There is a lot of mystery around the concept of improvisation. For some it’s a magical, creative experience that can’t be explained. For others it is thought that it comes after practicing all the fundamentals (arpeggios, scales, modes, theory). A more balanced approach would be to say that a variety of things need to be worked on from ear training, scales, transcribing, learning licks, etc. I am generally referring to improvising over relatively challenging chord progressions, common to the jazz idiom.
I’m going to make a rather bold statement that some will disagree with. I would venture to say that the vast majority of people haven’t thought about improvisation as I have over the past few years. Here goes: “Improvisation is largely a recall activity in the brain“. So we are mostly recalling things we’ve practiced/played before and choosing what to play.
Some will say ‘But Will I just play what I hear in my head’. Well yes, but why are you hearing what you hear in your head? It’s because you’ve practiced it before.
Let’s look at some specific examples. Say you take an accomplished musician new to jazz. You take him to a bunch of jazz gigs and you listen to all the solos. Will he be able to go home and improvise jazz because he is now hearing these sounds? I would say it’s pretty likely he won’t.
Let’s say all you practice are scales and argeggios for a few years. Will you be able to improvise over rhythm changes? Probably not.
Let’s say you practice playing voice leading lines (whole/half notes) through various jazz chord progressions. Will you be able to improvise with this on stage? Nope.
In art you could randomly through paint at a canvas and say you improvised. On the guitar you could randomly hit notes on the guitar in some sort of weird artistic fashion and act all mysterious. But by improvisation in jazz and blues I am referring to playing somewhat cohesive solos in the style of the masters. This takes a lot of work.
A lot of what we practice is what can be called ‘preparatory work’ or what I call ‘busy work’. In other words it is not directly usable in real performances. You would never play arpeggios, scales or basic voice leading (guide tone) lines during a real improvisation. A huge amount of what most of us practice is actually the building blocks of a good solo. It is an intermediate step that doesn’t usually need to be practiced. Many of us have difficulty creating melodic phrases from these fundamentals, especially if we’re new to the style, such as jazz. That’s because we don’t know the language. We must learn to imitate at first, like we did as children learning our native language.
So if you want to make the most use of your time I would suggest you learn to play full jazz solos up to speed. Then mix and match the phrases from different solos. Each phrase usually fits around a chord or arpeggio shape and works over a specific chord type (dom.7, maj7, min7, etc). Learn how to repeat a phrase over the next chord and tie the phrases together so they are not disjointed. To me this is the most valuable area to work on. You will start to hear these phrases in your head. Understand the phrase and how the voice leading works. Often chord tones are used on strong beats (beats 1 and 3). Most often these strong beats are approached by 3 eighth notes, which is commonly known as forward motion (Hal Galper).
What does improvisation mean to you?