Brainjo Bite: How To Start Improvising

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All right. Welcome to another Brainjo Bite. This episode is going to be the first in a series on improvisation, which is something I get asked about a fair amount. And the goal of this first episode is really to help ensure that if improvisation is something that you are interested in learning how to do – which I do recommend everybody give it a try – that you’re thinking about it in the right way, so that you go about learning it in a way that is effective and not overwhelming and frustrating.

And that’s going to include addressing what I think are some myths and misconceptions about what it means to improvise and how to go about learning how to do it, including at the end, I’ll give you several ideas about what you can do if you’re just getting started at it, or in the early earliest stages of doing so, as you probably know improvisation is something that for many people feels pretty intimidating.

And inaccesible, and that’s understandable. There’s almost a mystical quality to it. As you are literally fabricating music out of thin air when you’re doing it. And that’s kind of the, the goal of this episode is to de demystify that process. And hopefully afterwards, after this discussion, you won’t feel intimidated O or overwhelmed by the idea anymore. And will instead feel motivated to start trying your hand at it because even if you never become a highly skilled improviser, simply working on developing the foundational skills that are needed for it will be beneficial and practicing improvisation really just helps develop overall musicianship in ways that other things really can’t plus it is an excellent workout for your brain. So let’s first talk about the big picture here.

So let’s think about a musician who’s improvising a solo in maybe a jazz or a bluegrass band. What are the kinds of knowledge and skills that they must have in order to do that successfully. So first they need to know the musical context that they’re in and really know that context well, so that they know how to fit in and how they can add something to it. So that means understanding the conventions of the genre that they’re playing in like the usual stylist conventions of the music itself, as well as the rules spoken or unspoken around improvisation and like who takes the solo when and how, you know, when it’s your turn and so forth, then they must know the key that they’re playing in, right. They must know the chord progression of the song. They must know the notes that are part of the scale that they’re in where to find those notes on their instrument.

And then they must also be able to recognize the rhythm and the tempo so that they can play the notes in the right spots. They also typically know a sizable number of common phrases that are used in that particular style. Each of which are also common to a context like a specific chord. So this is their musical vocabulary, so to speak, that they’re drawing from to create their improvisational piece.

A lot of improvisation isn’t just drawn from nothing but rather consists of stringing together these different musical phrases, and to do all of this musicians must listen intently to the other people who are playing music so that they can respond appropriately. And then they must have the technical abilities to do all these things at the speed at which the music is going, which requires rapid complex movements of both limbs that are highly ordinate.

Now, if that all sounds really complicated it’s because it is musical improvisation is as cognitively demanding a skill as anything humans do. And it’s an extraordinary thing. And something that showcases just how remarkable the human brain is and what it can learn. So how the heck do you get there, right? Or anywhere near that point. In fact, it may seem like the gap between that and where you are now is gigantic and that it’s foolish to even try to cross it. Not to mention that you may have no idea how you would go about crossing it. So again, it’s very, easy to accept the narrative here that improvisation is something only done by special people with special gifts. And hopefully I can dismiss you of that idea, but now what I wanna do is point out that you are already quite skilled at improvising in another area of your life, and that is carrying conversations with other people every day of your life.

So what are the kinds of knowledge and skills that you need to successfully carry out a conversation? Well, first you have to know and understand the context that you’re in as that will significantly modify the things that you say. So what are the accepted conventions given the particular person you’re talking to and the current circumstances that you find yourself in, for example a conversation with the checkout clerk at a grocery store is likely going to be very different than a conversation you have with a close friend, even if it’s about the exact same subject matter. And those differences come from you, assimilating all sorts of details about the in current environment that you’re in, along with a huge body of information about social norms and customs in those particular environments. And then you must listen intently to the words of the other people involved in the conversation.

Otherwise you would have no idea how to respond appropriately, and then you have to select an idea that you want to convey when it’s your turn to speak and in doing so, choose from a vocabulary of anywhere from 20 to 40,000 words. And then you must assemble those words in the appropriate order with the right grammar and syntax. And you must also possess the TA technical capabilities to make all of those sounds with your mouth as each one requires a different pattern of contractions and movements of your vocal apparatus. So having a regular conversation with another human is at least as complex a task as musical improvisation, yet it comes so naturally now that you probably don’t think much of it, but it’s also something that you learn to do. You weren’t born knowing how to carry on a conversation, just like how every musician who is able to improv fluently had to learn how to do so.

And how did you learn how to do this? How does every human learn how to do this since virtually every human learns to carry out fluent conversations in his or her native language, it’s a learning path that has an extraordinarily high success rate. So it’s a really great model to follow. And it begins with building the foundations for this, for the ability to carry on, carry out improvisational speech. So that includes learning how to move the vocal chords in order to make the sounds necessary, to produce words and sentences. Every child begins by learning the basic sounds of, or her language or the phone aim that are the building blocks of words. And we refer to this learning phase as babbling, and over the course of a few years, they start learning how to assemble those sounds into words and sentences, all of this involving the creation of increasingly complex motor programs in the brain that control the contractions of things like the vocal chords and the diaphragm and the parts of our vocal apparatus that are needed to speak in exactly the same way that musicians must create the motor programs in the brain that control the limbs that allow us to make music on our instrument, but given what’s required to carry on a successful conversation, learning how to make the sounds is only a tiny fraction of what must be learned, right?

