I once attended an ASTA (American String Teachers Association) convention and went to a workshop on improvisation. You could cut the tension with a knife. The attendees, mostly classical string teachers, appeared to generally believe falsely that improvisation means having the guts to screw up in front of others!
Let’s look first at the surprising benefits of improvisation, and then look at what improvisation actually is. I think you’ll agree that by my definitions, teachers as well as students — at all levels — can easily learn and enjoy by doing what I call improvisation.
Perhaps the nicest benefit of improvisation is that it turns off your inner critic. Musicians who are constantly monitoring their playing for errors, and stopping when a mistake is made, are basically training themselves to be obsessively fearful of mistakes, rather than actually playing music. By playing straight through a passage of music, even a short and manageable part such as a phrase, a learner can focus on the continuity of music, and still train themselves to keep mental notes about what’s going well, and what needs improvement. Being saddled by too much inner critique is like breaking up your music with static on the radio.
Brain studies show that when the part of the brain that handles improvisation is turned on, the part of the brain involved in self-critique is turned off (see the article This is your brain on improvisation—and why your creativity depends on it). This indicates that the mere effort to improvise makes you less inhibited and negative. It also suggests that anyone deeply wrapped up in a live performance can go all in and benefit from turning off their inner critic while they perform.
And what exactly is improvisation? What is performance? Many imagine improvisation to involve making up notes, and performance to require an audience…
Improvisation is really about making do, in the moment. Musically it often involves finding a pathway from one beat to another, from one harmonic idea to another. It is comparable to jotting down thoughts on paper, or making marks in a visual sketch — improvising is making audible observations about the mood, harmony or structure of a piece of music as you play through it. At its most basic, however, improvising is making do, in time, in a piece of music over which you have no control.
For example, if you put on a recording and play along with it, you are improvising. You have no control of the timing of that recording; you have to keep up, and you have to make do with whatever you play in order to do so. If you are playing or rehearsing with others, you are also involved in a form of improvising. Even if you are reading music, you might miss a few things or it might be too far away to see every note; you are improvising plausible solutions within the timing you are given, and over which you have no control.
In the same way, these types of improv are also performances. Even if there is no audience, any attempt to play straight through a passage of music, no matter how short or long, is a performance. A major part of good practice involves strategizing for performance by prioritizing the beat notes and phrasing over the individual notes. Knowing the big picture allows plausible improvising in the heat of the moment, when the music has launched and you have no choice but to continue.
In some styles of music, improvising is taken far beyond the simple idea of making do in the moment. Jazz musicians specialize in calling upon their emotions, technique, and harmonic knowledge to make musical statements about what they are hearing in the tune. Other styles, however, may not improvise notes at all, but rather improvise rhythms or expression while playing the same notes each time, or playing notes as written, but significantly changing the feel of a piece of music as they repeat a passage.
None of this can be practiced or accomplished if the inner critic is poised to squelch questionable ideas or berate you for a mistake already made. Thankfully, it appears our brains squelch the critic instead, just when we need to put ourselves into the music. (An interesting way to involve improv in your teaching is in this earlier blog article as well.)
Improvisation happens the moment we play or practice in a predetermined timing, and if we realize how good we actually are at doing it, we can train our inner critic to be useful instead of hurtful. And if we ever attend an improvisation class like the one I saw at the convention, we can do it with joy rather than fear.