8 Concepts for Becoming a Better Improviser

Eien on taiko-drumset hybrid setup

Eien on taiko-drumset hybrid setup

I have added a new entry about improvisation to my articles page, which contains other topics such as stick selection, metronome games, ji playing, and atarigane technique. By making these free tip sheets available, it's my hope that they help you find new ways of approaching these topics. I'm always happy to take questions or any feedback so feel free to contact me. For more in-depth discussion and demonstration, check out my instructional videos. Previews are on my youtube channel. While the best way to learn involves being in the same space, I would consider online private lessons to be a great alternative option because it still allows for live feedback and in-person demonstration. Finally, I will be covering the topic of solo creation in a workshop on June 4 at Asano Taiko US in Torrance. Here is the information and registration page: 


8 Concepts for Becoming a Better Improviser

Improvisation is a valuable skill which anyone can develop through deliberate practice and by accumulating experience. It can create spontaneous interaction during performances and help ignite a creative spark for new compositions. Mistakes during performance are inescapable; being prepared to improvise with them can produce new avenues for inspiration. Like any skill, the specific way you practice improvisation is important. Here are eight concepts for becoming a better improviser:

1. Copy good improvisers – choose several improvisers you like and learn to play their solos exactly note for note. This can be done by ear or transcribing into notation. Analyze why you like these improvisations.

2. Focus on rhythmic accuracy – the first sign of insecurity is inconsistent rhythm. Use a metronome and start with simple ideas to focus on the quality of your rhythmic placement. Record yourself and listen back for areas to improve.

3. Self copy game – improvise a one-measure phrase and then play the exact copy in the next measure. Continue the cycle and gradually add complexity. Make it more challenging by working with two-measure phrases or with odd meter.

4. Sing what you play – simultaneously singing and playing your improvisation is an excellent way to break away from the limited ideas that are stored in your muscle memory. If this is too challenging, only sing your ideas first.

5. Incorporate space – strive to become comfortable using space, which can be used to highlight the notes and improve your phrasing. Not playing anything can be an opportunity to think about what to do next and to listen for ideas from others.

6. Explore sounds, timbers, and dynamics – practice a wide variety of ways your instrument can be played. Exaggerate contrast to expand your range.

7. Work on accompanying – being a good accompanist is just as important as developing your own improvisation skills. Listen, play mindfully, be solid, and provide energetic support.

8. Trade solos – trade improvised solos with other players. If they are better than you, your musicianship will grow more quickly.

See more articles at www.eienhunterishikawa.com/articles

Video: soloing concepts by jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez

Have you seen the movie Birdman?  Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez wrote the film's score and most of the soundtrack is solo drumset.  He has also been Pat Metheny's drummer for the past 15 years.  I recently watched his instructional feature called Creative Soloing & Freedom presented by Drumeo and was impressed by the clarity with which he explained and demonstrated his concepts.  While I think it's well worth watching the video, I'll list the most important points here.

Sanchez says that he tries to tell a story when playing a solo.  This means stopping yourself from operating on autopilot.  Instead of just letting your hands play your usual licks, you start with a motive (idea) and then develop it using techniques such as:

1. Giving yourself space to think.  The space could be silence or going into a holding pattern such as a groove.  "Give space...be patient...be friends of silence."

2. Using repetition to establish the motive in our memory and the audience's memory.  Ending a solo with the same motive from the beginning is a very effective way to structure it.

3. Creating an answer to your motive's call.  As an example, Sanchez sings the opening 2 bars of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Allegro) to see if his interviewer could sing the response (he did easily).  Another example was the melody of 'shave and a haircut - two bits.'

4. Using the full dynamic (volume) range of the instrument.  "I cannot stress enough how important soloing dynamics are."

5. Creating contrast through rhythm, sound, dynamics, etc. to interplay with the motive.

6. Developing your vocabulary by copying others, then making the material your own by exploring new ways to play them.  Emulating great players in the genre you're studying is crucial to learning that specific language.  It's important to understand the historical context of the style.

7. "Practicing with a metronome is extremely important...allows you to get your ideas in to the grid that is time.  You have to be very certain of what subdivisions you're playing all the time."

8. Making sense.  "People start following you if you make sense...saying something meaningful."  An example of NOT making sense would be the statement "I love scrambled eggs, but the movie was terrible."  Those two things are not directly related.

Sanchez says that this kind of approach in which you are truly improvising is more challenging as it has more risk involved.  But "going into the unknown" is the way to explore fresh ideas and play differently each time.  Because the possibilities are endless, it can be intimidating to start with this "blank sheet of paper."  Sanchez says that these ideas can be applied at any level since you don't need a lot of technique to start practicing this way. 

To me, everything presented in the video is spot on.  Soloing and improvisation is a topic I'm often asked to teach in workshops and private lessons, and it was good to hear new ways of thinking about the topic from one of the most in-demand drummers working today.  I would encourage everyone to check out this video and then share your most memorable take-away points.