The bigger and even more challenging part is learning to choose the sounds that fit from a huge library of possibilities, and then to be able to do so at the pace of a conversation and doing that requires a large body of knowledge that is entirely distinct from the technical components of talking. So most children don’t start talking till around the age of one, but then don’t carry out full contextually, appropriate conversations until many years after that. And in order to get there, they, number one first build all of the foundational skills. So as mentioned, that includes building all of the motor programs that move the vocal apparatus, but they also must acquire all of the knowledge necessary to know what to say. So every child must learn what to say and how to say it. Think about the fact that roughly half of any conversation you have with another person is spent listening, and you must possess all of the neural machinery that’s needed to extract all of the necessary meaning from the sounds that the other person or persons are uttering in a conversation.

Otherwise you won’t know how to respond. And as you probably know, children can often understand far more than they’re able to communicate. And part of the frustration of being a young child is not being able to effectively communicate the things that are going on in your head or the things that you want to say. So building the foundational technical skills is really about at building the neural machinery that allows you to effectively communicate the ideas that are in your head. And then the second thing they must do in order to be able to carry out fluent conversations is practice, conversing, practice, talking, practice, improvisational speech. And they do this in a graduated step by step fashion, right? A first conversations are very simple, just one word at a time. And then they start stringing two words together and ultimately start forming rudimentary sentences, ultimately becoming able to convey more and more complex ideas through their speech.

And of course they make many mistakes along the way. Those mistakes are absolutely essential for them being able to learn and progress. And this, I think are the two most important things to extract from the language learning model for musical improvisation. So one that it requires building the foundational skills that will be needed. And number two, that it requires practicing improvisation of lot in this case having lots and lots of conversations. So now let’s turn our attention back to music and how we might apply these two important insights to learning how to improvise musically. So first let’s talk about the foundational skills. So, like I said to improvise, you have to know what to play and how to play it. And as you may have heard me talk about before people often tend to overemphasize or focus too much on the how to play it part and neglect the what to play part.

So knowing how to play something on our instrument requires learning the technical skills, right? It requires building those motor programs that allow us to move the limbs like we want to, but the foundations of knowing what to play are your training and musical knowledge and concepts, or how music works. So, as I talked about, there’s a lot of information you must acquire when advising in order to know what to play what’s appropriate. But understanding that information requires both a trained ear and an understanding of how music works. Now, you might also refer to that as music theory, but I don’t particularly like that word because it sounds academic and intimidating and theory isn’t even the right or the appropriate word for what it is. And then the second piece here is that in order to learn to improvise, you have to practice improvising a lot.

And I think one of the problems here is that people, people only typically see the final product, right? You see a musician who’s able to do this well. In the case of language, we’ve seen children go through this process. Many times, we know that it starts out rudimentary and simple and advances in specific stages with lots of mistakes along the way. And even though every successful musical improviser has gone through this same process, we only typically see the final product of all that. And one thing I’ve learned over the years is that so many people don’t appreciate how much effort it took for an expert musician to get to where they are. There’s a famous quote, that’s attributed to Michaelangelo about this, which says “if people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

In other words, people are seeing the final product of all of his hard work and effort and obsession over the fine details of becoming an artist. Likewise, with expert musicians, we don’t get to see where the, where they started. We don’t see them going step by step working on the small details. And we don’t see that in order to be able to improvise like they are, they had to practice doing so quite a bit, but just like learning to converse fluently requires lots and lots of practice. Having conversations, learning to improvise fluently requires lots and lots of practice. Improvising. It’s not a skill that is just going to emerge after you’ve learned a certain number of songs or after your technical abilities have reached a certain level, just like anything else. Improvisation must be practiced until it too starts to become second nature.

All right. So now let’s talk about a path to getting there and how to get started. The first thing to do is to remember, to keep building those foundational skills. Remember those are the necessary foundation to support being able to do this. And so that’s specifically means don’t forget to continue to work on training your ear and to continue to work on your understanding of how music works. And if you don’t have it yet, I put a link to the banjo player’s roadmap in the description. So that reviews the three categories, technical skills, ear training, and musical knowledge and concepts as well as the typical sequence of how to learn them. And for those of you who are in the breakthrough banjo course, where inside the course, you can go to work on each of those things specifically depending on what stage you’re at.

And then the second thing is to start for practicing improvising. And I think one of the biggest challenges with learning to do this is knowing what the next best step is. As I’ve talked about in previous episodes, the goal with practice is to practice right at the edge of your abilities to what’s been described as the zone of desirable difficulty. So when you’re just pushing the limits of what you can do if something is too easy or too hard, it won’t stimulate any changes and playing a song. And just trying to improvise right off the bat is a gap. That’s going to be a far too big to cross in the beginning. And once again, it’s helpful to think of the child model, think about a child in those early conversations that he or she is having as they’re learning improvisational speech.

