3 ways to better jazz improvisations

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is part and parcel of our efforts to produce meaningful improvisations. However, being solely concerned and obsessed with the harmonic validity of our notes is a trap to be avoided. Miles Davis said that good playing is 80% attitude while the actual notes we play is 20%. If playing and creating good improvisations is largely a mentality issue then two implications are raised. First, that great music can be made using simple melodic material, and second, that we should always make the most of what we have.

We can boost our playing if we take a few universal principles and their perceptual effects into account and then internally reorganise what we already know and can play. These principles seem to have their place in all fields of human activity and creation. They touch upon the nature of human perception and transmission of information, and can provide some useful answers to the fundamental question: what makes sense to the human ear?


Arnold Schoenberg said that “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition”. Repetitiveness seems to be inherent in musical meaning. Circularness in music and its relation to social rituals goes well back in time. Whole musical genres are based on the concept of hypnotic repetition in order to become inviting, arouse emotions and create a transcendent experience. Even the concept of variation in arts presupposes some kind of pattern or repetition.

By repeating a melody or musical statement when we improvise we help our listeners remember, relate and eventually participate in our music. Common experience and scientific research suggest that repetitiveness arouses a positive and time-varying psychological response that is evident on our brain activity. The most widespread song form of American popular music itself -the AABA form- asks us to repeat a melody 3 times in order to make it memorable and add weight to the composition. So why not do the same?


Claude Debussy has said that “music exists in the space between the notes”. Just like there is nothing worse than someone who never stops talking, improvisers often have the tendency to waffle a lot in an attempt to sound convincing. The artistic and communicational value of pauses has been discovered and documented in arts all around the world. It is so interesting that the actual pause used by stand up comedians to build tension is called “the beat”. A fair amount of pauses in the flow of any type of information is absolutely necessary as this seems to tally better with our natural rate of processing and evaluating incoming information.

By using space and silence creatively when we improvise we have much better chance of engaging our listeners and drawing their attention. Silence is the absolute expectation and tension builder. A pause is also the best way to underline and emphasize a musical statement as our brain needs time to internalise and process information. Moreover, by pausing while improvising on a progression we earn ourselves time to look ahead and generate new ideas. As a general rule i believe we should pull back and never exaust our improvisational resources. It is always better to be on the less side making listeners want more, instead of providing them with a tiring overflow of information.


I could find no quote that caught my eye on the importance of dynamics in music, so here is mine: “improvising with no dynamics shows ignorance for the nature of sound itself”. Sound is made of waves traveling in the air so it makes perfect sense to deliver our music in a similar manner. There is nothing more boring and tiring than a flat, robotic flow of sound information, something that can be really fatiguing especially over longer periods of time. Top sound engineers insist that setting volume levels alone is the first crucial step towards great mixes. It is therefore a good idea to fine tune our dynamics and go beyond that bulk way of playing either soft or loud or even worse, just loud.

By creating patterns of change in volume when we improvise we add emotional content and feeling to our music. Shaping the contour of our improvisations creates contrast and drama. In my experience musicians who handle dynamics with mastery are good listeners and exhibit a high level of musicianship. Intelligent use of dynamics can be responsible for some hair-raising interaction between musicians. If we visualise our playing like a waveform having crests and troughs then subtle and dramatic differences in our sound production can emerge. These will potentially make our improvisations more elegant and impressive.

Studying and decoding jazz harmony is a never ending pursuit and it should not keep us from advancing our skills in improvisation. Repetition, pauses and dynamics will instantly make our playing sound more structured, effortless and harmonically forgiving, because they are deeply intertwined with artistic creation and communication.

An interview with Prof. June Tillman on improvisation

June Boyce-Tillman

While I was in England I was fortunate to meet June Boyce-Tillman, a great teacher and a wonderful personality. June is a Professor of Applied Music at the University of Winchester. Her doctorate on the development of children’s musical creativity was widely published nationally and internationally. She is a world-class authority on the music and writings of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and she has written much and spoken on women’s role in music.

She has encouraged the promotion of music by women and held workshops for women on composing. She is a singer and composer, writing much religious music, including hymns and anthems. Her works have been performed all around the world. She is the founder of the Hildegard Network and is concerned with bringing together the areas of healing, music, arts and theology. She regularly runs workshops linking these areas together. Having participated in one of her workshops I can honestly say that listening to her encouraged me to discover more power and more beauty well hidden into music.

