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Easy Experimentation for Artistic Growth in Improvisation

Double Bassist by @ARRGch
Photo by @ARRGch

Students of improvisation are often looking for the quickest way to learn vast amounts of new material, all while sounding great immediately. Oftentimes this translates into playing a large number of tunes for a few minutes each.

In the short term, such practice sessions can be helpful. This is especially true if we need to learn a great deal of material in a short amount of time. As a long-term strategy, however, you may find that your artistic voice isn’t as nurtured as it could be with this sort of practice. You may find yourself more comfortable soloing over various tunes, without being any closer to finding your individual voice.

To this end, we might incorporate an additional approach. Try spending an extended period of time on a single tune, without any eye towards vast improvements, but rather an eye toward comfortable experimentation. Pick a tune that is very easy for you, rather than one that is challenging in some way.

For example, rather than trying to shred every lick you know over the changes to a “Giant Steps” today, pick a simple tune like “All of Me.” Solo over these changes for thirty minutes or more. Only play things that are easy for you to hear and execute. If that means you can only play simple melodies, then great. Do that and nothing more. Once you have done this for a while, experiment with playing some faster licks, rhythms or extending your lines. Use any theory you know, but use your ear as your guide. Play only what sounds good to you and is easy for you to play. Most importantly don’t get too complex too soon. Easy experimentation only.

As you become increasing comfortable, experiment more. Experiment as if you had all the time in the world to find the notes and lines you want to hear. As you get more complex you may begin to make some poor choices. A few missteps will be normal in this process, but if you find yourself making manifold mistakes then you should simplify your playing again.

Don’t worry about playing exciting licks or intellectually stimulating ideas. Just play over the changes in a way that is comfortable for you, all the while experimenting with what sounds good to your ear. If you find yourself thinking more than you are listening, then you need to simplify your soloing again. Keep the stress level, and thought level, low.

Don’t be in a hurry. Just experiment and play. Do it for an hour and you will see some results. Do it for an hour each day for a week and you will see measurable results.

Play several choruses everyday for a month and you may be surprised at what your slow experimentation allows you to discover about the tune, your instrument, improvisation and your musical ears.

After a year of this type of easygoing investigation you may find that not only can you play intricate lines more easily, but that you are also starting to develop your own voice. This level of comfort tends to bleed over into everything you play.

Do this with several tunes over a period of one year and you won’t believe how comfortable your improvisations will be at the end of it all. Work on Easy Experimentation for a full year and you might find yourself come out the other side a completely different player, and perhaps one with an individual voice.