How to improvise with others when you're not super confident yet

Confidence is a tricky thing. Sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you deserve to be confident and something you don’t. And sometimes that doesn’t stop you. The trick is tempering confidence when humility and kindness.

When is comes to improvising, especially with others, confidence is vital. You have to mean what you play and play what you mean. You have to be flexible and ok if things don’t go as expected or planned. As a beginner that can be challenging.

1. Practice improvising

This may seem really obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to convince students to practice improvising. Some believe that it will ruin the spontaneity. Some believe that you can’t practice it. Some don’t know how to practice it.

In reality, all the best jazz musicians practiced - Bird, Coltrane, Sonny, Herbie, Miles. Learn what the chords mean, listen to different versions of the song, transcribe your favorite parts, and work hard. The better you know the tune the more flexible you can be. (If you are really struggling, try writing down some ideas and memorizing them. It’s a great place to start and will give you confidence knowing that if you nothing comes to you in the moment, you have those ideas to fall back on.) Practice leads to confidence and you have to practice improvising.

“Anybody can play. The note is only 20%. The attitude of the mother****er who plays it is 80%.”
— Miles Davis

2. Listen first

Listen to what’s going on around you and try to fit into that. If you get lost, stop and listen and someone will give you a cue as to where you are - either musically (like a drum hit or an obvious chord change will happen) or verbally (like someone yelling out “bridge” or “top”) or visually (like with a head nod or finger point). The more aware you are of your surroundings the more likely you’ll be able to react quickly and appropriately.

Listening while you improvise can help you come up with ideas too. Don’t be afraid to leave an uncomfortable amount of space too. Remember that just because you stop playing, doesn’t mean the music has stopped. Imagine it from the audience’s perspective. If you’re soloing (regardless of the instrument you play) and you stop for a measure or two, what other sounds are still there? Piano? Bass? Drums? Background lines?

3. Let go of expectations

When you’re improvising, you don’t have to come up with the “coolest, hippest line ever played in the history of the world.” You don’t even have to come up with the something “good” (which is subjective anyway). You just have to come up with something.

Remember that it’s not really even about YOU, it’s about the music. Pick people to play with who believe that too. Don’t let someone else’s ego ruin your music making, regardless of your current level or ability. You are not going to try to fail - so remember that intent is more important that success.

4. Meet yourself where you are

Being ok with where you are, musically, right now is one of the most empowering and peaceful gifts you can give yourself. Because it gives you a foundation to build off of. You will become a better improviser with more practice. However, you can’t get to the point of having more practice without first being brave enough to try in the first place. Some time ago, I heard Victor Wooten speak at the Jazz Education Network conference. He compared playing music with a child learning to speak for the first time. If a child waited until he was fluent in a language before even attempting to have a conversation, how would he ever learn?? The same goes for improvising – especially with others.

5. Back to Basics

Rhythm and feel will always be more important than notes. If you are overwhelmed by combining the rhythm, melody, and harmonies of a tune, focus on one thing at a time. Try to keep with the rhythm while playing an easy part of the tune. Or keep the tune simple and vary up only the rhythm at first.

Music is made up of sound and silence. Use both to build up a dialogue, even if it is not incredibly complex. You can even repeat sections as needed, and give yourself permission to carry the tune forward. Do anything you can to keep the musical conversation going.

Remember that improvising is a long process. The only way to get better is to do it as often as possible.

How would you help someone who wasn’t very confident at improvising with your group? Share with the community in the comments section.

Monica Shriver