It’s also important to broaden your idea about what improvisation means. So anytime you’re creating music of your own, you’re improvising. And thinking of it in that way may help you think of different things you might try in this particular domain. And I think the most helpful thing to think about when you’re starting to practice it is to think, how can I simplify the process in some way? So the first thing you might think about simplifying is to restrict your choices, right?

So the fretboard or the piano keyboard is a huge place. There are lots of different notes there, so you can restrict the possibilities. So one thing you might do is restrict your possibility to one note. So you might take the root note of a song. So if a song is in the key of G you take a G note and play it throughout an entire recording of a song you can do this in whatever genre you want to, or you could just put a song on and then just try to find a note that sounds good played throughout.

And there are endless ways that you could just do that, that you could just play one note in a song, coming up with all sorts of patterns that sound good. So noodle around on that one note until you find some patterns that you like. And one thing to remember about improvisation is that good improvisers often repeat the same patterns in their improvisations. So when you think about it about improv, you might be inclined to think that it means that what you play always has to be changing or unique, but that’s not true. Repetition is key to the music that we love to listen to. So don’t be afraid when you’re doing this to find something that you like find a pattern that you like and, and repeat it. Then you might go to improvising with two notes, right?

You might try the root note and the fifth note. So if you’re in the key of G a G and a D or noodle around until you find two notes that sound good. And then you could go to finding three notes and four notes and so forth. If you’ve ever seen instruction on improvisation, you’ve likely seen diagrams of scales for different keys. But if you were to take a song and start with one note improvisation, and then move two, and three ,you do that enough times and you’d end up building that same exact map. And think about how much more solidly you would know that map if you built it in that way, rather than just having it given to you. Another way you might restrict your choices is just to stick to one string. So put on a song, play something along with it, but only allow yourself to play on one string of your instrument.

Another way to restrict your choices would be to only play notes in the chords that you’re playing. So learn the chord progression to a song, and then with your fretting hand only play those chords and then improvise by figuring out different patterns to play over those chords. As you’re making the changes along the way, you can try that with chords that are down the neck and then move to chords that are up the neck. So that’s one way to simplify restricting the choices, the number of notes, the strings only using chord tones.

Another simplification you could try is to slow things down. So any of the things that I just talked about you could try with a song played at maybe half speed, or you could take a song, you know, well, slow it down to half or quarter speed, and then see if you can make up little variations along the way.

So you could do this with a recording of a song. You do this with a rhythm track or a chord backing track, but just play it a lot slower than performance tempo. And then see if you can little variations in what you would normally play. Another way you can simplify would be to just take your hands out of the equation altogether. So improvise either with your voice or simply in your mind.

So, as I mentioned, there are two parts to improvisation. There’s knowing how to play the things you think of. And then there’s also thinking of things to play. And improv is really just about using your imagination and the better your musical imagination, the better your improvisations can be. Most of our favorite musicians throughout time are not our favorites because of their technical abilities, because of how dextrous they were on their instrument, but rather because of their musical imaginations, because they were able to think of wonderful things to play that nobody nobody had thought of before.

And so you can practice also imagining new things to play. Now, one issue here is that just like the young child who can’t get out, all the thoughts in their head that they want to say, there are likely going to be many things that you could imagine playing that you can’t actually play yet. So if you, if you’re constraining by having to be able to play it, then you can’t then you can’t practice that thing. But what you can do is practice improvising something either by humming it or just imagining it in your mind. And I personally do this all the time when listening to music especially if I hear something that I think might sound good on the banjo, I’ll start imagining how that might sound right then and there. Or if you’re listening to a bluegrass song you could imagine what you might play when it’s your turn to solo.

And so the great thing about this technique is that you can start building your musical imagination as a total beginner, because it doesn’t require any technical skills whatsoever. And then like anything else, the more you practice it, the better and better you’ll get at it.

All right. So those are a few ideas for getting started with practicing improvisation and perhaps the most important thing to remember here is to adopt a spirit of play and experimentation when you’re doing this. This is just another way to have fun making music. And if you’re brand new to trying this sort of, sort of thing, again, think of the child who is carrying out his or for her first conversations, he or she isn’t trying to do anything fancy. They’re just trying to make the most of the skills that they have right then in order to communicate the very best that they can, and then using every single conversation as a learning opportunity.

And of course, the reason that children play is because play is how our brain learns children are driven to play because their brains are learning machines. And the best way to learn is to play with the world around you. And with that approach, there are no mistakes. There’s only feedback about how the world works. Okay. So hopefully that demystifies the process of improvisation a little bit and gives you some ideas of some accessible ways. You might start going ahead and practicing it. In the next episode on improv, I’ll talk a little bit more about different approaches to improvisation on the banjo and some ideas about how to work on those things. Specifically, like I said before, improvisation is a complicated skill, especially at the highest levels. And it takes a lot of work and effort to get there. It’s a long process, but as I talked about in the last episode, that’s actually a wonderful thing.

The fact that music provides an endless learning experience is one reason it’s so fantastic. And why it’s the gift that keeps on giving because there are always opportunities to make progress, and progress is a thing that we find rewarding and motivating.