We asked pianist, composer, and producer Michael Gallant for advice for improvisation and soloing techniques for musicians of all genres.
What’s the biggest challenge that musicians face when it comes to improvisation and soloing?
1. Learning the language. Whether you know tons of theory or are playing by ear, being comfortable expressing yourself is key. Confidence. 2. Soloing can be intimidating, so having the courage to try new things on the spot is important.
How is improvisation like composing in real time?
For me, it’s very similar – but one’s immediate and in the moment and the other can be more thoughtful and drawn out. A lot of my composition and songwriting comes out of improvisations. I remember interviewing one of my favorite pianists, McCoy Tyner, for Keyboard Magazine a while back. He said that composition and improv were the same thing to him. Just one was faster and one was slower.
What’s the first step artists should take when learning how to improvise?
I was always taught to listen, listen, listen. Listen both within whatever genre(s) you want to play, and in all sorts of other stuff too. You want to learn from the masters who came before you, but also get ideas from all sorts of crazy things. Before I recorded my first Michael Gallant Trio album, I was listening to old jazz, new jazz, show tunes, metal, experimental noise music, classical, you name it. Gave me lots of ideas! Realize that when you start out, you are unlikely to be very good – but just do it anyway.
Do you recommend playing along with other records? What kinds of music do you suggest?
I love playing along with records. I used to do it with everything from Phish to Pearl Jam to Beethoven. I recommend playing along to both studio and live albums of any genre; you’ll learn different things from each context. It can also be good to put down a drum/instrumental loop in GarageBand and solo on top of that. It’s an easy way to try new things.
How much of the improv process comes down to learning music theory?
I’m a big fan of knowing as much theory and having as much technique as possible. Variations are also great; if you don’t know where to start, just change a few notes of the melody. