In the creative realm, effortless freedom resides only within a framework. Which is to say, with too many options we are frozen like deer in the headlights. The creative process is one we are engaged in on a minute to minute basis as human beings. I hear a lot of people say they “aren’t creative” or that they tried and failed, which now proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they are “not creative”. But when we talk to each other, we aren’t reading from a script. We are improvising words all day long, but we do so within some very strict confines. We have an idea to communicate, we have to obey a modicum of grammar rules, we have to obey certain moral codes, and we also manage to share an emotional tone as well. If someone handed you a pile of words cut out of magazines, in a language you don’t speak, and told you to create something meaningful…chances are you’d eventually determine that you aren’t creative too.
Improvising music is much the same. Music is absolutely a language…a language on steroids because it’s emotional capacity and abstraction are way off the scale. Written music is one thing, spontaneous composition (improvisation) takes on a whole new dimension of mystery and spontaneity. The fact often overlooked for beginning improvisers, or those looking to simply rock out on a couple licks here and there, is that there is grammar and there is structure. Much like a language though, you don’t have to be able to teach an English class to be able to speak fluently. We rely on our ears heavily and they generally serve us well.
Most teachers arm their students with a pentatonic scale position or two, tell them which key/fret to start on and send them on their way. Unfortunately with this total lack of conceptual information, your solos tend to sound more like a run-on sentence of gibberish (or a tortured a cat) rather than a soulful conveyance of coherent music. Like any artform, there’s a learning curve of course. At least with some basic rules, you’ll find yourself on the playing field with some structured exercises rather than wandering in the dark trying to find the field…
This whole game of spontaneous compostition is a dance between structure and free flowing creativity. I toiled hours and hours as a kid learning note-for-note solos by David Gilmore (Pink Floyd), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), and Joe Satriani to try to get inside of their process. What where the rules they were playing by and how did they bend them and make them their own? This fascination of mine didn’t stop in the rock/blues realm but continued on to include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Pat Metheny, and many more of the jazz heavyweights that dominate the world of improvisation with staggering skill and agility. Eventually I had accrued thousands upon thousands of hours of practice, study, and listening. Of course, to play a decent rock solo as a hobbyist musician this kind of dedication is simply out of the question. What it highlights however is that it’s usually a lot more work than you think it is
So when I set out to teach someone the very beginnings of improvisation I try to give them a couple basic rules that are achievable. Once they get started on this basic basic level, they can then start to see the process…this marriage of structure and moment-to-moment decision making. It’s not only engaging for the mind, but it immediately plants the creative seed in their subconscious. Creativity flows from all of us all the time, we just rarely use it, or rarely are given some step-by-step ways of how to engage it. It’s a certain kind of muscle that if we exercise can yield some unbelievable results. It used to be that classical composers were master improvisers. Beethoven often gave completely improvised performances at the piano…never played before…and never to be played again. In some ways it’s a dying art form, relegated out of the classical world, and left only as a glimmer in the world of jazz and some rock music. It’s brought so much magic, mystery, and wonder into my life…I only hope that I can ignite that little spark in students who come to me with a curiosity and and open mind.