I have learned a lot from her and I will always treasure my long discussions with her on music, aesthetics, freedom and education. Recently I had the chance to see her again in my hometown, Thessaloniki, Greece, as she was invited to the World Conference on Music Education, which was held in Thessaloniki, Greece in July 2012.
The following interview on improvisation was recorded in her house, in London, in 2004.

Interview with June Tillman

Stergios: How could you define musical improvisation?
June: It is a tricky thing to define because it is constructed in different ways in different cultures. Most cultures in terms of improvisation people have frameworks of some kind in which to operate, if we think of the melodies of the gamelan or the 12-bar blues in Jazz for example. But in the late 20th century in Europe because the tradition got so note-bound in the classical tradition we have the rise of completely free improvisation that offered people no parameters in which they could work. In particular, in the area of music therapy that became systematized. So the structures were not in the music but in other surrounds. It is a measure of the performer having a chance to contribute something if not everything to the final performance as opposed to the model in which the composer dictates everything and the performer simply gets as close as possible to the composer’ wishes. Freedom, structure, culture are three words that come to my mind when I thing of musical improvisation.…Although I don’t like saying this, education has to provide some knowledge of the prevailing culture. To a certain extent it does have a socializing role, and it should also provide the ability to question it. So that one is aware how his/her particular make-up is likely to fit or not to fit with the culture in which they happened to be born.

Stergios: What should be the role of music education?
June: Going back to the question of autonomy, anything that you learn must make it your own in some way. Instruments are the most difficult part of music education, because if you teach a particular instrument, then inevitably teach a particular culture and the repertoire that this instrument has. An instrument is culture-bound whereas the music education in a classroom can include a much greater variety. In a sense, there is an obligation to pass on certain traditions but there is also an obligation to think outside the box so that they are able to question the tradition as well as to carry it out.

Stergios: What is the greater benefit from your involvement in musical practice?
June: I can’t say just one…but I think that from being educated in a music education system which said that the tradition is the most important thing…over the course of my life I’ve moved away from that, to the idea that music is for fulfillment of potential…and I would include the wider universe. The important thing is the intention of doing things. To do it with love, with the intention of making the place that you are, a better place to be for you and for other people. Music is an important tool in that process. This doesn’t mean that you don’t learn a tradition but it means that the central thing about it is that you are leaving a place better than it was before by what you have done. It may well be more about the intention of what you are doing than the actual thing that you do. Whereas the tradition-centred view says that the important thing is not the intention but the technique and the perfection of it.

Stergios: How do you imagine that musical improvisation relates to autonomy?
June: It relates to autonomy in the sense that the performer ceases to be a servant or a slave of the composer. In fact it is a wonderful model because they have the frame which the composer has set up for them, and yet within that frame they can make a variety of choices, which is actually a mirror of the wider society. Musical improvisation gives us a model of autonomy, which is how to make choices and how far you are going to subvert the original system by those choices and how far you are going to work within a system.

Stergios: Imagine two musicians performing. One of them is improvising and the other is performing a pre-composed piece. What visual differences you may see? For example, in body language, kinaesthetics?
June: If the person playing the pre-composed piece plays from memory then the difference is minimized. The sort of standard answer is that the improvisers are more committed to what they are doing. That probably shows in body language although, in a sense, when you really see a good performer like I saw last night, a girl playing a pre-composed piece. I guess if I saw somebody next to her improvising I wouldn’t see any more commitment. Often improvised music is more interesting to the people taking part that it is for the audience. I know some people who would never improvise to save their lives. They would hate it to take the risk, whereas some others, courageous, who love novelty, enjoy it.

Stergios: What particular styles are you mostly involved with?
June: I started as a classical musician and I wouldn’t improvise at all, although that is not completely true…it was really taught out of me.

Stergios: Do you think that it is a way of keeping the music alive?
June: You mean the improvised tradition?

Stergios: Yes.
June: If we look back at the English folk tradition and the work of Cecil Sharp in the early twentieth century when a lot of people were moving from the country to the towns, they were afraid that the role of folk songs would be lost. So they recorded them and wrote them down. On one hand them that preserved them, on the other hand it stopped the process of the improvised tradition. Because you now had a fixed version of the song. The elements of improvisation enable music to be fitted into the appropriate context much better than the notated tradition.

