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Learning To Improvise: A Musician’s Manifesto

by Bruce Siegel on October 19th, 2017

Back in the 1950′s, I was taught to play the piano through a process of learning to read notes on a page. Though this is characteristic of instruction to this day, I’ve posted here before about the reading-first approach and its limitations.

Happily, over the years, my interest in music persisted, and I thrived despite what I now see as a less-than-ideal start. But how I envied those who could improvise, or spontaneously play by ear their own versions of familiar songs. Many of them had much less training than I (with my studies at Juilliard, and my later Bachelor in Music degree).

For me, improvisation was the Holy Grail—something I longed for, but had no idea how to approach.

It wasn’t until I graduated from college that I began to understand how improvisers work their magic. Largely through arpeggiating (breaking up) the chords in my favorite Beatles tunes, I discovered how easy it can be to get started with this formerly mysterious skill, and how much fun it is. (Stay tuned for my tutorials on the subject.) Over the years, I kept adding new strategies and techniques, and gradually, I became a bona fide member of a club that had once seemed hopelessly out of reach.

Recently, I stumbled on a set of practice guidelines I wrote for my own use in the 1990′s, a period notable for some pretty thrilling breakthroughs. I had titled this list my “Improv Manifesto,” and if that sounds strange, it’s because learning to improvise transformed my musical life, and with this list I was affirming my commitment to the insights and attitudes that, at long last, were making it possible.

Perhaps none of the points you’re about to read is more important than the first, a reminder that my reasons for playing and creating go deeper than my professional involvement. Like many of these principles, it’s relevant not just to improvising, but to all our music-making.

•    •     •     •     •


My primary purpose in making music is the joy of expressing myself.  I need to experience, on a regular basis, the vibrant inner world that music allows me to enter.

From this perspective, absolutely no standards, judgements, or comparisons are applicable.  I make music because I love to do it.

I know that whenever I’m making music, I’m improvising.  The question is: to what degree, and within what parameters, do I wish to improvise at this moment?

Developmentally, there is no substitute for practice that emphasizes the  improvisational aspects of playing.  Stretching myself as an improviser helps me to achieve greater expressiveness and confidence in all my playing.

I learn to improvise in one way only: by improvising.

I learn to improvise by improvising regularly, for extended periods.

I allow and encourage myself to feel deeply as I play, and my improvisation is the expression of that feeling.

My body moves as I play, and my improvisation arises from that dance.

I sing inwardly, and my playing is the externalization of that inner voice.  I continually strive to develop my ear so that I may more accurately reproduce what I hear.

I allow rhythmic flow. As I practice, I find just the right challenge, addition, level of difficulty, or tempo—the precise step, in other words—that enables me to play with continuity.

I allow ease.   At each session, I discover what I need to do‚ or not do, in order to improvise playfully, without struggle, from the heart.  I know that I’m not really expressing myself as long as I’m working.

I allow myself to enjoy what I can do at this moment.

I will not make the mistake of thinking that music needs to be difficult or sophisticated in order to be expressive.  I remember the power and beauty of silence and simplicity.

I continually refresh, renew, and strengthen my abilities by experimenting and adopting fresh perspectives.  This might mean learning a new song, chord, style, groove, scale, or a thousand other possibilities.

I listen to the music of other musicians for ideas and inspiration.

I listen to what other musicians have to say—how they learned to improvise, what their approach is, and so on.  But I don’t become hypnotized by any method or person.  I know that what works for you may not work for me, and what worked for me yesterday may not work today.

I am continually developing my own style of learning.

Any music that can be heard or imagined can be improvised, and all styles are equally valid.  I embrace my own culture, time, and place, but I look beyond it, too, and ask myself:  What music moves and excites me now?

I develop my own musical language and means of expression.

When (and if) I wish to share my musical gifts, I find ways to do so that feel good to me.

I discover how music fits into my life.  How much energy can I devote to music while maintaining harmony and balance within the larger picture that is my whole life?

I pause frequently during my musical activities, release all my striving, and allow my breathing to assume its natural rhythm and depth.  In this way, I continually re-connect with my deepest inner guidance.

  1. Simon Ross permalink

    You have an entertaining blog. Thank you for the thoughts!

  2. Bruce Siegel permalink

    Thanks, Simon!

  3. Leslie r. permalink

    This is SO clear and SO inspiring.
    Thanks so much for all you give to those of us wanting to improve our range of skills.
    Keep it up, my friend.
    It’s so valuable.

  4. Bruce Siegel permalink

    My pleasure, Leslie! Thanks for commenting.

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