Flute Punch

Improvisation: Getting Started

Posted on: September 23, 2008

When I was in middle school, my English and Humanities teacher taught us to get started writing something by “breaking the power of the white,” which consisted of putting something — anything — down on paper, no matter how “bad” we thought it was, in order to get the ideas flowing.

I think many of approach improvisation with a similar attitude: We’re not sure how to get started, and we’re afraid that our first attempts will be “bad.” With that in mind, I’d like to offer the following comments on attitudes and techniques for getting started with improvisation.


I find it helpful to keep the following things in mind:

  • Ask yourself if you want to be an improvisatory musician. Do you like improv? Do you want to try it? Then do it. Don’t worry about whether you’re “gifted” or not.
  • Don’t worry about whether your initial attempts are “bad.” Who cares if they are? What’s important to remember, I think, is that we play music because we like it. That said, read on — I hope some of the tips below will help keep you from feeling you are “bad” at improvisation.

Ways to Get Started

The first thing you should do is start listening. Music, including improvisatory music, is an aural art form. We have ways of notating music, but until we get the style and feel of it into our heads, it can’t really come out of our heads. You can’t play anything until you can start to first hear it in your mind. Find radio stations (many are online now) and recordings of the improvisatory music you like and want to play. I myself tend to lean towards jazz. Whatever your choice, listening is where you start to get ideas from.

The next thing you should do is memorize a melody you like. It’s OK if it’s technically easy! In fact, it should be, because the point is that you can memorize it easily.

After you have a melody memorized, start embellishing it. Turns, trills, glissandos — try it all. This is great exercise for your mind, because the process that’s occurring is:

  1. Ear hears an embellishment
  2. Fingers, embouchure, etc. try to make that embellishment happen
  3. Ear hears that embellishment didn’t happen as expected
  4. Brain learns from the disparity between expected and actual, so that the next attempts gradually get closer to what the musician wants

In short, don’t worry about what people (including yourself) think about your improv skills. If you want to do it, then jump in. Start in such a way that you can have fun right away, and you just might find yourself hooked on improv.


3 Responses to "Improvisation: Getting Started"

Need info on the best way to start improvising on the flute no formal training thanks any good books on the topic for beginners?

In the article above, I try to describe a melodic-based, ear-based strategy for getting started. Some people do better coming at it from the other end, however, using a more technical approach. One book I like is Improvising Jazz Flute by Horace A. Young. Jamey Aebersold, who is famous for his jazz play-along books (they come with tape/CD accompaniment), has some recommended starting books. I’ve used Volume 2 on that page, but not 1 or 3. Based on my experience with his other books, however, they would probably be good!

Forgot to mention another book I like, Patterns for Jazz: See link to it in the comments under this article, http://flutepunch.com/2008/09/16/practice-routine/

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