Top Stuff Every Improviser Should Know

If you want to become a serious jazz improvisation artist, there are a few tips that can help take your career to new heights.  As with other artistic endeavors, natural talent is a huge plus, but those willing to put in the time and effort to refine their skills can be rewarded by as much joy and success as those for whom it seems to come easy.

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Essentially, improv is the ability to compose music “on the fly” over existing chord progressions.  Having formal musical training is a plus, but not a necessity.  When it comes down to it, listeners care far more about what you can do than about how much schooling you have.  However you come by your knowledge, the fundamentals are the same.  Learning the language of music, practicing good technique, and ear training are non-negotiables in the world of improv.  If you don’t have a truly solid foundation in these areas, you will fall short of your goals.

As you work on refining your skills, it’s important to remember to be yourself.  Trying too hard to emulate your favorite artists can limit your ability to grow.  It’s great to study your favorites in an effort to understand their methods, but you should focus on finding your own voice and your own style if you want to set yourself apart from the crowd, and the crowd of people trying to succeed in the world of improv is a large one.

When you listen to the performers who inspire you, don’t make the mistake of thinking they possess some sort of magical abilities.  The most inspiring artists are the ones who have spent hours upon hours over the course of many years to get where they are.  They’re the ones who understand that learning is growing.  Part of learning is certainly putting in the hours it takes to understand all of the moving parts.  Another part is making sure you don’t spend so much time in the practice room or classroom that you miss out on opportunities to learn “in the field” or “on the job.”  Being afraid to take a risk because you’re waiting until you’re perfect can result in an impossibly long wait and countless missed opportunities for growth.  Any time you have a chance to spend time talking to working musicians should be seen as a gift and an invaluable way to add more tips and techniques to your repertoire.

Don’t get stuck in a rut.  You may have a favorite style or a handful of favorite artists, and there may be others that just don’t seem to match your style.  Limiting your exposure to the things you know and with which you’re most comfortable is a sure way to limit your range and capacity for overall growth.

Don’t give up.  If you have a real passion for improvisation, don’t let yourself get discouraged by a perceived lack of progress or performance opportunities.  Being a great artist takes lots and lots of practice and hard work.  You may start work on a particular transcription or spend time trying to learn a difficult melody only to start feeling like it’s an impossible task.  Stick with it.  Only by getting through these difficult projects can you truly grow.  A project that seems less interesting than you’d hoped could turn out to be a bigger building block than you ever imagined, not to mention that triumphing over a difficult task is always a morale and confidence booster.

Along with refusing to give up, don’t give in to the temptation to advance too quickly.  If you think you’re good enough to jump right into the most difficult work, you run the risk of putting the cart before the horse, so to speak.  Taking a little more time to make sure you’re comfortable at one level before moving to the next will never be anything but a benefit.

At the end of the day, if you have a true passion for improv and are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to be successful, there’s no reason to think you can’t be as inspiring to others as your favorites are to you.

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