Ukey in cat bedMany years ago I had a guitar teacher who changed the way I thought about practicing improvisation.

At the beginning of our very first lesson he asked me want I wanted to work on for the next few months.  I said I wanted to work on my repertoire (this is back when I was really into playing jazz), as well as improvising. So he decided that every week we would choose one tune to work on.

I would have to arrive at the lesson with the tune memorized.  We would then play, and improvise over, that one tune,  for the entire 30 minute lesson.  I’m not exaggerating, we would play one tune for 30 minutes without stopping. That was the whole lesson!

We would take turns improvising, maybe trading 4’s, 8’s, and sometimes “soloing” together (like two people telling their stories at the same time).

Usually, after about 10 minutes of soloing, I would realize that I had exhausted all my ideas.  And that’s when stuff can really get interesting.  If you try this, you’ll notice that you start to repeat yourself.  Certain phrases keep coming out.  That could just be muscle memory – learned licks and what not, or it could be the music you truly hear in your head, revealing itself to you.  That all depends on how much you’re in the moment.

My point is is this:  If you set a real limit for yourself, you’ll expand to fill the space within it.

Limits enable creativity.

Here are some examples of limits to impose on your playing (specifically for practicing improvisation on the guitar):

  • improvise over one tune for 30 minutes straight
  • only play on one string
  • only play above the 8th fret
  • only play below the 4th fret
  • only play whole notes
  • only play in sixths

You get the idea.  If you’re a guitar player, I’m sure you’ve worked on soloing using just one scale before.  That’s one obvious way to limit yourself.  So think of other ways you can constrain yourself to see what you’re capable of.

Choose a limitation to impose on your playing, and see how you’ll expand to meet that limitation in a musical way.

4 Responses to Limits

  1. fdask says:

    I regularly jam with some other guys, and we never play other peoples songs. Hours of improvisation sometimes, although often in short little bursts of five minutes or so. Some musical tangents just weren’t meant to live 🙂

    Anyway, great post!

  2. James says:

    Hey Christine – Thanks for posting all these tasty tidbits of practice ideas. (Both these ones, and some of your earlier posts as well.) It’s funny, I had never thought before of playing a single tune for 30 minutes as being a limitation per se… more of a flagrant self-indulgence… but I can see how this could work. Or at least, you made it sound convincing 🙂

  3. @James – the 30 minute solo should definitely be a “practice time” ONLY thing…for me anyway. I would never do that live, and you have my permission to punch me in the face if you ever catch me doing that.

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