11.5.22 – Apprehensive about Improvising? 

Laura Boon

Most of the singers I’ve met and worked with seem to fall into two camps – those who are comfortable improvising and those who avoid it like the plague, and would rather stick to the dots.

I’m hoping that by the end of reading this blog, if you’re in the latter camp you’ll be feeling encouraged to give it a go!

“Improvisation is the courage to move from one note to the next.”

Bobby McFerrin

Improvising does involve being a bit brave. It’s spontaneous composition, where we make up what we sing as we go along, moving from one note to the next. It’s a hugely complex creative skill, where we’re thinking, responding, listening, creating and performing all at the same time. Despite its complexity, it’s a really liberating way of vocalising, as when we improvise, we have the freedom to sing whatever we want to express, not the thoughts and feelings of a character, composer or lyricist.

When we think of vocal improvisation, we often think of jazz scatting, where the voice is used as an instrument, and the melody is often sung on nonsense syllables – you can listen to the First Lady of Song and Queen of Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, to get a flavour of this type of improvising. However, vocal improvisation isn’t just limited to jazz, we also hear it in folk, blues, soul, funk, R&B and pop music, and more recently in ‘poppier’ contemporary musical theatre.

 

Why should we improvise?

 

There are SO many benefits to vocal improvisation, not just to add to our skillset as singers and performers, but in other areas of our lives as well.

Here are just a few of the benefits:

  • Improvisation allows us to develop better technique – it’s a pure form of play and creativity, where we have an opportunity to explore the limits and full scope of our voice, which is not always an option when singing rep
  • It can have positive effects on our general musicianship, our listening skills, our sense of keys, harmony, musical style and rhythm
  • Improvising keeps us adaptable – it’s linked to general cognitive flexibility
  • We get to practise risk-taking when we improvise, which in turn boosts confidence… if we know we have improvisation skills as a backup if we forget the melody or lyrics, it can even help to reduce performance anxiety
  • It’s a fast track route to a flow state, to being fully present
  • It helps us to develop and maintain a sense of curiosity, constantly encouraging a ‘what if?’ attitude, boosting our creativity in music and in other areas of our lives
  • While we improvise, the parts of our brain that are stopping, judging and correcting can switch off
  • It gives us the chance to truly express ourselves musically. As a singer who is prone to over-thinking, my favourite benefit of improvisation is that we get to experience singing where we simply can’t get it wrong. As Miles Davis said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” This is so liberating. If something you sing doesn’t sound how you expected – you get to change it with the next note, or the next phrase – or simply choose to style it out!

    You don’t ever have to do it that way again if you don’t want to. Improvisation is never the same twice.

How to get started…

It’s worth remembering that improvising is not a special talent bestowed on a select few, it really is a skill that anyone can learn, and if it has never been a part of your singing life, it’s never too late to start.

Here are a few suggestions of how you can begin incorporating improvisation into your practice:

Listen

Your best tools in improvisation are your ears. Start listening to music differently, to build up a library of sounds and an understanding of how melody and harmony work together.

Instrumental music is great for this.

You can challenge yourself to sing along to different instruments in your favourite pieces instead of the main melody, picking out different parts in the accompaniment – perhaps the strings, guitar, piano, or the backing vocals. See if you can tune in to the bass lines. If you start to get a feel for the bass in a song you’ll have a good sense of how the harmony progresses, which will be a good foundation for improvising over the top of it.

Once you get into the habit of doing this it’s easier to trust your ears and get in the groove of whatever music you’re improvising to.

It’s actually much harder to sing out of tune and time than you think – you can even do some deliberate negative practice where you try to sound as out of tune as you can – you’ll more than likely end up veering back to feeling the pulse and singing pitches that blend well.

Work on your musicianship

Having a basic knowledge of music theory isn’t essential, but it can help. For example, many pop songs are based around either the major or minor pentatonic scales, so becoming familiar with these can really speed up your access to notes that fit when you’re improvising.

If this sounds daunting, there are some sessions on music theory in the Sing Space Instant Watch section of the website, or you can do a structured ear training programme, or get some 1:1 help from a recommended Sing Space coach.

Build an improvisation

toolkit

When you first start to improvise, if you’re worried your mind will go blank, you want to have some variables to hand that you can experiment with. You can even write some of your favourites down, and play with them one at a time. In pop singing, for example, these could include:

  • Onsets and offsets (breathy, glottal, balanced, creaky)
  • Phrasing – glides and slides, drop-offs
  • Articulation changes (smooth or staccato)
  • Dynamics
  • Rhythm and stress
  • Using different voice registers and voice qualities
  • Vibrato and straight tone
  • Different words – either snippets of lyrics from the song you’re singing or words like ‘yeah’, ‘woah’ or simple vowel sounds
  • Ornaments, scales, melodic patterns, arpeggios and riffs or licks – you can practise these in advance so they feel familiar in your voice.

 

Start small and give yourself some limits, as it’s less daunting than having a total blank slate. For example, one option could be to pick a familiar song, or section of a song, such as the chorus of your favourite pop ballad: repeat your chosen section, and change only ONE thing from your toolkit each time, such as the pitch of one note, the rhythm of one phrase, or change a word or two of the lyrics.

As you quickly gain confidence, you can change more things until you feel like you’re on a roll and having fun with it. Remember moments of silence are ok too!

Practice

Although what you sing is different each time, you can practise the skill of improvising. You can:

  • Get a few ornaments and melodic patterns from some of the scales and arpeggios familiar and easily accessible in your voice – finding some of your favourite artists on YouTube and changing the playback speed is a great way to analyse and practice some of the longer patterns
  • Learn a few simple chords on the piano or guitar and jam along to them
  • If you’re tech-savvy, you can experiment with making some loops to improvise over on GarageBand, Song Maker, Walk Band, or improvise over loops made by other people on apps like Voisey, or over instrumental music. Spotify and YouTube have some great playlists of study/focus/background music that have quite repetitive chord sequences and aren’t too fast that can help you find your feet
  • Record yourself improvising, listen back and consolidate any bits you like to use again
  • Try things many, many times – go for quantity over quality… just sing and avoid over-thinking
  • Do the Vocal Gym(TM) sessions regularly so that your voice is in good shape, which helps to give it the freedom to serve whatever your musical imagination comes up with!

Be Brave

Fear of what others think of us is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to improvising.

If you’re not used to making it up as you go along, singing this way can sometimes feel anxiety-inducing. I urge you to be brave, be vulnerable, and focus on enjoying the process instead of on an end goal.

Perfection doesn’t exist in improvisation, so we can let go of any desire to ‘get it right’. Find a safe place, try out some of the tips above and just give it a go! I’d love to hear how you get on.

I’ll be running a practical session on Pop Improvisation on 28th June towards the end of the Sing Space pop season, where we’ll go into more detail with these tricks in the toolkit and more, to help you on your way to building this valuable skill. If you’re a reluctant improviser, I’d love to see you there!

 

Laura is a Sing Space recommended coach and her profile can be viewed HERE

 

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