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8 Surprising Benefits of Music Improvisation

8 Surprising Benefits of Music Improvisation

Tossing out your sheet music, and winging it with a song, is like turning off your GPS and trying to find your own way home – it can seem scary and intimidating at first (seriously, how did people live before GPS technology?), but once you step out of your comfort zone, you may find it even more rewarding than playing off the page!

Learning how to improvise can give you more than just the fun of going off the beaten trail; it also has many benefits that can help you become a better musician. Start with short improvisation sessions at home, and work your way up to longer playing times, you’re sure to notice a boost to your musical prowess. Check out the numerous ways that improvising in music enhances your musical skills.

1. It trains your ears

An important component of being a musician is being able to hear the music. Oftentimes, students are only taught how to read and reproduce music; but the art is much more involved than moving your fingers across the keys in a certain rhythm.

Hearing the notes, and understanding how they work together, makes the tasks of playing and understanding music theory easier on students. Improvising trains your ear to hear and identify whether you’re producing the sounds you intended, or not. As students get better at this, it can also help them compose their own pieces in the future.

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2. It helps you recognize patterns and scales

When warming up, students often play scales from bottom to top; or, top to bottom. When music students get into a cycle of remembering which note follows another, they often fail to recognize how all the other notes on the scale interact in a musical piece.

Think about the way you remember the alphabet, by singing the letters in a particular order – without singing the ABC song, can you identify whether J or H comes first? When it comes to a piece of music, it’s helpful to know how different notes sound together, whether they sit next to each other on the scale or not. Improvising helps refine scale, chord, and arpeggio concepts. It helps hone a student’s overall musical understanding.

3. It teaches students to think ahead

When students read off a piece of sheet music, it’s easy to get caught up in a habit of reading note by note, as they play each note. This often results in slowing down the student’s playing, causing frustration.

Improvising teaches you to plan for what’s coming next, and think about the song as a flowing, unified piece, instead of a collection of single notes. It doesn’t just make it easier to anticipate what’s to come; it teaches students to think ahead, so that when they’re reading sheet music, they can read it faster, and stay on the beat.

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4. It allows for self-expression

Music is meant to be a form of expression; a form of communicating emotions. Students tend to focus more on reproducing the sounds written on the page than creating emotion with their instruments. Improvisation interrupts the cycle of reproducing; helping students express their emotions, hone their talents, and develop their unique musical voices.

In one study, researchers monitored the brain activity of musicians in both “play-from-memory” and improvised scenarios. They found that in when playing from memory, areas of the brain associated with problem-solving lit up. In the improvised scenarios, brain areas associated with self-expression, making up stories, and recounting memories were more active.

Essentially, the areas of the brain that were active during improvisation weren’t active when musicians played songs from memory. This suggests that it’s beneficial to incorporate both types of play into a student’s learning experience. This helps them become more well-rounded musicians.

5. It fosters creativity

Improvising is all about composing on the spot. It’s completely up to the student where to take the music next, giving them an outlet to work creatively with music. Creativity itself, whether through music or other art forms, comes with its own slew of benefits; studies have shown that exercising creativity can actually boost your physical and mental health. Some of the benefits of creativity include:

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  • It gives you a sense of control over the outside world.
  • It provides an outlet to create something positive out of a bad experience.
  • It promotes abstract thinking, to come up with new (and sometimes better) solutions.
  • It helps you resolve conflicts.
  • It gives you a place to express emotions, to learn more about yourself, and to effectively work through your thoughts.
  • It provides a greater sense of well-being.
  • It helps you better understand empathy, which can help you build better relationships.

All of these benefits translate to your everyday life. Creativity isn’t just about becoming a better musician; it’s about becoming a better person.

6. It can boost health

Similar to the concept that creativity improves physical and mental health; researchers have also studied the effect of music improvisation on your health. They found that improvising music can have a distinct effect on well-being, separately from other musical behaviors. Engaging in improvisation exercises helps reduce stress and anxiety, which in turn can improve mental health conditions.

Improvising music also has been shown to improve communication skills in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Music is an outlet to communicate and process emotions, often assisting children who have trouble processing emotions on their own. When improvising in a group, students learn how to listen to other students’ music, and communicate something back to them.

7. It reinforces listening

Improvising isn’t just for solo artists; entire groups can improvise together, and even sound quite good when they have an effective leader. Group improvisation sessions reinforce how important it is to watch your conductor, and to pay attention to what the rest of the group is doing. If your musical ensemble can master the act of improvising together, then when you switch back to sheet music, the group will work much better as a whole.

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Group improvisation also helps students communicate with their musical peers better; which can translate to other areas of communication in life. Improvisation exercises also help promote a sense of community within a music group, which often benefits a student’s well-being outside of class.

