I’ve discovered a few things along the way that have helped me immensely in overcoming my fear of improvising to help me to “let go” and just play. These are either ideas for when you are improvising, soloing, or composing or just some really good things to know. They will work with your learners, too:
- Embrace silence. You don’t have to be playing all the time. Breaks are good and can be very musically appropriate. Silence can even add tension.
- Repetition is also good. If you find a pattern you like during a solo, play it again, and again.
- Do something unexpected with the rhythm. Even if you’re only playing three or four notes, changing the rhythm can make a huge difference.
- Quarter-note triplets are cool. No matter what style you’re in, quarter-note triplets always make for a cool-sounding pattern. But less is more.
- Pentatonic scales. They will always sound good. If you’re struggling to make your early solos work, try using pentatonic scales. (1-2-3-5-6)
- Minor pentatonic scales. If you know your major scales really well, think in major pentatonic and start on the 6th degree and see what happens.
Dorian mode (1-2-b3-4-5-6-b7). It works well going between blues and minor pentatonic. Try composing a melody in a different mode.
- If you’re in the B section (the “weird” part) of a jazz chart, just get weird and play some tasteful chromatic passing notes.
- Go by what feels right. There are no “rules.”
- Let go. I mean, this one is easier said than done but as soon as you can truly let go, you will begin to be able to improvise and compose unhindered.
- Use a jam track. This is truly the best way to learn improv in a non-judgemental way, especially if you are in your own basement without anyone home.
- Mosh. This is a strategy I use with my learners where they all do a “solo” at the same time so that no one’s sound is sticking out and making learners feel like they are being put on the spot.
- Take a simple song and rearrange it.
- Just use three to five notes. Most of the best songs only use three to five. Have you heard of the “One-Note Samba”? One note is sometimes all you need. The reason we think that we have to use more is that when music became written down, it became more complex. The notation became a means to remembering how to play it. That mentality seems to have carried over into our creative consciousness—for it to sound good, it must be complicated. It’s just not true.
- Play arpeggios.
- Pitch bends. These work well in rock music and most popular styles. I know your prof said to never scoop to the pitch, but it’s alright in some cases. Try some to see where they fit best for you.
- Growls and other extended techniques. Opening a high-energy solo with a growl can be very effective and a simple way to add interest.
- Large leaps. They are usually unexpected, so they can easily draw in the listener.
- Scoops, falls, doits, shakes, and turns. These are pop horn terms that are used often in all styles of popular music where horns are involved. Pitch is much more fluid in popular styles. It is possible to sound too “pretty.” Jazz players in big bands add in these all the time even if they aren’t written in and it’s completely acceptable to do so—where appropriate of course.
- Changing horns for different genres and styles is normal. I play trombone, and for a long time, I thought that if I couldn’t play all styles and genres on one horn that I just needed to practice more—also not true. Some horns are better suited to different genres. I have a large-bore orchestral trombone with the F attachment for classical and orchestral gigs and a smaller, straight tenor for any jazz, rock, or ska and I have used it for classical gigs, too. Different sized mouthpieces are good to have as well. I switch to a smaller mouthpiece for lead parts in a jazz ensemble and to my larger one for most other applications. I have even been known to switch mouthpieces between tunes. Why make it harder on yourself if you don’t have to? If the tools are there, use them.
- Find an adjective and a place name, put them together and make music out of it.
- Same—same—same—different or same—similar—same—different. This is a good rule-of-thumb for composing a four-measure melodic phrase. It works well with composing catchy melodic lines for pop tunes, too. A variation on this idea is to find a two-measure melody that works, then change one thing about it in the next two measures.
- AABA. Also known as song form. Great examples of this form are “Hot Cross Buns,” and “Ode to Joy.” Common variations on this form are ABA and ABBA (not the band). I never realized how effective and important this form is for composing a simple melody until recently. This is a common form in jazz music too.
- Rhythm-rhythm-rhythm. It is possible to fake it with rhythm if your pitches aren’t “right.” So often, we forget about rhythm. We have been trained to think about the notes and that we need the right notes to make good music but so much of the music we hear around us utilizes rhythm. Music isn’t just about the notes.
- Don’t think—just do! A lot of us classically trained musicians get too caught up in the chord changes. Who cares? Just play! What’s in a CM13(#11) chord anyway? I’ll tell you: C-D-E-F#-G-A-B—so basically, all the notes! My point is that it doesn’t matter (yet!). Just play!
- Ghost notes are okay! I know your prof said to play every single note with the same tone and consistency with the one before and after it but it’s just not necessary or in many cases, not even stylistically appropriate. Don’t ghost all of them, just the ones that aren’t as important.
- Think of a minor pentatonic scale as 6-1-2-3-5 instead of the standard 1-b3-4-5-b7. It’s much easier to think of the major pentatonic scale starting on the 6th scale degree. This way, you don’t always feel like you have to start on the first note of the scale every time.
- Complex doesn’t mean better! Why compose music that nobody can play? Less is more. Consider this Rollercoaster Tycoon analogy that encapsulates this nicely:
- If you know the melody of a particular chart (rock, pop, jazz, or otherwise), use that and then embellish it for a solo or for an easy way to create something new. Begin with embellishing the rhythm, then one note, then two, then three, until you have a new improvised piece of music. It’s an incredibly effective way to begin improvising. Learn the melody by ear, too, not with the sheet music.
- Go to a local open jam. Just in my small town there are open jams every week. There is an open blues jam every Saturday afternoon, an open jazz jam every Thursday evening and a Celtic jam every Thursday afternoon. I’ve gone to the blues jam and the jazz jam before, but it is certainly easier to go with a friend. Ask a friend if they want to go with you even if you don’t play the first day, it would be a fantastic way to get to know some fellow jammers if nothing else.
- Jamming is like having a conversation.
- In blues, the chords are major but the notes are minor. When a blues guy says, “we’re in C,” they don’t mean to play a C major scale. They mean C blues, which has a minor third in it as well as a flat 7. Don’t ask me how it works; it just works. Over-thinking it will make your brain explode.
In the end, we know that creativity is important and that we need to be doing more of it in our music classrooms. That is part of the reason why you decided to click on this post. Due in part, to our conservatory-modelled training, much of the inherent creativity that we once possessed has been sucked out of us to make way for an over-abundance of theory and European notation. Letting go can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be, and I hope you’ve found some inspiration within this post help you do that, and I hope your learners can develop some form of ownership and happiness in their creative musicking adventures.
Until next time, Happy Musicking.
This post was adapted from the pages of Creative Musicking: Practical, Real-Life Ideas to get Your Learners Creating Their Own Music