The Lost Art of Improvisation

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Musicians have been improvising for as long as there has been music. When prehistoric man first banged on a makeshift drum, or blew down a hollowed out bone with holes in it, he had no written down music to follow and no conductor to lead him. Instead he played what came into his head and in doing so became one of the first improvisers.

Classical improvisation

Fast forward a few thousand years to the time of the great classical masters. Take J.S. Bach for example. Bach was a prolific improviser and would think nothing of improvising for several hours on a church organ, and in the process creating what would now be deemed a priceless piece of musical art, had it been possible to record live music in the 17th century of course!

History tells of great improvisations being created by Bach and his peers, and it is largely felt that they created more music whilst improvising, than they actually wrote down on manuscript. A famous French organist of the time was thought to have been so intimidated by Bach’s improvisation prowess that he once turned in his tracks and went home, rather than attempt to take on Bach at an improvisation duel!

Jazz Improvisation

Of course these days when we think of improvisation we think primarily of Jazz. I am not about to give a history lesson in Jazz, as there are people far more qualified than I who can do that, but what I do want to remind you about is that Jazz started with improvisation, taking its roots from improvised African and European music, and has developed into what we hear and play today.

Thankfully, improvisation is still at the heart of Jazz today, albeit there does seem to be a concerning trend of ‘new young Jazz groups’ who are fresh out of college; all playing from very detailed notation on stage, where the focus appears to be more on technique and less so on originality; playing from the soul and free-thinking musical improvisation.

Great artists like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman who first made Free Jazz famous, would record an entire album or play an entire set without any written down notation. Take Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue for example. Arguably 2 of the most iconic Jazz albums of all time, made by one of the greatest Trumpet players of all time, Miles famously went into the studio with nothing but some pictures, colours and the note he wanted to start on.

The end result of those recording sessions is now history, but worth noting is how both albums never sounded the same every time they were performed live. Essentially, every performance was based on the original, but was in itself a unique artistic creation.


If we have learned anything from history, and from the brief snippet I have talked about in this article, it is how crucial improvisation is to music as an art form.

These days too many solo musicians, brass bands, orchestra’s, Jazz groups etc limit their musical expression by playing week after week from the same written down music, performing it in exactly the same way they did last week or the week before.

They may be musically gifted and make audiences rise to their feet in applause, but ask yourself this, where is the musical originality in simply reading from a piece of music that you and countless others have played hundreds of times before?

Who is creating grand improvisations on the scale of Bach or Beethoven any more, and how many times have you gone to watch a live gig, only to see the musicians playing music that sounds exactly as it did on an album?

As Brass musicians I feel we have a duty to bring back improvisation, so it can be at the heart of our music once again. Just as it has been for centuries, and just as musicians have been doing since music first began.

I leave you with a famous quote by Miles Davis:-

Composing will always be a memory of inspiration;

improvising is live inspiration, something happening at that very moment.

Do not fear mistakes. There are none.



One Response to “The Lost Art of Improvisation”

  1. Nice post. I’d like to link it in our Jazz Series forums. Improvisation takes courage and know-how and the latter requires effort, study, & practice. We’ve put together a nice program to help the process along. It’s free and fun and was written by a team of passionate educators led by the great Dan Haerle, jazz hall of fame educator and might I add, a fantastic guy. we hope anyone interested will visit and enjoy the process of learning the concepts needed to improvise….have fun along the way, and share with us your successes! cheers from Dallas.

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