Playing a challenging piece with ease, but freezing up when you see “cadenza” or “ad lib” written on the page? Getting through written music just fine, but struggling to “jam” with your buddies? Improvisation is fun for both performers and audiences, but it can be daunting. How are some musicians able to play on the fly so easily? Here are some tips for improving your improvisation skills:
1. Strong fundamentals (Technique) – practice your scales, arpeggios, melodic studies, etc. ... in every key, at various tempos, and with different articulations. Solid technique will allow you to focus on creativity rather than worry about what your fingers are doing.
2. Strong fundamentals, part 2 (Harmony and Melody) – a robust understanding of music theory, especially chord progressions and melody, is helpful. Know the functions of and relationships between chords. Learn how to prepare and resolve dissonance. Listen to and transcribe your favorite solos, then play the transcribed solos in multiple keys. Don’t limit yourself to soloists that play the same instrument as you. This will help you develop your musical intuition.
3. Creativity and Spontaneity – don’t be afraid to try new things or make mistakes! Think outside of the box. Repetition can be a powerful tool – if you make a mistake, for example, do the same thing again a step down or a step up. The audience will think it was intentional, and it will simply sound like a sequence. Don’t worry too much about “correctness” and following established rules or well-known patterns. Strong technique and strong musical intuition will guide you.
4. “Rely on your ears” – though important to know and understand the chord progressions, don’t simply follow the chords. Instead, listen to and interact with your fellow musicians to create a solo that is more musical than contrived.