How to be a musician in an improv group


I was interviewed last year by someone doing his master's thesis about being a musician in the context of an improv group. It was so interesting to talk with him in an analytical way about something I've learned in such an intuitive way.

One of the questions he asked was one that people often ask, “How do you learn to be an improv musician?” I don't really have a set answer for that. It's such a niche within a niche, so all I can tell you is how I learned to do it.

So here's a list, in random order, based on my experience:

  1. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN, especially to other improv musicians. Try to analyze what they do, what works and why. I was lucky because when I first started out, I got to listen to the great Fred Kaz, who really invented what it is to be an improv musician. But I've continued to learn by listening to amazing players like Faith Soloway, Lisa McQueen, Ruby Streak, and Michael Pollack.

  1. LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to all kinds of music, even stuff you don't really like. Analyze it, think about what makes it tick. Try writing your own music in different styles. Listen for form, chord progressions, rhythmic patterns, how the vocals lie.

  2. Trust your instincts. Conversely, be willing to take direction.

  3. Play all different kinds of music, in as many different contexts as you can. Besides playing improv shows, I learned the most from playing in clubs, wedding bands, piano bars, and accompanying all sorts of singers.

  4. Keep an open mind to learning.

  5. Train your ears. The goal is for your hands and your ears to be intuitively connected.

  6. Work on listening and following as much as leading.

  7. If you are underscoring scenes, pretend you're doing a movie score—play the emotions, the rhythm of the actors, the “feel' of the scene.

  8. Whenever you can, work with people who are better than you, and use it as a chance to learn from them.

  9. Know that most improv groups are so thrilled to have a musician to work with (we are a rare breed), that they will cut you a lot of slack when you're learning.

  10. Embrace the unknown. Know that there will be “crash and burn” moments, and that it's actually part of the art form.


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