Improv Practice - 100 ways of doing something
Improvisation in any context can be a difficult thing to practice - it’s theoretically open-ended, with no fixed goal and thrives on the idea of novelty and new ideas. Given this, it’s easy to feel unsure of what to practice, or how to go about developing freedom in improvisation, or to avoid getting set in comfortable but limiting patterns and ideas.
There are a few things to keep in mind to help focus improvisation practice, and to ensure new ideas are being developed and progress being made. In general, it’s important to have a goal – something specific to focus on, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Just like learning the notes and rhythms of notated music, there should be a clear feeling of progress on whatever this goal may be. Whether it’s to do with rhythm, chords, melodies, articulation, or anything else, focusing on something and sticking with it until it feels noticeably improved is an essential part of disciplined practice. The more specific the better, and a teacher should be able to help with picking important things to work on.
Another idea that has been useful for my own practice, and addresses a few issues mentioned above, is trying to do something 100 different ways. The number is a bit arbitrary (trying this in various contexts, I’ve sometimes ended up with lists anywhere between 60 and 200), but it necessitates creative thinking about a problem, or spurs the search for new ideas or approaches.
It can be applied to almost any context or problem, expanding what’s possible in each situation, and bringing out new and creative responses. For example, you can try:
100 ways of playing the chords of a piece (including different voicings, substitutions, etc).
100 approaches to improvising melodies in a piece
100 variations on a given piece (Bach Chorales are especially good to try)
100 ways of modulating between keys
100 ways of comping through a piece (including changing rhythms and textures)
Used for specific situations, it leads to determining general principles and applying them in new and poetic ways (such as in 100 different substitutions for a ii-V-I progression). For more general situations it requires more creative responses, and prompts a more exploratory mindset to improvising - questioning innate habits or aspects of the situation, trying to disrupt common or easy approaches, and applying abstract connections.
With this in mind, here are a list of ways of improvising over any given piece (for a piano player). It’s not quite 100, but should serve as a start to a thorough list of things to try:
1: RH improvise entirely with crotchets and rests
2: RH using primarily dotted crotchets and other syncopations
3: RH improvise using mostly triplets and other polyrhythms
4: RH improvise only within a restricted range (say an octave or so)
5: RH improvise trying to use as much range as possible
6: RH improvise trying to use mostly scale movement, avoiding skips
7: RH improvise using mostly 3rds and larger intervals, avoiding steps where possible
8: RH improvise primarily using intervals larger than a 6th
9: RH improvise using only the notes of the triad
10: RH improvise using only the extensions of the chord (7ths, 9ths, etc)
11: Both hands play in unison, outlining the sound of the chords
12-14: Improvise using strictly 2-, 3-, and 4-bars phrases
15: Avoid starting phrases in certain parts of the bar (eg: the first beat, the on-beats)
16: Avoid finishing phrases in certain parts of the bar
17: Use mostly staccato articulation
18: Use mostly notes a minim or longer, considering where they are placed in the bar
19: Use an extreme range of dynamics within each phrase
20: Play one bar of the written melody, and one bar of improvising throughout the form
21: Use of block chords
22: Use of counterpoint - there could be several sub-points on how to try this as well
23: Delay some chord changes by a beat or so
24: Anticipate some chord changes by a beat or so (as heard in Monk and Bill Evans)
25-27: LH plays entirely in crotchets; entirely in minims; entirely in dotted crotchets
Words by James.