To Jam or not to Jam

Feeling a little philosophical today, thinking about a recent young student who was quite fearful of improvisation… to the point of tears, the poor thing.  Most students that I’ve met, young or old, might be a bit hesitant and shy on their first go at jamming, but with a little encouragement and reinforcement, and a fun and light-hearted environment, they are usually soon jamming with glee.  Maybe you feel/felt the same way?

Never-the-less, I have run into a few students that are just plain terrified to loosen up and create, even if I simplify it to just having fun with rhythms on one single note!  This could be a child or an adult.  Fear is fear, regardless of age or why.  I respect that.  Though… as we all know to at least a degree, the majority of fears are unfounded and illogical.  This does not mean that they are not real to that student though.

So what is an educator (or maybe SELF-educator, in the case of FJi members) to do?

If it is a child, I will often try to talk to the parents about it and try to get to know the family.  Some will say, “yes, Susie is just wired like that, and we have no idea where she got it from.”  Where others will say “I know, I’m the same way.”  Other times I can get a quick sense that a high degree of performance is VERY important to the parent who most likely pushed their child to “do well” heavily in their daily life.

Though self discipline, focus and achievement are all good things in and of themselves and excellent skills and traits to have in getting the notes correct in a “Vivaldi” piece, these kinds of things tend to soundly squash the natural creative urge we all have inside of us.  I have written much about this in many places (books, blogs, ezines, etc…), so I will not beat the subject to death here, but discuss some techniques to try, and hopefully open up a dialog in the comments blog below.  Leave us your “2 cents!”

Techniques for the improv-phobic:

  • as mentioned above, try just ONE note and be creative with the rhythms, if this is too stressful try these…
  • pre-write a solo, have fun creating it (teacher and student or with a friend, or alone, depending on comfort level), then learn it and perform it slowly for friends or teacher (or record yourself playing it privately for review).  I myself wrote out the notes I wanted to play in the bridge of my song “Sweet Sustenance” on Babik’s “American Gypsy” CD after doing a couple dozen takes on those tricky chord changes, so there is no shame in this.
  • try giving further limiting boundaries, confinements and stipulations.  This can sometimes give us a degree of comfort.  Limit yourself to only a few notes, or one string, or only quarter notes, or any other “box” that makes you feel “safer.”
  • try writing words or lyrics and putting notes to them.  I myself, when getting the hang of good improvisational phrasing techniques early on, found that singing (in my mind) about things I was looking at in the bars I was playing 6 night per week helped my solos become more lyrical and not just a bunch of notes strung together. It can be nonsense (and probably better that it is for light-hearted reasons).  “Look at the guy over there… he’s so drunk and stupid… that girl is playing pacman in the corner… the smell of chicken wings,” etc… then just put notes to that!
  • whatever it takes to loosen your grip on it having to be complete and “great.”

What ideas have worked for you???…  Please add them below.


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