Stergios:  Are your criteria for appraising music only musical? If not what other criteria do you apply?
June: I think there are value systems built into all musical styles. The church for example has a particular theology of a male God who creates something from nothing and that is the model that is dictated in the classical traditions in Europe. So you have God who is out there somewhere and human beings who are down here somewhere who are carrying out this blueprint that somebody’s given them. That of course is the model that we have for composition; We have the composer who isn’t there in any embodied form, who may not even be present when people carry out…That value system and the notion of the maleness of God, because I think the maleness of God has run deeply through all western culture, has prevented women for example being involved in composition since God is male and God creates.I think it has excluded black people from the classical traditions because of course we all knew that God was white and so on. So all these images have meant that a particular sort of people can be set up as a composer. I don’t believe in hierarchies so I would say that I look back sadly at the western tradition, which I have critiqued so heavily. I can’t watch ballet any more because I see the value system of what has happened to woman, the image of woman nearly falling off their toes, dressed wearing particular costume, dancing to particular sort of music. Although once I loved it, now I see the value systems that I find abominable.

Stergios: Have you ever appraised someone’s personality only by watching him playing music?
June: Nigel Kennedy I get a really nice sense of when his is playing…the girl last night as well. Yes, there are plenty of people I have never met that I have a real sense of because of the music that they play.

Stergios: How did you develop your skills in musical improvisation?
June: By doing it. It was a huge step for me, I didn’t do any improvisation, I didn’t feel confident certainly not in public because I was so afraid. One of the ways I broke the model in piano improvisation was to devise a one-woman’s show, which was about someone who was often put down as mad. That gave me a chance to represent that madness someway on the piano. I just had a show where I had to improvise publically and that forced me to do it. Taking up the drum gave a chance to learn a much more improvised tradition. I think I also learned because I got the children to do something that I couldn’t do. So, by choosing to be part of that early movement in the sixties, and introducing composing in the classroom, suddenly I had a situation where I could improvise along with them. In many ways, the children taught me how to improvise.

Stergios: How can the practice of other arts have an effect on someone’s creativity and musicality?
June: The fact that I improvise publically I did it in association with drama. I noticed that with students, if you associate musical improvisation with some dramatic act, they are freed up, whereas if they think: ‘I’ve got to improvise music’ they are frozen. But when they think about linking the music with some expressive idea, which they can express in dance and the instrument becomes part of it, it’s a very important way of freeing up.

Stergios: Why do you think self-taught musicians can achieve high levels of musical proficiency without any formal instruction?
June: Because music is an in-built…just as speech, eating, an in-built reflex of a human being and we all have it inside of us. In some ways education stops us expressing it. So people who are self-taught have not had the restraints of education and can follow their bliss. Cambell says that you must follow your bliss and you are more free to follow your bliss if you are self-educated than if you are educated within a structured system.

Stergios: Do you think that a non-musician can offer useful ideas to students who learn how to improvise?
June: Absolutely! Often, it is the non-musician that is able to enter the improvisatory states more easily than the musician, because the musician….if you are defined as a musician in western society it means that you have been through a process of indoctrination of some kind or other. And actually that process can stop you from being able to improvise at all. A non-musician very often gets to a very useful musical solution not by a conventional route, but an imaginative, unconventional leap. My experience says that it’s easier in this area to work with non-musicians, or better, people who have not defined themselves as musicians. That’s the difference. In every person there is a musician waiting to get out and one task of music educators is to allow that to come out.

Stergios: How would you teach improvisation?
June: The most important thing is to engage with the materials of sound, to get as much sound as possible. I usually then start to go on to the feel of the music. I use poems and stories and so on to get that going. And then move on to how to put it together in various structures, what structures you can use. They would learn some of the different cultures and the way in which they started putting restraints on freedom in various ways. I do lots of workshops and people come for music healing and spirituality, thinking that they are learning healing but of course they are learning musical improvisation.If you could make the environment informal, not formal then that’s another way of freeing people up. I always feel that I have succeeded when somebody says that they did it at the end of the day, without noticing it. Probably in that there is a lot of humour. You have to set the playground where it is ok to make mistakes. We live in an educational environment where mistakes are not highly prized. If you are going to be free to improvise the mistakes that you make can be the best idea you ever had.

Stergios: Brecht said that we must prepare our next mistake…
June: Absolutely. That’s the difference in notated tradition. If you played an F sharp and Mozart wrote an F natural then it is clearly wrong. In improvising it could be the best idea you ever had. Lots of jokes, so people are laughing and they don’t realize what they are doing. For me it is the philosophy of play that is related to improvisation.

Stergios: Thank you so much!

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