As I sit at my desk preparing for an improvisation workshop, I realize how much I enjoy improvising myself. Whether it’s soloing over a chord progression or free improvisation, I enjoy doing it all equally. Improvisation gives a lot of freedom to tell your own story in a special and personal way. Depending on your fellow musicians, your mood, the audience, you each time create something different. I just returned from a 5-week tour through Canada and again I noticed that when you are really in the moment, even an audience that has less experience with improvisation listens with fascination.
In my work as a singing teacher I regularly encounter singers who are afraid to improvise. They think that it all has to be good right away. The question is of course what ‘good’ means: a good sound, great timing, beautiful phrasing, singing in tune? That’s quite a lot to impose on yourself! It reminds me of a conversation I once had with the head of a jazz department who told me that their singers never improvised “because they couldn’t do it.” But, unlike the instrumentalists, they didn’t get any improvisation lessons (at the time).
Improvising, however, is something you can just learn. You can compare it to having a conversation. Someone starts with a ‘subject’: a motif, a rhythm or a mood, you can then join in or object to that, you can change the subject, question, interrupt and so on. The conversation can escalate into a heated discussion, babble on for a while, there can be silences, it can be very rhythmic or not. All the rules that apply in a conversation are now also applicable and you must really listen to each other so that you tell a story together. This story does not always have to be ‘beautiful’ and ‘right or wrong’ is very relative. If you improvise over a chord scheme, you are much more bound to the use of a certain stylistic language and improvising on a fast jazz theme is different from improvising on a blues theme. Telling your own story using that language is an art that you learn by practicing, just like when you want to learn to speak Spanish or French.
In this way, improvisation has a lot to offer: it teaches you to listen better, it gives insight into musical structures and you get more courage. But most of all it is great fun to do!
Column ZING Magazine – © Ineke van Doorn – 3 Mei 2018