8. It’s fun and motivating!

Reading the same sheet music, day after day, can become repetitive. This may leave students feeling disengaged in their music lessons. Improvisation is always a new experience, and it oftentimes feels like a game. Because it’s fun, it acts as a good motivator for students who feel like they’re not being challenged in class, or engaging their creativity.

Improvising is scary at first, as you ditch the familiar guide of the notes on your page – but even simple improvisation makes a difference! Start out small, perhaps by improvising quarter notes on a single octave scale; and continue to practice your improvisation skills, challenging yourself (or your music students) more and more each time. Whether you’re practicing on your own or teaching music to eager students, you’ll find that improvising will mold better music skills, and well-rounded, healthier musicians.

Featured photo credit: www.npr.org via npr.org

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Jennifer Paterson

President of California Music Studios

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Last Updated on December 9, 2019

5 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress Effectively

5 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress Effectively

Everyone experiences mental stress at one time or another. Maybe you’re starting a new career, job, or business, or you feel incredibly overwhelmed between work, parenting, and your love life (or a lack of it). It could even be that you simply feel that you have way too much to do and not enough time to do it,  plus, on top of everything, nothing seems to be going the way it should!

Yup, we all experience mental stress from time-to-time, and that’s okay as long as you have the tools, techniques and knowledge that allow you to fully relieve it once it comes.

Here are 5 tips for relieving mental stress when it comes so you can function at your best while feeling good (and doing well) in work, love, or life:

1. Get Rationally Optimistic

Mental stress starts with your perception of your experiences. For instance, most people get stressed out when they perceive their reality as “being wrong” in some way. Essentially, they have a set idea of how things “should be” at any given moment, and when reality ends up being different (not even necessarily bad), they get stressed.

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This process is simply a result of perception and can be easily “fixed” by recognizing that although life might not always be going as YOU think it should, it’s still going as it should—for your own benefit.

In fact, once you fully recognize that everything in your life ultimately happens for your own growth, progress, and development—so you can achieve your goals and dreams—your perception works in your favor. You soon process and respond to your experience of life differently, for your advantage. That’s the essence of becoming “rationally optimistic.”

The result: no more mental stress.

2. Unplug

Just like you might need to unplug your computer when it starts acting all crazy, you should also “unplug” your mind.

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How on earth do you unplug your mind? Simple: just meditate.

It isn’t nearly difficult or complicated as some people think, so, if you don’t already meditate, give it a try. Whether you meditate for 5 minutes, 30 minutes, or 2 hours, this is a surefire way to reduce mental stress.

Meditation has been scientifically proven to relax your body (resulting in less mental stress), while also reducing anxiety and high blood pressure.

3. Easy on the Caffeine

Yes, we know, we know—everyone loves a nice java buzz, and that’s okay, but there’s a fine line between a small caffeine pick-me-up and a racing heart and mind that throws you into a frenzy of mental stress.

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Try giving up caffeine for a while and see how you feel. And, if that’s completely out of the question for you, at least try to minimize it. You might find that lots of your mental stress mysteriously “disappears” as your caffeine intake goes down.

4. Attack Mental Stress Via the Back Door

That’s right: your body and mind are part of the whole being, and are constantly influencing and affecting each other. If you’re experiencing a lot of mental stress, try to reduce it by calming your body down—a calm body equals a calmer mind.

How do you calm your body down and reduce physical stress? A  great way to reduce physical stress (thereby reducing mental stress) is to take natural supplements that are proven to reduce stress and anxiety while lifting your mood. Three good ones to look into are kava-kava, St John’s wort, and rhodiola rosea:

  • Kava-kava is a natural plant known to have mild sedative properties, and you should be able to find it at your natural health food store or vitamin store. It’s available in capsules or liquid extract form.
  • St John’s wort is a natural flower used to treat depression. Again, it’s found at your local health store in capsules or liquid. Because it uplifts mood (enabling you to see the brighter side of all experiences) it helps relieve mental stress as well.
  • Rhodiola rosea is a natural plant shown to reduce stress and uplift mood, and Russian athletes have been using it forever. Like the other two supplements mentioned, rhodiola rosea can be found at your natural health store in capsule or liquid form.

While these supplements are all natural and can be very helpful for most people, always check with your health care provider first as they can cause side-effects depending on your current health situation etc.

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5. Good Old-Fashioned Exercise

This tip has been around forever because it works. Nothing relieves mental stress like running, kickboxing—you name it. Anything super-physical will wipe out most of your mental stresses once the exercise endorphins (happy chemicals) are released into your brain.

The result: mental stress will be gone!

So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed or just plain stressed, try using some of the above tips. You can even print this out or save it to refer to regularly.

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