Learning to Improvise on Any Instrument

In music, improvisation means creating a musical composition on the spot, by yourself or while playing with others. Improvisation can be a wonderful way to showcase your knowledge and abilities on any instrument, and it’s also a FUN way to communicate your feelings, thoughts, or emotions. Ready to learn more about improvising?

Different Styles of Improvisation

Improvisation is a common technique used in music across different cultures and throughout history. In most cases, it involves rules and guidelines that are specific to that musical style and help to give the music structure.

Here is an example of improvisation by the great Bobby McFerrin:

Here are some other types:

  • Jazz Improvisation
  • Free Improvisation
  • Improvisation in Classical music
  • Improvising on the Djembe (West-African Drum)

Why is it important to improvise?

Improvising is a fantastic way to draw on skills that you have already developed, as well as hone in on new techniques. It can also help you to focus on three major aspects of music: rhythm, melody, and harmony. Even before written music was invented, improvised music was used to communicate thoughts, ideas and stories. In many cultures, improvising is an integral part of their musical traditions.

But, most importantly, it’s FUN!

Is There a Specific Skill Level Needed to Start Improvising?

Not at all! Students can begin improvising from day one. As they develop and learn more musical concepts, they’ll be able to make their improvisations more advanced and interesting. Improvisation is a fun way to make music for any age or skill level.

Practicing How to Improvise

Just like any other musical skill, improvisation is learned through dedicated practice. How can we learn to become better improvisers?

Developing Your ‘Toolbox’

There are two major aspects that will help you learn to improvise more confidently:

  1. listening
  2. practicing.

Find songs, albums or musicians that you’re interested in and that use improvisational techniques. You can copy exactly what they do, or you can glean ideas and techniques from them. The more you listen and the more you practice along, the more skill you’ll develop.

Additionally, one of the advantages of music lessons compared to watching online tutorials is the immediate input you can receive from your teacher. Make sure to use that as a resource!

Making it Part of Your Practice Routine

If you want to improve on it, improvising needs to be a part of each practice session. Just like any other musical skill, it takes time and dedication to grow. Carving out the necessary practice time is key to making sure that your growth as an improviser is constant.

While it might be difficult to motivate younger children to practice, playing improve on their instrument can be encouraged as a fun activity!

Start S-l-o-w-l-y

Many people (wrongly) assume that improvisation isn’t a finely honed skill. In fact, expert improvisers are at the same musical level as other virtuosic artists. Learning to improvise should be approached the same as any other skill – start slowly and give yourself plenty of time to learn.

Setting Guidelines

When practicing, it can be really helpful to experiment with your own rules of improvisation. Try playing within certain scales and key signatures, or limiting yourself to a specific set of rhythms or time signatures. You can even explore one extended technique at a time and see where it takes you.

Transcribing

If you find a piece of music that really resonates with you, you can always transcribe it. Transcribing means writing it out so that you can learn from the written music and reference it later.

For musicians that want to train their ears more, or don’t feel confident writing out music by hand, you can also transcribe aurally, which means committing the music to memory and learning to play it back without writing it down. You can transcribe entire songs or just “phrases” and “licks.” The more musical vocabulary you have at your disposal, the more intrigue and confidence you’ll have when improvising.

Tips for Improving

Make it FUN!

Try improvising over your favorite songs, or songs you already know really well. Grab a friend and have the two of you improvise together. You can even try improvising over the music in your favorite TV shows, movies or YouTube videos! However you think you’ll have the most fun improvising will help prevent boredom and burnout.

Start Simply, Develop Ideas

Just like learning any other skill, it’s important to start simply and build over time. Like my earlier example, you can start by improvising with just a simple major scale. You can vary the rhythms, dynamics, or even order of the notes. From there, make it more and more complex. Starting simply will help you to not only improve your abilities, but your confidence as well.

Using Dynamics

Don’t forget to vary your dynamics when you improvise! It’s easy to get wrapped up in the specific notes and rhythms while neglecting dynamics.

Try this out for yourself: play the most simple scale you know (C Major, for example). Play it once as straight and evenly as possible. Now, play it at the exact same tempo but add some varying dynamics to it. Which method sounded more interesting? I bet the latter sounded more exciting and was more fun to play!

Make Mistakes!

Improvising should draw from spur of the moment musical decisions. There may be some decisions that are “better” than others, but you can improvise freely without the fear of making mistakes. Especially if you’re just starting out, mistakes aren’t something to be avoided – they should be embraced! If you realize that you’ve made a mistake then you can assess what you’ve done and improve on it.

As a side note, recording your practice sessions and performances is a fantastic way to listen to what you’ve done and give yourself critical feedback. Give it a try!

Summary

Improvising is not only an important part of many musical genres, it’s also FUN and a great way to hone the techniques and ideas you’ve been working on. You can improvise by yourself, with others, or alongside your favorite recordings. However you are most motivated to improvise is going to be the best method for you.

Like all other musical skills, you will learn it best with a great teacher. Finding the right music teacher is crucial in your development as an improviser and musician. If you live close to an Ensemble Music School, or are interested in virtual lessons, reach out and see how we can connect you to the BEST possible teachers. Happy improvising!

Author: Nick Bolchoz

Nick has worked with Ensemble Music Schools since 2020 and serves as the organization’s social media ‘guru’ while assisting in digital marketing and content creation. He also teaches at one of their schools in Orland Park, IL, The Music Connection.

An in-demand Percussionist and Drummer, Nick earned his M.M. in Percussion Performance from The University of North Texas and his B.M. from The University of Kentucky. Currently living outside of Chicago, IL, Nick stays busy teaching, touring and recording. You can catch him on the road with Chicago Blues Hall of Fame Guitarist, Michael Charles. You can read more about him and watch him play on www.nickbmusic.com.

Drummer and teacher Nick Bolchoz