The Benefits of Improvising as a Classical Musician

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There is a joke about classical music and improvisation that has always made me chuckle. How do you get a classical musician to stop playing? Take away their music and tell them to improvise…

Okay, now that you have finished rolling your eyes at me, let’s take a deeper look because this seriously corny joke has more truth to it than I think we realize. 

Many classical musicians are very often DEEPLY afraid of improvisation. And who can blame them? We are taught so many useless things in our college degrees and yet somehow this valuable skill has been cut out of the program. My jazz and folk music friends probably have no idea what I am talking about. This is the bread and butter of what they do!

In fact, I only really started improvising when I left university and started working in the real world. I sort of fell into it a bit and fumbled my way through the dark until I discovered it was not nearly as scary as I thought.

And the impact this had on my playing was amazing! So let me share with you why you should ABSOLUTELY start improvising right away.

1. It REALLY helps you to understand your scales

Most jazz musicians spend their time practicing the tools needed for improv, and arguably, the most significant tool they develop is the ability to understand and play their scales from memory.  They KNOW their scales, no questions asked. They understand that their improvisations come out of these scale systems.

One of the easiest and best ways to learn how to improvise is to use a simple scale. When you realize how the scale glues the music together, you discover just how powerful and important scales are, not just for improvisation but for all music. After all, composed music is really just someone else’s improvisations written down and reworked. 

For me, it’s a bit like doing math at school versus actually using math in the real world. Improvising is using those memorized scales that you have been practicing and practicing, and applying them practically in the real world. It starts to change the way you look at music and this, as we will discover in a moment, can have AMAZING knock-on effects on the rest of your playing.

2. It helps develop your ear

Hands down the most POWERFUL benefit of improvisation is the ability it has to develop your aural skills. I was average to decent in my ear-training classes. Not too bad, but not too great either.

I remember sitting in a workshop with the incredible Hubert Laws and listening to him explain his process of improvisation. He explained how he heard the melody or musical idea in his mind first and then just let it come through his instrument. This seemed like an impossibility. 

When I started my improvisation journey, the most surprising benefit was the improvement of my aural skills. In the beginning, I just moved my fingers without any clear idea of what sound would come out, but the more I did it, the more I started to glimpse what Laws spoke about: the ability to hear a tune and just play it. I began to hear changes in harmony and understand those changes. As a result, the connection between my ears and fingers became stronger and stronger. I was able to hear a note and play it! This helped me in a few other very surprising ways!

3. It helps you to memorize more easily

The improved aural skills allowed me to memorize more easily. Remembering how a tune sounds is much easier than remembering the individual notes. Our ears are POWERFUL memorizers. But, imagine you could just play that melody you hear in your head. This was such a powerful tool for me. To add to that, when you have a memory slip in a concert, you are so comfortable improvising that you can just improvise your way out of it!

4. It helps you to perform more confidently

This brings me straight to my next point…improvisation REALLY boosts your confidence during performance. Making mistakes while performing is almost inevitable, especially when

you’re still developing your skills. I often tell the students in our Performance Practice Classes that the most important skill you need as a performer is to learn how to solve problems quickly and to cover your mistakes. 

In improvisation, there are no real mistakes. Yes, sometimes things sound a bit funky or weird, but very often, you can work your way through those moments and make them sound intentional. After having spent a fair amount of time improvising, I started getting better and better at working my way out of those harrowing concert moments.

To illustrate, let me share one of my favorite real-life examples. I was playing the Carmen Fantasy from memory with a big orchestra and a huge audience. Eek. I am nervous for my past self. Towards the end of the piece, there is a whole section in E major that is really just a glorified collection of scales. I lost concentration for a split second and my fingers lost the thread. Oh well, I thought, I can just improvise the next two measures with some other glorified scale passages. The conductor noticed. The flute players in the orchestra probably noticed. Anyone else? Maybe, but probably not. 

Interestingly, it gave me a new level of confidence and subsequent performances went even better.

Improvisation improved my confidence!

5. It improves your sight-reading

Following the ability to perform better, improvisation also improves your sight-reading abilities. It allows you to follow the patterns in the music and to improvise the stuff in between. This in turn allows you to follow the golden rule for: sight-reading: keep going no matter what! You will be amazed at how often these ‘improvisations’ are actually what is written on the page. I think it comes down to confidence again. Improvising allows you to play with more boldness because you are less worried about making mistakes and are able to trust that you can get yourself out of almost any musical corner you may get stuck in.

6. It gives you more freedom and creativity

I could easily continue this list. There are so many other benefits, but this is perhaps the biggest. It gives you a sense of musical freedom and unleashes your creativity. Another story for you here. I had a young student that had a really difficult time stringing phrases together in a coherent way. She could not play from one measure to the next without putting a big gap between the phrases. We struggled for a solid year. Toward the end of the year, I decided to have a ‘fun’ lesson with her and do some improvisation. She was hesitant at first but I have developed a system to help students learn how to improvise that is REALLY easy to follow and can get just about anyone improvising. 

We went through this process. 

Suddenly, her eyes lit up. Something ignited in her and out of nowhere she started creating music. Beautiful, connected phrases with a singing tone. There was a hidden musician in this student that all the lines and blobs on a piece of paper just could not unleash. It was an incredible teaching lesson for me. How had I not done this sooner?! 

Improvisation helps you develop your musicianship skills, become a more confident and adaptable player, and unleashes your musical and creative voice. When you improvise with others, it improves your ability to collaborate and listen and on top of all of that it can be so much fun! I truly believe we should ALL be improvising. I suppose your next question might be…where do I start? 

A great question. We have put together a ‘starter pack’ for you so that you can get your improv journey started. Sign up below and we will send you a few ideas to help you get going and have some fun with this wonderful skill! 

Happy practicing!

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