Improvisation Strategies

Anytime you’re creating, you’re going to have some frustrating experiences of “writer’s block” where you feel like you just can’t come up with anything “good.” What do we do when this happens?

First, we can try to get rid of the internal “judge” that wants to avoid making any mistakes. Judging what you’re about to make as “good” or “bad” before it even comes out can really hold us back. Unfortunately, many musicians have a perfectionist streak and have a really hard time letting go of these internal judgments. Still, it can help to center yourself in the moment with mindfulness exercises, and to try to adopt an attitude of curiosity (“I wonder what I am about to play!” or “I wonder what would happen if I…”) rather than judgment (“Is what I am about to play good enough?” or “This is probably going to be terrible but…”).

Beyond this, there are some more technical methods people sometimes use to generate material. Here are a few ideas. Many of them rely on the interplay of patterns and novelty, which generally work together to both give us something familiar and easy to understand (patterns) and catch our attention with something new (novelty).

  • Don’t be afraid to use common patterns, especially at beginnings (like scale degree 5/sol on a pickup leading to scale degree 1/do on a downbeat) and endings (like cadence patterns).
  • Sequences, or pitch/rhythm patterns that repeat starting on a different pitch each time, are a really useful way to structure a melody. Often, the “motive” that is repeated is about a measure/cycle long, so if you can come up with something interesting that lasts about a measure, try repeating down a step in the next measure. If down a step doesn’t feel right, try a different spot (up a third?).
  • Rely on things that either feel good to you or intrigue you.

Activity: Get used to making stuff up

Goal: Quiet your inner critic and develop habits that are useful in improvisation.

Before you start: You may wish to use your primary instrument. If you’re not fatally self-conscious, it may also be helpful to work with a group of other folks who can help you come up with ideas and encourage you.


  1. Start by centering yourself. It may be helpful to close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Acknowledge any emotions you may be feeling and give them permission to stick around if they wish.
  2. Come up with a minimal plan of how you will begin and end. This may include a key, meter, an effect you’re going for, a starting idea, a set of notes you particularly enjoy playing that you’d like to start with, an ending note, and more.
  3. Perform something at a tempo that allows you to feel as comfortable as possible and confident that what you are performing sounds intentional.
  4. Consider: how did that feel? If you were nervous, how can you address this the next time through? If your improvisation felt wandery, how could you give it more structure? Ideas might include a planned-out contour or rhythmic shape. Repeat as appropriate, implementing your new plan.



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Foundations of Aural Skills Copyright © 2022 by Timothy Chenette is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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