Creativity, hard work, and beginning jazz improvisation

I occasionally teach a university course in jazz improvisation, geared toward beginning improvisers. Sometimes I think prospective students are afraid to sign up because they don’t consider themselves already to be musically creative. On the other hand, I have some students enroll in the class with unrealistic expectations about the results, thinking that they will learn all the tricks and secrets and be ready for some fantasy gig.

It doesn’t make sense to avoid taking French 101 because “I don’t speak any French”—you’re missing the point of an introductory course. But it also isn’t likely that by the end of the semester you’ll be ready to wow everyone at the smartest dinner parties in Paris.

Photo, alphadesigner
Photo, alphadesigner

The good-news/bad-news is that most of what happens in a beginning improvisation class doesn’t feel creative or spontaneous at all. In my course, we do a lot of drilling of scales, arpeggios, patterns, and “licks,” and then trying to execute them successfully in a pre-planned way over a set of chord changes. The same happens in your first-semester French class: you memorize some basic phrases by rote, and try to use them in the right order in very structured “conversations.” At some point you get some very restricted freedom: you have to say what color le chat is, but you get to pick if he is noir or blanc. Similarly, in my class you might get to decide which of your two memorized “two-five-one” licks to use over the first four bars of the bridge, or whether to start that digital pattern on the root of the chord or the fifth, but that’s about it. Limited options don’t mean you aren’t really improvising (or speaking French), it just means you don’t have a lot of vocabulary to work with yet.

I know that this rubs some improvisers the wrong way: I shouldn’t be regurgitating pre-packaged licks! I should be developing my own “thing!” For those people, I suggest you read a biography of any great improvising musician and find out what they did in the early stages of developing their thing. Or just try speaking some French: no need for grammar study or vocabulary lists! Do your thing!

For those who consider themselves creativity-deficient: you can learn to improvise in a systematic way—it’s not something you’re born with (or without). I’ll teach you some existing vocabulary and some techniques for making your own, and then you can start putting them together in ways that make sense to you. You’re being creative!

For those hoping to learn some “tricks:” the only useful trick I can teach you is to take the techniques from the class and hit the practice rooms. There aren’t any shortcuts to improvising well. It will require hard work over the course of many years. But the process can be a lot of fun!


One response to “Creativity, hard work, and beginning jazz improvisation”

  1. Hi Bret,

    I really enjoyed the language metaphor and I think you’re definitely right. Thanks!

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