Learning to improvise is tricky, because it requires a lot of extra knowledge aside from just "how" to play your instrument, while simultaneously requiring your ability to set aside all that knowledge and just go for it. In fact, the more musical rules you know, the freer you are to ignore those rules! Weird, I know.
You may have already considered improvisation and decided it's simply not in you. Well, you're wrong. You improvise every day. The best way I can describe this is with language. If you speak a language, then you already improvise and exercise all the mental skills required to improvise musically. In order to speak a language, you start by learning the "rules"—what are the letters, what sounds do those letters make, how do they get put together to form words, how do you put those words together to from coherent sentences, how do you create sentences to communicate an idea or thought. Once you've learned all those rules, you can communicate with another person on the spot. You do this every day. Think about your next phone call. Once you answer the phone, you will say the standard stuff: "Hello, how are you…" Consider this your "melody"—you've said this a million times. But what follows will be a purely improvised conversation with someone, completely spontaneous and coherent, but completely unrehearsed. You will call upon all the language tools you've learned and form unique sentences on the spot, and you will respond to what your friend is improvising. You certainly aren't spending anytime "practicing" your next conversation—when that phone rings, you'll just jump in and do it, make it up on the spot based on the "rules" you've learned.
That's exactly how it works in musical improvisation as well. First, you learn the rules, then you call upon them in the moment—and break them when necessary—to create an improvised musical statement. And if you're playing with other musicians, it becomes more of a conversation in which you and the other musicians are responding to each others' improvisations as they happen.
So, you can improvise—you will do it a hundred times today. But it will take effort to transfer your existing improvisation skills to your instrument. Trust me, it's worth the effort!
I can't teach you how to improvise in a short article, but I can offer some important tips.
Sounds simple enough, but many people are so sure they can't improvise that they never even try. Just try it—that's what your private practice times are for, to try things. And expect that it won't go well at first. But like anything, the more you try, the better you will get.
SCALES & CHORDS
There are a lot of scales and a lot of chords to learn, but guess what—there are less of those than there are words you learned as a toddler, so you can do this! Begin by becoming familiar with the basic scales and chords, then advance to the more complex ones. Repetition is the key here. Once you learn the chords and which scales can be applied over them you can begin to create all sorts of original musical statements. Here's a simple way to see how it works. The opening word in the song "Over the Rainbow" is sung (or played) with an octave leap. You know it—"Some-where…over the rainbow…" In the key of C, these notes are lower octave C, then up one octave to the next C. If you play a quick C major scale to get from one note to the next one, you've just broken away from the standard melody and "improvised." As you grow, you'll begin to learn other ways to stretch a melody, but knowing chords and scales will be the tool set you'll need.
You will begin to hear things in your head—melodies, ideas—long before you know how to make them sound on your horn. But knowing exactly how far apart notes are from each other on the spot takes time. Start to train your ear to recognize intervals. For example, the opening notes of the traditional Wedding March ("Here comes the bride…") is called a perfect 4th. As we mentioned, "Over The Rainbow" opens with an octave (or an 8th). Once you can instantly recognize the intervals in your head, you'll be able to leap around your instrument to the intervals you hear in your head.
One of your best tools is a piano keyboard. Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpeter, always instructed his students to learn the basic keyboard because it's the one instrument on which you can "see" the notes. Seeing chords, scales and intervals is a great help for imprinting them in your brain. Learn as much piano as you can!
Chances are there is a teacher near you who can show you the basics of improvisation. There is little replacement for a good teacher. Study with the best, and you might become one of them!
Find musicians who are in the same boat you are: wanting to learn to improvise. Get together often and simply try stuff out. Better yet, get with musicians who are better than you and ask for their help. Playing with musicians who challenge and stretch you, and from whom you can observe and learn, is one of the most important things you can do.
Nothing will serve you better than listening to great improvisers often. And little is more rewarding than listening to all that great music! Jazz is the most common form of music that incorporates improvisation, but you can find great improvisation in rock, country, bluegrass, and even classical music. Listen, listen, listen! Listen to not only how great improvisers create spontaneous solos, but how they interpret a melody. If you have ten jazz singers sing the same song, all ten versions will sound different, colored with each artist's unique improvised take on the melody, and you'll definitely never hear solos that sound alike.
Several books offer great theory to enhance your skill set, many aimed at the beginning improviser. Here's just a few:
Hal Leonard: The Art Of Improvisation
Jamey Aebersold: How To Play Jazz & Improvise
Jamey Aebersold: Anyone Can Improvise DVD
Berklee Press: A Guide to Jazz Improvisation C Instruments (Book/CD)
Alfred: Fun Improvisation for Piano (other instruments available) (Book/CD)
PLAY ALONG TRACKS
Finally, not enough can be said about play along CDs designed to put you and your horn in front of a professional rhythm section, without the pressure of an audience! And it's certainly more fun than practicing in silence. With a play along CD, you can actually hear how your ideas are working with the band. Jamey Aebersold has long been at the forefront of this market—a whole generation of musicians has come up playing along to his great discs. Now, there are several other companies putting out solid play along series. There are simply too many great examples available on WWBW.COM, so I'm going to cheat and recommend that you simply go to the website, and enter "play along," "playalong," and "Jamey Aebersold" into the search box. You will find a wealth of great tools available to you.
I hope this article has encouraged you to start improvising. Yes, there is a lot to learn, but as I said, you already improvise You just need to transfer your existing skill to your instrument! Have fun!