It's funny how if you practice a certain thing, you get better at it, like it's some kind of weird coincidence. I've been practicing improvising a lot these days, and I was pleased to find at tonight's gig that my solo playing has improved. I'm not exactly in Joe Pass' or Pat Metheny's league, but I've gotten better.
It may sound strange to practice improvisation. How can you practice something if it's different every time? To a non-musician, it might appear that the music flows out of the improvisor like a gift from above, but the truth is that we're not always so inspired. On some nights, the musical ideas flow like a river. On other nights, the river is frozen solid.
For the past month, I've been practicing improvisation at the same time I practice sight-reading. Every day, I take out a fake book and sight-read 8-10 songs. (For you non-musicians, a fake book is a large collection of lead sheets: melody, chords, and sometimes lyrics.) I'll play through the melody first, attempting to play it perfectly the first time. Then I'll practice improvising over the chord changes. Sometimes I improvise single lines, and sometimes I'll challenge myself and improvise chords with a melody on top, which isn't particularly easy on the guitar. After I've improvised my way through a song, I'll go back and work on the problem spots, playing around with the tricky chord changes until I come up with a few things that sound good.
When I practice improvising, I usually don't sound all that great. To make it as challenging as possible, I improvise without any back-up…no Jamey Aebersold tracks, no Band in a Box. I've discovered that if I can play without relying on back-up and make it sound even halfway decent, it's going to sound pretty good once I'm playing with someone else.
Like most musical skills, improvisation is something that can be developed. It comes naturally to some, and other have to work at it a little more, but it's something that all musicians can do with practice. I've worked at improvising off and on over the past few years, but I've mainly "practiced" improvising during gigs. Even with only a month of concentrated practice, my improvising has improved quite a bit, and I'm excited to think about how far I'll take my improvisation skills in a year (or five or ten).
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.