Learning to improvise by composing


In this post we’ll take a look at a very specific method that I’ve been using to learn to improvise. We will also look at improvisation in relation to composition – and how they might neither be as similaror as different as you might think.


If you’ve studied improvisation you might have seen it defined as real-time-composing. In the case of both improvisation and composition, you invent something, but in the former you don’t have the time to go back and redefine what you’ve just invented, as you might when you compose.


What if we see improvisation and composition as being the two extremes of the same thing? That is, if we place them on different ends of a spectrum. We often talk about different styles of music as being either composed or improvisational. But doesn’t all music – at least as long as it’s being performed – include both elements? A composed musical piece can never be performed in exactly the same way as the time it was before. Not even by the same musician. And the so called improvised music often contains some composed elements, such as a chord structure or theme. Some music lean towards the composed end of the spectrum, some towards the improvisational end. I find this way of looking at improvisation and composition quite interesting, as both approaches certainly have a lot to offer. What if you could make the composition sound as fresh and spontaneous as the improvisation? (My compositions always start in improvisation which I later refine). And what if the improvisation could have the mood and structure of a composition you’ve thoroughly worked through?


Let’s apply this to practice. But first, a personal example. I’ve been practicing improvisation on piano for quite some time. I love the freshness and spontaneity of sitting down to play whatever I feel like playing, or to express that feeling of freedom in a tune. To me, it is the core of inspiration. But let me be clear about this, I was not a natural talent when it came to improvisation. I felt much more comfortable with composing and couldn’t make the transition from the known and pre-rehearsed into the improvised very well. Looking back at it now, I know why – I had not absorbed the material well enough to improvise on it.


When I teach improvisation to my piano students, most are initially uncomfortable making the shift from the known to the improvised. In order to make them more comfortable with improvising, I must ease them – through a gradual transition – into the unknown. That is, I have to set strict boundaries and rules, give them just a few notes to play around with. Over time the complexity of the improvisation can slowly increase. And while not identical, I realized that this process was actually not very different from my own, transitioning from composition to improvisation. So, this thought came to my mind: “Can I use composing as a tool for teaching myself improvisation?”. I invented what I came to call “the five-compositions-method”.


You don’t need to know a lot about composition in order to use this method – as it can be adjusted to whichever level you’re at. The grade of complexity can rise over time. It will help, however, if you have at least some basic experience and confidence exploring your instrument or voice. Let’s dive into it!


Decide on any number of tunes that you want to get more comfortable improvising on.


Compose five mini compositions on a short section of each song.


Teach yourself the compositions.


Start to gradually change the compositions you’ve taught yourself.


In theory, that’s it. But let me lay down some ground rules for you.


The compositions should be relatively simple in relation to your skill level. They shouldn’t take a lot of time to learn or be too technically complex. If they are too complicated you will have to focus on technique and lose the improvisational element. The whole point is to learn them pretty quickly and with some ease. They should be simple enough so that you can start to change them little by little as you proceed.


What sort of compositions are ideal?


It could be a small motif that you repeat and change with the chords of the song.


It could be a comp rhythm or riff, if you’re play a chord instrument.


It could be a lick that you play or sing at a certain part of the song.


It could be a rhythmic idea that you keep repeating in a certain section.


What are the benefits of this method?


Not only do you get a lot of (pre-rehearsed) ideas to fall back on. You also establish ideas that you are able to change a little as you go along (if not, make them simpler!). Still, that is just the bonus. The real benefit from this method is that you really work through the tune. By composing ideas, you have the ability to be just as creative as when you improvise – but you also get the time you need to work things out. A lot of creative notions you couldn’t reach through improvisation gets a chance to evolve in your compositions.


The more I’ve tried this method, the more my compositions serve as an entry point into the tunes I’m improvising on. Basically, I have to find enough keys before I can open the door to the improvisational room. And it doesn’t end there, there are even more benefits with this method! The process of composing forces you to be creative, to concentrate and to deeply absorb the tune you’re working on. That alone is worth everything!


Additionally, when you get comfortable switching between composition and improvisation the two will start to blend. You will sync your ears with your hands or lips and get a chance to develop your own creative voice.


Obviously, the invention and application of the “five-compositions-method” have been very powerful to me. It’s important, however, to stress that the process is different for everyone. Because of that, it is hard to be super clear about how the process can look. You will have to work through it to know what works for you. Please let me know in the comments below if something is unclear. Or just post your thoughts about how this method helps you become a better improviser.


Did you like what you just read? Are you looking for further answers to your challenges? Don’t hesitate to comment on these topics, or any other, below.

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