So you want to improvise, do you?

by Bill McBirnie

From the start, I can guarantee you that learning to improvise will give you a genuine opportunity to free and liberate yourself. However, learning how to improvise can be a daunting task, and it immediately raises the question, “Where do I begin?”

In my case, I was in my early 20s when I decided I no longer wanted to be “script bound” as a classical flute player. I made up my mind to change course completely, and transition from playing classics to playing jazz instead. Making that transition presented immediate challenges. The challenges I confronted were (1) technical (because my classical technique did not work in non-classical situations), and (2) theoretical (because I did not know what to play without sheet music in front of me).

Consequently, I recognize the (1) technical and (2) theoretical problems you will inevitably face in choosing to improvise. These two problem areas are the subject of my teaching and, more recently, of a book that I published in 2019 entitled, The Technique and Theory of Improvisation: A practical guide for flutists, doublers and other instrumentalists.

However, in this article, I will take a broad and philosophical approach in order to help you orient yourself to the process of learning to improvise with emphasis on the importance of…listening!…

The first thing to recognize is that improvising starts, not with playing, but with LISTENING!

This is the most important principle to grasp, right at the outset. We often assume that, if we are going to improvise, then we have to play something. However, what you really have to do first is to develop the ability to LISTEN, and to hear what it is that you are trying to do. This process of “listening” must operate on two levels; (i) internally (so you know, or at least have a pretty good idea of, what you are trying to sound like); and (ii) externally (so that you will be able to play with others in dynamic and interactive situations).

You should begin this process by listening closely to the players and singers who inspired you to improvise in the first place. Listen to them a LOT. Then do some research and find out who THEY listened to. And then listen to THEM a lot too. By doing this, you will begin to internalize the sound (or at least the essential quality and nature of the sound) you are seeking to create yourself.

Listen with care and discipline so that, when you get around to “externalizing” (i.e., playing), you will have a clear “internal” vision of what it is that you are aiming for.

For the “externalizing” (or playing) part, begin by improvising along with the recordings you like the sound of. Imitate, as precisely as you can, what you hear—and only what you hear. You will miss a lot at first. Don’ worry. Be patient and be persistent, because with time and application, your ear will improve.

I will repeat, imitate what you hear—and only what you hear. Do NOT extemporize! And if you experience any  difficulty hearing a particular phrase exactly, then wait for another phrase you can hear—and play with that one instead. Take your time, and let difficult phrases go by, if you must.

And don’t worry about “mistakes” (because you will make plenty at first). What is more important is to imitate—or even approximate—something you hear in what you are are listening to, even if it is just a fragment, a shape, a contour, a nuance or a shading. The goal is to fully engage your ear.

When you are doing this, you are NOT improvising—you are mimicking what you hear. Your objective is to “impersonate” the instrumentalist or vocalist, as closely as you can. Internalize that experience, because you eventually want to bring that forward in your own playing.

Now, it may seem counterintuitive that the way to learn how to improvise is by NOT “improvising”, but rather by “mimicking” what you hear. You may also think that mimicking will interfere with your “creative instinct”, or that it won’t lead you anywhere (because even if you are interacting with the recording, the recording is not interacting with you). However, mimicking compels you to LISTEN—and to interact closely with—what you are hearing. And this is precisely what you must do in a real playing situation…And that is half the battle!…

So, the first step in your path to learning how to improvise is to make LISTENING (both internally and externally) an integral part of your daily routine. You can always acquire the necessary (1) technique and (2) theory as you go get better. But if you cannot hear what it is that you are actually trying to do, then no amount of (1) technique or (2) theory will help you!

Finally, you must recognize that listening (both internally and externally) is an ongoing and never ending process, regardless of what level or stage you are at, whether an aspiring improvisor or an accomplished player.

In the end, you will find that everything comes back to LISTENING!…And that is true, even for the best and most accomplished improvisors!…

Bill McBirnie | Albums | Book

Bill McBirnie is a highly acclaimed and internationally renowned jazz/Latin flute specialist who was solicited, personally, by Sir James Galway to serve as his resident Jazz Flute Specialist. 

More recently, Bill has published a book on The Technique and Theory of Improvisation, and his most recent album, The Silent Wish (with Bernie Senensky), was nominated for a 2020 Juno award as “Best Instrumental Album of the Year”. He is the only flutist to achieve triple-crown status at the National Flute Association (NFA) conventions in the USA, winning all three of the jazz flute (1) Soloist, (2) Master Class and (3) Big Band competitions. Bill is currently a Designated Haynes Artist with the venerable flute maker, Wm. S. Haynes Co.