Playing what you hear – an approach to improvisation

Just play the stuff you hear in your head – that’s what they say. And while it’s not a useless wisdom, when you actually attempt to do it, you are kinda lost. At least at first. There’s no guide to improvisation at most places, other than to learn this or that scale, concentrate on chord tones, etc. You know the drill. But what if I told you that you already knew how to improvise? It’s just a certain part of the whole process that needs some practice.

The music in your head

what you hear is what you play - improvising catHave you ever caught yourself humming, singing or even just imagining melody lines over songs you know? Either when they come up on the radio, or they just get stuck in your ears for some reason. If you have, I have good news for you: you can improvise. If you can’t hear those lines, well… that’s a whole another topic, and in the end, you might not be carved out to be a musician. Or you just need a certain “shock therapy” to bring out the creativity in you. But let’s just stay with the original thought, when you do hear those lines over tunes you know.

The connection

If you are a musician, and you have the ability to come up with improvised music over known musical structures, you’ve won half the battle. Well, if you’re a singer, maybe ¾ or more, but for the most, it’s not all that simple. Because you have to somehow gain the skills to be able to play what you hear in your head. And play it exactly the way you hear it inside. So, how to go about it? Slowly and carefully, of course.

The way to practice it

It’s simple. Imagine a line. Any melody line, it doesn’t have to be over a progression or a known song. Just a line, a musical phrase, by itself. Now try to play it note by note. You’ll notice that it’s actually quite hard to not stray away from your original idea. It’s because you have probably learned quite a good amount of licks and riffs already, arpeggios, scales and stuff. And by learning, I mean, your muscles learned to play these. Muscle memory takes a revenge, if you will. But don’t worry, you don’t need to unlearn these. You just need to really focus on your newly created melodies, and try to reproduce them as perfectly as you can. If you make mistakes, correct them immediately. Once they were corrected, play the line again. Now imagine a new little melody snippet. And another one. Do this for 10 minutes daily. Only 10 minutes, and your playing will be changed, forever, for the better. Once you get quite good at this, you can start imagining harmonized lines. And double stops, and multiple lines going in different direction. Once you discover this kind of practice method, a whole new world of “busy” opens up to you. Noodling will suddenly gain a different meaning. And people around you will be scared that you suddenly forgot to play fluently. Ain’t that fun?

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