An Introduction To Improvisation

Learn what improvisation is, why it is important and some tips to get you started. This lesson includes a practical example.

Improvisation is a common exam topic and is a very useful thing to be able to do in the 'real world'. It basically means 'make something up on the spot'. In an exam situation you will usually be given some kind of specifications written as sheet music then a very short amount of time to create a short piece of a specific length. The difficulty and length of this piece will vary depending on the grade you are taking. Sometimes this will be done with a backing track and sometimes you will be expected to play solo. A more realistic example of a situation where you might need to improvise is if you are playing with a band and they decide to do a song you've never heard before. If you are well practised at improvisation you will be able to make up a part that works with very little information from the rest of the band.

In each level of drumscore lessons you will be given new ideas to try in your improvisation a long with various examples of pieces you are expected to improvise around in an exam situation, both with backing tracks and solo.

Let's take a look at a simple improvisation test that you might find in a grade 1 or 2 exam. What you will usually be presented with is a very empty piece of sheet music that looks something like the example below:

An example of an improvisation

So you aren't given a huge amount of information. You can see that you are expected to play four bars of music, that the Tempo is 100bpm, the Time Signature is 4/4 and that it's in a rock style. In the first bar the funny slashed note heads are telling you what rhythm the first three bars are based on. The most obvious thing to do would be something like This Groove as it is based on the same rhythm. Bars 2 and 3 have the mark 'cont. sim.' above them. This is an abbreviation of 'continue similar' and it's telling you that the these bars are based on the first so it would be perfectly acceptable to play the same groove through these bars. Above the last bar is the word 'fill' which of course means play a Fill.

In an exam situation you would be given the notation for the piece then left for 30 seconds to a minute to prepare what you are going to play then you have to go for it. Fortunately, if you're prepared this can be one of the more straight forward parts of an exam.

If you scroll down a little on our Level 1 Fills Area you will find a section title Fill Placement and Phrasing. Here is a list of Structural Ideas that are incredibly useful for improvisation. One that would be perfect for the example given here is the A B A C structure and the first example given on that page would work really well here.

These tests are usually deliberately vague to force you to be creative with the information you have. As the difficulty of the improvisation test increases you will find that the pieces get longer, the time you have to prepare them gets shorter, things such as drum solos and breaks in the part start appearing, more difficult time signatures appear and more challenging rhythms are given. Lists of things you should know for each level of improvisation will be given throughout our improvisation lessons but the most common are:

  • Understanding structure and fill placement.
  • Understanding genre specifics.
  • A wide variety of grooves and ideas for how to vary them.
  • A wide variety of fills and how to vary them.
  • The ability to play at a wide variety of tempos.
  • How to create grooves and fills when just presented with a rhythm.

The intention of this introductory lesson is to just give you a basic understanding of what improvisation is and what you will be covering in later lessons on the subject. In our level 1 improvisation lesson you will learn how to improvise four bar patterns in a specific genre based on a given rhythm. For now I will leave you with a slightly more complicated improvisation test that you might see at around grade 4. If you can't play the parts at least have a think about what you might do to create a 16 bar piece with the given information:

An example of an improvisation