Friday, January 2, 2009

Reflection and Improvement

Since there are technically no "mistakes" in improvisation, it often becomes difficult to assess the quality of each jam session, and/or if what had transpired was "successful" or not. While some greatly appreciate the open-endedness and the endless possibilities that the process has to offer, others find themselves frustrated with the activity's lack of clear objectives and eventually turn to other ideas in order to find fresh inspiration.

Both mentalities each have their respective points, but the beauty of improvisation is that by approaching music in this way, the power of goal-setting is determined by the performer themselves. If the objective for a jam session between 3 people was to play something in the key of C major, then that can be established ahead of time and performed with that understanding in mind. If the goal was to play something in an ABA form, that could be attempted as well. If the intension was to simply play and explore the resultant sounds, or break the ice between the performers, that could also be time well spent.

In my experience, the sessions that I felt was the most productive were the ones where the musicians established simple but clear-cut structures played for relatively short durations (1-2 mins). This helps the musician to quickly internalize the concepts behind the exercise and also helps them to direct their ears toward what's happening around them. As with any improvised session, the music will sometimes take a different turn from what was originally conceived, but having a place to start from tends to give its departure a stronger sense of intentionality and significance. Many or most of the ideas listed on this site are designed for this purpose -- not as prescriptions of how or what to play, but as general guidelines for musicians to direct their ears toward what they might want to play next.

We now have access to cheap and easy to use recording technologies which makes the process of assessment a much easier task. It is recommended that, at least in the beginning, musicians record everything they play during these sessions and determine if the outcome matches what they originally intended. If they're performing with other musicians in a group, talking about what had transpired is also extremely helpful since it allows for the individual to gain additional perspectives of the same event.

It could be argued that the overall goal of improvisation is to eventually get to a point where musician's intensions (theory) are in complete correlation with their actions (performance). Outcomes will vary depending on background, experience, and skill level, but there is a certain integrity and "trueness" to a musician's output when their ideas are completely synchronized with their instrument. Regardless of style or medium, this is something that everybody can achieve if the will to do so is there, and it is this type of directness that tends to speak to audiences on an emotional level.

The Mentality of an Improvisor

Being that improvisation is largely a spontaneous activity, to think that such an act could be "taught" to someone by another person may initially seem absurd or even self-contradictory. After all, how can you teach someone to be spontaneous?

Classical musicians are used to their teachers giving them etudes to practice, and these exercises are designed to improve or add to the musician's skill-sets. Learning how to improvise, however, cannot be thought of in the same way of learning an instrumental or compositional technique. It's the act of doing something in itself -- more of an attitude or mindset that one gets into while creating music, rather than something that can be explained in terms of its specifics.

If the above sounds complicated and hard, it helps to remember that children improvise all the time with tremendous ease. They will hit things, blow things, pluck and strum on anything they can find, even without anyone telling them to do so -- this is largely because they haven't developed the inhibitions and self-conscious mental blocks that naturally develops as a result of entering adulthood. They have yet to make a distinction between art and life, and aren't afraid to express their creativity in a spontaneous and honest fashion. In many ways, improvisation exists as a way for musicians to revisit the state of mind that they used to have when they were younger -- towards the curiosity, directness, and expressiveness of the child.

So the most important thing to do in any given session is to simply relax and play what comes to mind. Since there are no mistakes in improv, there should be no fear of making them, or playing anything that may sound unusual, inordinary, or even accidental. In a sense, "teachers" of improvisation are only there to bring out what already exists in the student, in an environment free from the threat of retribution. Each session can reflected upon in its own terms rather than pitted against the idealized state of a notated score, which tends to make the activity an uplifting experience, regardless of outcome.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Improvisation Exercises for Musicians is an adaptation of an earlier paper, Pedagogy in Improvisation, a work that started as a documentation of improvisational exercises found within classical, contemporary classical, and "non-idiomatic" (or sometimes called "free") styles. The purpose of the original work was to create a practical list of exercises and activities for musicians, especially for those within the classical medium whom the opportunity to participate in improvised musics tended to be rare. Since then, the project has expanded in scope and have begun to incorporate methods and techniques from jazz, pop, rock, and many strains of musics from around the world. Many of the methods listed here are also adaptations of ideas found in composition and musicology, as an attempt to bridge the gaps that exist between theory and practice.

As such, this project will be partially intellectual, partially practical, partially analytical, partially pedagogical -- but always with the intent of creating a unified methodology that integrates aspects of theory, performance, history, and aural training. In music classes these skills are normally taught separately and students often have trouble understanding how they relate to one another. Improvisation can, however, enable the musician to do all of those things simultaneously, allowing them to connect the dots and refine their skills in a holistic sense. At this point in time there has been enough research done on the matter to substantiate the argument that improvisation can be a useful tool toward improving one's musicianship -- and it seems very likely that it will become a commonplace activity in the near future.

It is, however, also common for musicians to express frustration with improvisation because it lacks the directive quality that notation provides for its performers. Improvisation can sometimes overwhelm the musician with so many possibilities and choices that they lose the ability to make decisions and are left paralized. The exercises listed here are designed to address these concerns -- while some musicians are naturally predisposed toward playing "freely", others may be more comfortable improvising within defined parameters that give the sessions direction and structure. Over time most improvisors find a healthy balance between freedom and structure, tailored to their personality and skill level. It is usually within this process that the activity becomes a form of self-reflection which allows musicians to gain a greater awareness of their own tendencies and preferences.

As any good improvisor would argue, the primary and most important objective for any jam session is active listening. Regardless of style, if musicians are listening to one another interest is automatically generated for both performers and audience alike. The exercises listed here may suggest activities for musicians to do, but at the same time it should also direct their ears toward certain ideas which allows it to become an ear-training method as well. The list of exercises here have been collected over the course of several years, from workshops, classes, lessons, and meetings with musicians involved in the art of musical improvisation, and it is hoped that the list would continue to grow into something substantial.

If anybody has anything to add to this list, please do share! This is an ongoing project and there is plenty of room for outside contributions. ryant at (Send your name, email, and website if you would like to be credited.)