Incorporating Improvisation into Your Practice Routine

Alana Bean | March 2016

    Creativity is an essential part of a musical performance. It allows musicians to express themselves through choices of phrasing, tone color, vibrato, and every nuance that breathes life into an interpretation of a piece. Improvisation is the best way for performers to train themselves in the art of creativity. There are several ways that flutists can incorporate improvisation into their practice routines.

    Scale practice does not have to be boring. Change the rhythm or the articulation, and pause sometimes to allow the scale to breathe. Vary where you place a crescendo or decrescendo. Explore different styles such as a jazz  or blues scale or try to imitate the styles of Aaron Copland, Miles Davis, or Mozart. The possibilities are endless. This type of practice allows you to tackle all types of technical problems, from articulation to keeping a musical line going across rests. To work on intonation, set the tuner to a drone on the tonic note and slowly play the scale starting on the drone pitch. As you play, tune each interval with the drone.

Explore Emotions
    With a musician friend, take turns giving each other an emotion to improvise upon. They might include silly, surprised, annoyed, indifferent, calm, nostalgic, sad, happy, or angry. Afterwards, the listener discusses what came across and offers suggestions on how to improve. This exercise is also a wonderful way to practice interpretation of standard repertoire. In every piece, I think about what emotion I should convey. Use tone color, quality of the attack, dynamics, and vibrato speed to convey various emotions.

One Note Only
    Use one note to improvise a piece while trying to be as interesting and creative as possible. You can bend the pitch, jump the octaves, vary articulation and note durations, incorporate silences, explore dynamics, and use extended techniques. Once you feel you have exhausted the possibilities with one note, expand to two notes, then three and so on.

Play with Contrasts
    Freely improvise using a certain style, then change abruptly to something completely different. For example, start out by playing something that is loud and abrasive, with many accents and short fast notes. Then suddenly switch to playing softly and lightly. Another option might be to play long, legato low notes and then suddenly switch to short, fast notes in the high register. Be as extreme in the contrasts as possible. Play the soft notes like a whisper, and loud notes like thunder. Make the accents as punchy as possible, and then when conveying lightness, make your tongue hit like a soft brush stroke. This is a lot of fun, but more importantly, this is important practice for performance. The more contrast you bring out in a piece, the better you will hold the interest of an audience.

Play with Rhythm
    Select a meter. At first, start with 3/4, 4/4 or 6/8 before moving on to less common, irregular meters such as 5/8, 7/8 or 5/4. Next, decide which notes should be accented. For example, if you pick 5/4, you could choose to accent beats 2 and 5 in every measure.

    Play a scale with a metronome while using this accent pattern. Then, apply this accent pattern to a free improvisation. After a while, change the accents to different beats. For variety, use different note values on each beat. 
    Next, pick two rhythmic patterns and experiment with them. Gradually expand the number of rhythmic patterns you allow yourself to use. Eventually, play your improvisation with any rhythm that comes to mind.

Create a Melody
    Pick a scale (major or minor) and play it through. Then, select five notes from that scale. For example, you could use the first five notes of the E minor scale in only one octave. Now create your improvised melody from these notes. Explore some of these options as you create a melody: include stepwise motion and leaps of a third, incorporate passing and neighbor tones, and vary the rhythms. Once you feel comfortable with melodies that use up to five notes in one octave, then expand to include six, seven, or eight notes.

    The next step is to play freestyle, without any limits in place. This means you can play any note of the chosen scale in any octave, modulate to a different key, or incorporate chromaticism. Many interesting melodies build to a climax, which is the loudest and highest note of a phrase, and then come down in both register and dynamic to the tonic. Explore other scales, such as major and minor pentatonic, octatonic, chromatic, whole tone, and the modes.

Utilize Silence
    Silence is a very important and effective element in music. It allows music to breathe and imparts greater impact to the notes around it. A solid stream of notes will eventually bore an audience. Add rests to make a piece more interesting and less predictable. Silence is especially important if you improvise with someone else. Instead of hearing a wall of sound as everyone plays at once, it allows for differences in texture to be heard. Apply rests to your newly created melody.

Many dance rhythms especially in Latin American music incorporate rests.

    Try these improvisational tools to develop your own creativity. In the process you will learn to play more musically, become a better listener, and appreciate the creativity of others.