4 Tricks for Unblocking Improvisation
Improvising is like telling stories with your friends. But sometimes you run out of ideas and you feel like you're just repeating the same old song over and over again. For me personally, that feeling creates a rather uncomfortable mental block. And because this happens to me all the time, I've developed a defense mechanism—which I'd gladly share with you.
1. Restrict yourself creatively
I think this is a principle that works across human activities. In this case, I apply several variations. The goal is always to force myself to play in different ways, to get out of the habit loop. I might tell myself that I'm going to play on one string only, or on two strings, or three. Or maybe I'll limit myself to chord tones. Or maybe I'll focus on fingerpicking. Or on vocal harmonies. This usually inspires me to discover or develop new elements, and once I remove the limitations again, I incorporate those elements into my normal playing. I've even tried this a few times on stage.
2. Change instruments
I use this mainly when composing, but of course it can be applied in a broad sense. The apparent disadvantage of not knowing how to play an instrument is actually an advantage. Instead of honing your technical finesse as you would on your main instrument, the only option is to cultivate musicality and simplicity. I would probably struggle to play a bass or keyboard at a concert, but in the quiet of my home I can explore new avenues on those instruments. And sometimes all it takes is just a different guitar with a different sound.
3. Use a new technique
I personally have never been a very skilful player, I believe my talents lie elsewhere. But I would never disregard musical technique and I certainly wouldn't brag about not being able to do something. Also, focusing on a specific technique (even one that you don't master yet) can be a helpful way out of a creative dead-end. For example: determinedly apply more legato playing, or play a rhythm using only downstrums.
4. Find your inner song
Patti Smith once wrote that we all carry our own unique song within us. It is possible that the guitar sometimes gets in the way. Whenever I'm stuck and don't know which way to go, I make sure no one is around, put my guitar down, and just sing my guitar parts. Then, I pick up the guitar and teach myself to play the things I've been singing. After which I will turn it around again and sing what I'm playing. And I try to stick with that, even if I don't hit the exact notes. Because that's not what matters here—it's about new discoveries, and they don't have to be perfect.
And how do you go about getting yourself unstuck? Let us know in the comments below.
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