1.The goal is to create music.
It is easy to lose sight of this when confronted with mounds of theory and repetition, but this idea is the best guide throughout the process of learning to improvise.
2. "Memorizing" and "internalizing" can be very different kinds of learning.
Learning a specific piece of music so that it can be reproduced exactly (memorizing) is different in process and result than learning a piece to improvise using its material and context (internalizing). Memorizing is learning the blueprints to a building so you can rebuild it; internalizing is learning where the bathroom is in several buildings so you can find the bathroom quickly in a building you’ve never seen before.
3. The short term goal of learning is to remember specific information, but the long term goal is to remember a web of interconnected ideas.
Improvising music uses specific notes, patterns, licks, etc, but the process of improvising is less about remembering these ideas exactly than it is applying several of them loosely to a musical situation.
4. Learn material in balance.
It is important to know music theory such as scales and arpeggios, literature in the form of melodies and harmonies to standard pieces, and language in the forms of licks like ii-V’s and solo transcriptions. It is even more important to balance these areas.
5. How you learn something is important.
Learning something visually takes in and stores the information differently than learning the same thing aurally. Visual learning has a quicker retention curve, but aural learning creates better general memory for improvisation. In addition, reading something from a screen versus physical paper has a different effect on memory, as does typing versus physically writing.
6. Repetition is key.
When in doubt do it again, but balance repetitions in a row (one practice session) with repetitions over time (each practice session during a month or more). Research shows that you forget new information quickly for approximately ten hours and retain whatever is left after that time for longer, so revisiting information daily will create more reliable memories.
7. Rhythm is arguably more important than note choice.
Playing a “bad” note with a good rhythmic feel is almost universally preferred to a “good” note with a bad rhythmic feel.
8. Don't be afraid of things you can't define.
Some of the best things in music let alone improvisation aren’t easily notated let alone defined or described. If you hear something you like, the goal is to recreate it more than to label it.
9. It's ok to not be completely original all the time.
While it’s good to try new ideas and apply things you work on, good improvisation is rarely if ever completely original. Phil Woods once said he was 10% original at the most, and if nothing is familiar the listener has nothing to relate to.
10. Silence is important.
Putting appropriate space between musical ideas is important; a ⅓ silence to ⅔ sound ratio feels balanced and gives other musicians a chance to react and interact with you. In the moment silence always feels longer than it is, so listen to recordings of yourself and see if your perception of how much space you use matches the reality.
Subscribe to the BUZZ to receive 3 weekly articles for Performers, Students, and Educators