The following is a guest post by Mark Mercury.
Do you ever run out of ideas while improvising? Are you sometimes unable to solo as freely and spontaneously as you would like?
The building blocks of jazz improvisation are original, musical ideas. Getting them requires a steady stream of creativity and inspiration. Fortunately, many aspects of creativity and inspiration can be directly exercised and enhanced, thus improving the ability to get ideas. Here are three techniques you can use:
1. CREATE FAST
A simple yet effective technique is to gently push yourself to create faster than you think you can. One way to do this is to give yourself “creating deadlines” during practice and strive to beat them. It’s amazing what a deadline can do to stimulate creativity.
Pick a medium-tempo piece that you will be performing, either one on which you are not yet soloing fluently or a piece that is completely new to you. In a practice session select an eight-bar section, and go over and over those eight bars until you have worked out an approach for playing a great solo on them. Then improvise a great eight-bar solo. There is no need to work out in advance every single note. Just come up with a good approach or framework that you can use for improvising a great solo, and then improvise.
To create your approach use any method you prefer, such as trial and error, experimenting with melodic and harmonic tactics for specific measures and chord changes, or planning the general structure of the solo.
Give yourself a slightly difficult deadline. For example, if you think you can comfortably work out an approach and improvise a great solo in ten minutes, make your deadline “by the end of eight minutes.”
Keep in mind that this is a creative exercise only and that it is for use during practice. Although you are working things out in advance to a greater or lesser degree, this technique is designed to improve your ability to get completely new approaches and ideas while improvising in a live setting.
Next, pick out another eight-bar section and create a great solo based on a completely different approach, but do so in eight minutes. Do this with many eight-bar sections from many different songs until the eight-minute deadline is easy. Then make your time limit six minutes, and create solos on many eight-bar sections. Keep reducing your time limit until you’ve considerably improved your ability to quickly create an approach and play a great solo in the first few tries.
2. USE PENCIL AND PAPER FOR DEEP MESSAGES
Working out with pencil and music paper what you hear or feel on a deep creative level but can’t immediately figure out how to play is an important and valuable tool. By “deep creative level” I mean a strong, natural, not-always-articulate, creative energy level within you providing you with ideas or directions that you instinctively feel are right.
What you hear or feel on a deep creative level may be somewhat nebulous, and you may believe that by working only with your instrument it would take you too long to figure out how to play what you hear or feel. Using pencil and paper during practice can help you bring forth and materialize what you are sensing.
Working with your instrument, a pencil, and music paper, write down in musical notation each aspect of what you are hearing on a deep creative level. Unless the notes come to you in waves or big chunks, work on capturing one little piece of what you hear, then another and another. If the little pieces don’t come to you easily, work by trial and error. Try one series of notes, then another and another, until you are more effectively homing in on what you originally heard in your imagination. Spend as much time as you need to experiment and discover how to express in notes and/or chords each section of what you are hearing. Go as slowly as you need to, and get as much of your idea translated into notation as you can.
You must strive to retain your original idea in your mind while exercising the self-discipline to discover how to say it in notes and then write it down. You may find that your original idea starts to melt away or that it begins to morph into something else. Don’t worry. As you do this exercise over and over you should find that you can more readily capture what you originally heard.
As you write your music down, don’t be too concerned with notating rhythms exactly. Unless a very interesting rhythmic idea occurs to you that you definitely want to capture, your main objective should be to get the notes and chords.
You may feel some uneasiness as you are searching for the right notes to put down on paper. Ignore that feeling and keep working. You are doing something very slowly now so that later you can do it rapidly, spontaneously, and comfortably.
3. ONLY THE BOLD DARE PLAY IT
By deciding to state your musical ideas boldly and then doing so, it is possible to excite your creativity into a higher state. Playing boldly makes you more willing to communicate your ideas to the public, and when that happens you open the door to creating many more ideas as you improvise. Also, any remaining self-consciousness on expressing your musical ideas can be greatly lessened by deciding to be bold about your playing.
As you are improvising, practice making every phrase you play a strong musical statement. Set the agenda by musically stating ideas in a way that shows how you want them to be. You should be completely taking over the tone, style or feeling of the moment and taking the music in a direction you want it to go.
After you get good at this, practice carefully choosing the moments when you want to play boldly. Try to pick the most effective times to do so, when the phrase that you want to play is one that can most benefit from being played boldly.
Your ideas don’t even have to be highly original to get benefit from this technique. Just by playing your ideas boldly, you will be helping to free up your creativity. While improvising, if you ever feel that ideas are coming to you too slowly, play some notes boldly to give a boost to your inspiration.
Don’t be timid. Be strong. Be bold. Practice being so until it becomes second nature and you have the ability to be bold or not at will.
Written by – Mark Mercury, Teen Jazz Contributor
Mark Mercury is an American composer, pianist, teacher, and author of the e-book “How to Get More Ideas while Improvising Jazz.”