although the improviser may have something specific to convey, the music appears to wander aimlessly. The results can be astonishing if the improviser happens to be inspired that day; more often the results are tedious. This manner of improvising is different from the noodling school mainly because it uses an atonal language--it is hard to tell if one is noodling when hearing music improvised in an atonal language.

Last is the "divisions" school. This school was the most popular in the earlier periods. Simpson and Quantz were advocates of the divisions school. Basically, this approach involves adding notes between the existing notes of a given line of music. The tradition of melisma or embellishment is very old. Although it is not in common practice today in the field of classical or serious music, it is alive and thriving in the popular music of today. Blues, Soul, and Jazz, as well as other genres of popular music are all based on this school of improvisation.

There are other schools than those I have listed, but these seven methods are the more obvious ones around today.

I use none of these as my own approach. Although I use and borrow aspects from all of them, my own method is one which works best for me. It is designed to overcome my own set of personal performing problems. The most important of these problems is a basic lack of adequate technique for moving my fingers in a controlled way. Because of poor reading and memorizing abilities, I make little use of the lick and snatch approaches. This is not to say that I wouldn't like to do so; only that I am not a competent enough player to do those things well--now.

When I began improvising I used the noodling method. I quickly tired of that approach because I managed to bore myself by going nowhere in my improvisations. This is a danger of the noodling method.

What I finally devised I call an "intentional" method. This method differs from all other methods in that it requires only one active ingredient -- the mind. With virtually no skill at the keyboard one can learn to improvise with this method. The reason is simple. There are only four rules to follow.

Rule one: Never play what you do not first intend in your mind to play.

In other words, you must first hear a note in your head, and intend or need to have that note before you ever play it. The purpose of this rule is to instill from the beginning the habit of thinking music before playing it. When you let your fingers do the walking, mindlessness is sure to result. Because inventing music requires you to think music, you must train yourself from the outset to think music before playing it. This will guarantee your ability to invent music at a later time, when you have acquired sufficient technical facility to be able to execute what you invent. The rule is simple. If you don't first hear it inside, don't play it.

Rule two: Never play more than you can actually control. 

If you can't control more than one line of music, don't play more than one line. When you can control one line and intend every note before you play it then go to two lines. And so on. 

Often we are tempted to play in four parts before we can intend anything. The reason for this is simple: four part harmony is very gratifying to play. The problem is that, without intent, it leads nowhere. If you follow this little rule, your ability to control what you are doing will advance much more quickly than otherwise. It is called pacing. As with any exercise you need to pace yourself in order to build up stamina. That is the reason behind this rule.

Rule three: Strive to break rules one and two as often as possible. 

In other words, push yourself past your intentional and control comfort levels all the time. If you only do what you can do easily, you can not grow. Therefore, be willing to take risks in order to learn faster and acquire more skill. To follow the exercise metaphor further, no pain no gain.

Rule four: Mistakes do not exist in improvisation. 

When you say something you didn't intend to say, it can be a stroke of inspiration, a Freudian slip, or something which might be termed awkward. Mistakes, on the other hand, are possible only when playing the intentions of someone else. At the time you are improvising, you are the only one who knows what you are going to say. How is it possible to make a mistake? Searching for just the right expression or just the right gesture is a behavior which everyone expects as normal in human conversation, and so it should be in improvisation.

You may ask why I state as a rule that mistakes do not exist in improvisation. If it were just a nice thought and not a rule, then you might fall into the trap of fear that paralyzes most players who might enjoy improvising, but fail to make anything out of it. Having it as a rule, acknowledges mistakes as an essential ingredient in the creative process. The word for this is serendipity.

With these four rules, anyone who puts his/her mind to it can learn to improvise. 

There is a fifth rule which is just as important as the first four but can cause the most 
problems for those who wish to improvise.

Rule five: As soon as possible, take every opportunity to improvise in front of others.

You cannot build your confidence by talking to yourself. Confidence comes from learning to manage yourself in the presence of others. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The easier it becomes, the more what you intend works. This is a cycle that you enter. If you intend to say something and you don't say it, you exist apart from the cycle. If you intend to say something and you say it in public, others begin to hold you accountable for what you say. If what you say interests others you can proceed to elaborate on what you said. If others take issue with what you said you can explain yourself further. If you cannot explain yourself further you excuse yourself to think about it further before trying again to explain. The more you use the opportunities to discuss your ideas, the better you will become at explaining them. The better you are at explaining them, the more others will want to hear what you have to say. And so on. 
It is, however, best to choose as a time to improvise in front of others a moment when only those who enjoy encouraging your development are listening. You can hurt yourself by choosing the wrong time. So be careful.

Remember what Bach said: "Anyone who works as hard [as I] can do the same" and 
"Everything must be possible".