Improvising 101 for Classical Musicians


Interviews with musicians

Essays about music and guitar playing

Music to listen to and play

Fun stuff

Information about your host, Tim Berens




I saw a fascinating scene at an orchestra rehearsal once.  We were rehearsing "Oh When the Saints Go Marching In", and in the arrangement is an open section for solos.  The conductor turned to one of the musicians in the orchestra (a classical musician of the highest caliber) and asked him to improvise a solo over a chorus.  The fellow looked at the conductor as if he had just been asked to speak Chinese.  He did not play the solo.

Improvising is fun.  Improvising well is difficult, but the interesting thing is that improvising well isn't any more fun than improvising badly.  It's just fun to make up your own melodies.  Classical musicians should all learn to improvise at least a little.

The biggest difference between classical and jazz music in terms of how they are played is the focus of your mind. In classical music, you are constantly referring to what you practiced so many times, thinking "what comes next what comes next what comes next" -- preparing your mind and your fingers to do exactly what you have already done many times before. You are "pushing" the music out.

To improvise, you must set aside this urge to push and focus more on listening -- listening to what you just played and to what the others around you are playing.

If you are brand new to improvisation, don't worry about modes and scales all up and down the neck. You can learn modes and scales everywhere and still not be able to improvise well.

To start, work with a very small portion of the neck. Actually, I would suggest you start with just one note. Find a source of chord changes (tape yourself, use Band in a Box, play along with a record), and then pick just one note on the neck that works with the chord changes.   Use very simple chord changes with a slow tempo and a simple feel.  For example, strum a C chord, and play the note C.

Close your eyes and listen to the music. Then play the one note you have chosen.  Play, but don't push the music out -- listen to what you are playing and pull it out.

Play just this one note in different rhythms, sounds, articulations. Play this note and just have fun with it. When you're satisfied with just the one note, pick another note that also works over the changes and play it, too. You'd be amazed how many ways you can play a solo using just 2 notes.

As you get more and more comfortable with two notes add more notes.  Use all 8 notes of the C scale over your C chord.  Listen to each note to get a feel for how it sounds against the C chord.

If you do this every day for a couple weeks, you'll learn what improvisation feels like. From that point, you begin to apply all the elaborate mechanisms for playing  through chord changes that are found in all the jazz books.



2002 - 2016, Tim Berens
All rights reserved