The Lost Art of Improvising Music

Posted on April 22, 2013 by


As a beginner musician who is completely self-taught I am always looking for guidance on how I should practice and what skills I should focus on to become a well-rounded musician.  When one of my readers directed me towards a study by Gary McPherson, a music professional that researches deliberate practice and music, I pored over it for any insight it might provide.

The study tracked 8 classes of 3rd graders (157 students) through two years of music school. The children were tested at the beginning to determine their starting skill level and then again at the end of year one and two to track their progress in five areas: performing rehearsed music, sight-reading, playing from memory, playing by ear and improvising.  While the study found that the children improved overall in every area, they showed the least improvement in playing by ear and improvising.

You may wonder how you even go about studying improvisation and its improvement over time.

Children were asked to play the opening of a given phrase and to continue by making up a complete melody (i.e. motif item), and also to improvise a piece on their own that had a beginning, a middle and an end (i.e. complete piece item).

Later, recordings were studied by multiple evaluators and scored. Interestingly, the scoring of the improvisational sessions showed the most variability of all five areas studied.  Basically, the evaluators had the hardest time agreeing on how to rate a student’s improvisational skills.  McPherson goes on to state that the disparity  between the most improved skill of sight-reading and the least improved skill of improvisation could be that “the children were not being taught to improvise during their lessons.”

A skill that is subjective and difficult to measure with a standardized test?  That doesn’t sound like something our traditional test-driven school system would embrace.  All of a sudden the snippet of Lisa in the Simpson’s intro being kicked out of music class because she was improvising makes a whole lot of sense.

These excerpts reminded me of a conversation I had with a classically trained musician with thousands of hours of practice and performance logged. I told her that I was learning how to play guitar and she congratulated me and told me she had a bunch of friends in college that were always jamming together. “They always ask me to join, but I don’t know how to improvise like that. Give me any piece of sheet music and I can play it but I don’t know how to just make it up.”

At the time I was really surprised to hear her say this. I only had a couple hundred hours of practice under my belt and had already experimented with improvising over a backing track. By working with the A minor pentatonic scale, playing around with the rhythm, and utilizing some of the patterns, bends and hammer-ons I had learned I was able to improvise. I am not saying that it sounded great but I was able to create music in the moment with my instrument.

How is it that a musician with thousands of hours of experience wouldn’t feel confident enough in her abilities to improvise alongside a couple friends playing their guitars? It turns out that she is not alone and that many classical trained musicians never learned how to play by ear or improvise.

Its not that improvising is a difficult or advanced skill.  According to Professor William Harris of Middlebury College,

Any amateur musician in the 18th century could improvise, but as methodologies for music teaching developed in the 19th century, reading and playing complicated scores became the focus of the teacher’s attention, to the extent of crowding out analysis of how music was constructed and how a student might put together a piece on his or her own. (source)

It is a shame that many musicians are never taught how to improvise because it is a natural extension of learning an instrument.

Can you imagine learning grammar and syntax  by reading and analyzing classic literature and never documenting your own thoughts and feelings in writing?  Or memorizing and mimicking famous speeches and never presenting your own thoughts and feeling orally?

When you only play music written by someone else you never get the opportunity to vocalize your own thoughts and feelings musically.

Improvisation isn’t just for Jam bands and Jazz musicians.  Listening and improvisation skills allows musicians to play together when they haven’t both studied and practiced the same piece of music.  In my experience it can also be a really fun and interesting experience to do on your own.

It isn’t always easy to figure out where to focus my limited practice time and energy.  I often feel like I am being pulled in so many different directions.  Most recently I have been directing a lot of focus into sight-reading and playing rehearsed music and this study reminded me that these are only a portion of the skills required to become a well-rounded musician.  That developing my ear and  improvisational techniques are equally important and will only strengthen through deliberate practice.

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy:
How to Practice Deliberately on Guitar
4 Tips For Maximizing Your Practice
My Daily Guitar Practice Routine

photo credit: zetson via photopin cc

Posted in: Guitar, Practice