Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Beginning Improvisation Part 1

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get from students who are starting to learn to improvise is "What do I play?".  This post will be the first of series where I will give you exercises to start to answer this question for yourself.

The language of improvisation
There are two main misconceptions about improvisation, the first is that it is almost impossibly difficult.  In this view, improvisation is a magical ability that certain people are endowed with from birth.  The second misconception is that improvisation is very simple.  In this view, anyone can improvise by just playing whatever they feel like. 

Neither one of these views really corresponds to my own experience with improvisation.  In my (and most other jazz musicians I have spoken to) opinion, learning to improvise on an instrument is just like learning a language, and improvising is like speaking.  In other words, anybody can learn to improvise, but it takes a great deal of time and energy to learn to improvise effectively. 

The first step
The first step in learning the language of improvisation on the drums is to be able to think creatively and in time.  In order to make the process easier and less intimidating, I always start my students out with a very limited set of options when they are improvising.  By reducing the number of choices they have to make, I am trying to get them to focus on being able to play creatively without having to fall out of time.  Here is the first exercise that features very restricted options. 

Exercise #1
In the book "Syncopation" by Ted Reed, play lesson one on pages 4-5 in the following fashion.  Play the top line with your hands using alternating single strokes on the snare drum.  With your feet play four quarter notes on the bass drum as lightly as possible, and beats two and four on the hi-hat (I call this jazz feet). 

Once you can play through the whole lesson without stopping and you feel comfortable with the coordination, go back to the beginning and play through it again. This time through the lesson, replace the fourth bar of every line with an improvised rhythm.  Restrict yourself to improvising with quarter notes on the snare drum, and try to think of your improvisation as a natural response to the rhythm of the first three measures.  Be sure not to fall out of time (I strongly recommend playing this exercise with the metronome), and try to keep going on to the next line whether you make a mistake or not.  Here is what the first four lines would look like written out:
Syncopation Improv 1

And here is a quick video of me playing four lines of the lesson with the fourth bar improvised:

For non-drummers
If you are coming to this exercise from another instrument and are just interested in sharpening your ability to improvise rhythmically, don't worry if you don't have access to a full drum set.  I would suggest playing these exercises on just a snare drum or practice pad and tapping your feet.  If you don't have a snare drum or practice pad, you can just use body percussion.  Try patting your hands on your leg and tapping your feet.

Next lesson in the series here.


  1. Good lesson, but won't you just end up playing one of the combinations already on the page? There is only so many options with a quarter note only on snare. You can change dynamics tough...

  2. Hey Dado,

    Thanks for the feedback.

    While it is true that all the combinations are on the page, the main point of this exercise is that YOU are thinking of the rhythm you are going to play. This rhythm that you think of needs to be in time, and should be a natural response to the rhythm of the first three measures. Even though all the combinations are on the page, you aren't thinking about that at all, instead you are focused on a very limited/specific kind of improvisation.

    I deliberately kept this first exercise as basic as possible to isolate this essential skill. In the next exercise I started to incorporate dynamics.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Yes it does. I got ahead of myself and I thought about that a few moments after I wrote the comment : ))).

    I tried the exercise and ran into two problems;

    1. I ended up switching to eight note values a few times (unintentionally of course) because I wanted to respond in a somewhat off beat fashion or probably wanted it to sound a bit "busier"

    2. While I was doing the exercise, my goal became to make the fourth measure sound as different as possible from the previous three ( still just using quarters)
    Seems to me then that I lose that "natural" response you talk about cause I contrast just for the sake of contrasting.

    Maybe I'm over analyzing and should just let the emotions run the game. But that's hard.

  4. Those are very common problems, and I think that you are probably on the right track. Here are some thoughts to help you on your way.

    If you are naturally feeling the eighth notes as part of your response, and it is not causing your to over-analyze or drop the beat, that is fine. But part of the second problem you are having may be coming from the first. In other words, by trying to play too busy, slick, or off beat, you are preventing yourself from hearing and responding to the rhythm naturally and comfortably.

    This is actually a huge problem with learning to improvise! The best improvisation occurs when you feel more like you are listening to yourself then when you are involved in endless internal dialouge (check out the two songs of jazz post for more along this line).

    So my advice is basically, keep the exercise simple and restricted so you can develop the most essential skill. That is, hearing your playing and improvising comfortably and naturally in response.

    Hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.

  5. You are probably right. I'll keep that in mind (or should I say 'out' of mind :)). Thanks for the help! Keep up the great work.