Improvisation (Photo credit: Dave Kleinschmidt)

Every so often, I ask my students to improvise. For some, this can be something like singing random syllables, or humming, over a very simple chord progression (I-IV-V-I). For others, it can mean to invent new lyrics to a song on the spot, to sing a new melody over an accompaniment they already know, or to spontaneously act out a scene they are not familiar with.

Some are quite comfortable with improvising straightaway, but usually, the reactions range from laughing out loud to looking at me in absolute horror. From trying to really go for it, to trying half-heartedly (“That’s not very good, is it?”), to not even trying and being defensive.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I believe that everyone can profit from improvisation techniques. They are not only for actors and comedians, or jazz and pop musicians. Yes, I am looking at you, classical singer! If your gut instinct is to avoid improvisation, you will probably benefit from it all the more: Avoidant behaviour always tells you something about your fears.[Tweet this!]

Improvisation takes away your “comfort blanket”, be it sheet music, lyrics, or even the tried and tested version of a song you already know quite well. This can feel scary: Cold water, deep end, without a warning. No chance to “try to get it right” first. And the serious possibility to get it “wrong”. But wait – really?

There is no “right” or “wrong” in improvisation. There are only your own beliefs about what is “wrong” or “inappropriate”. There is only your fear of being laughed at, not being “musically accomplished enough”, wasting your own or other people’s time, simply: not being perfect. It is essentially about only wanting to do something when you know you won’t make mistakes. That’s a dangerous mindset however which can lead you into a real block, and even performance anxiety. Things can always (and occasionally will!) go wrong. It is part of the learning process, and of being a musician or artist. Playing it safe is not creative, it is – well, safe (and quite possibly a bit boring) … [Tweet this!]

If you allow yourself to improvise, you actually have to continuously find new “solutions”, think on your feet and – be creative. As a positive side effect, it can also make you feel less stressed and anxious in performance situations. You will be prepared for the worst that can happen: Not knowing what to expect and how things will go.

For the simple reason that I don’t believe in “improvisation check-lists” (would somehow forfeit the purpose, wouldn’t it?), I will only give you a couple of general pointers to think about when the “No can do”-mindset is creeping up on you the next time:

  • Be open-minded. YES instead of NO, trying instead of blocking.
  • Deal with what the (performance) situation throws at you, and complain/troubleshoot later. Whilst you are singing/acting, be in the moment, and make the most of it. Don’t over-think or overanalyse – just do. 
  • Allow yourself to be playful (even a bit silly), and to have fun. It is no coincidence that most younger kids I teach enjoy improvising – the inner critic usually starts to rear his/her ugly head at a later stage. Some start to develop a dislike of improvisation as teenagers, and it often stays like that well into their adult years. The older we get, the more we have the feeling we need to be perfect. Embrace mistakes – they are a chance to learn and discover new things (and some “mistakes” might even turn out to be good ideas).

If you feel stuck for more ideas, don’t hesitate to contact me, or leave a comment. To get you started, I added a few links to interesting articles you might want to have a look at.

© Petra Raspel 2012

About Petra Borzynski

Petra Borzynski is a voice coach and therapist with special expertise in helping (performing) artists and creatives to overcome limiting beliefs and emotional blocks to perform better and without fear. She has helped hundreds of people to prepare for or sustain a singing career, find personal fulfilment through music and overcome limiting beliefs & performance anxiety. Her articles on singing, creativity and performance psychology have been featured in several publications.

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