The Paradox of Improvisation

In this blog post, I hope to clarify some misconceptions about the subject of improvisation. Since defining one’s terms is the trench in which clarity lives and dies, I’ll start there.

Here is my definition: Improvisation is the act of synthesizing learned musical vocabulary with moment-to-moment, real time expression.

A good analogy for improvisation is off-the-cuff conversation. Typically, when you are talking to someone, you do not compose your sentences in your head before uttering them. You just kind of wrangle your thoughts into submission as the words come out of your mouth. By using your acquired vocabulary, understood norms of syntax, and grammar, sentences and paragraphs simply emerge.

So it is with improvising music. By using your acquired vocabulary of chords, scales, and arpeggios, licks and phrases simply emerge. Your musical thoughts are wrangled into reality and realized on your instrument.

Now for definition 2–the source of the confusion.  Improvisation, in the minds of many, is usually thought of as spur-of-the-moment artistic expression having no prior precedent.

If this was true, it would require that you invent, from whole cloth, a new system of tones and timing–a whole new system of music, basically–every time you improvise.

This, of course, is nonsense. I don’t believe that the non-improvisers among us, who ascribe to definition 2, even believe this about improvising. They just haven’t thought it through.  Definition 2 is a slippery slope and the paradox is nothing more than an illusion. Most non-artistic people fail to realize that artists are up to something far more mechanized than they imagine.

Here, for the benefit of Mr. Kite, is the formula for effective improvisation:

technique + intuition + plan=improvised music

The technical know-how part is easy enough. (in theory, at least) If you know how to play over chords, you know scales, and you can move about your instrument with some fluidity, then most of your troubles are over.

Intuition, on the other hand, the ability to understand things automatically and without prior understanding, is more problematic. For an activity like improvisation, there really is no such thing as intuition. (Sorry magic lovers.) What we call intuition is more accurately thought of as a sort of musical wisdom.  Effective improvisation, then, arises from accumulated knowledge and from previous experiences.   Here are some of those previous experiences: ear training, scale practice, learning other people’s solos note-for-note, technical studies, and–most of all–daily improv.

Planning for your improvisation may seem antithetical to the cause but it is perhaps the most important part of the whole enterprise. You may believe that this is the most expendable part, but–trust me–all players are hatching some kind of plan.

Here are some examples of pre-solo planning thoughts:

“This song is in E so I’ll wank around in E major for a second”

“Here comes that part that goes out of the key, I better chase each chord with an arpeggio.”

“I love this next part where I get to fly around in the pentatonic scale.”

“I’m totally going to use that one David Gilmour lick right now.”

I can really hear my way through this one, I’m just going to play the melody around the melody by ear.

See what I mean? Your plan need not be much more than some tertiary thoughts, but you must have one. If you pretend that you can solo with no plan than I assert that you are being deliberately disingenuous or that you have very little self awareness.

Once again, sorry magic lovers.

Improvisation is badass and you should try it.

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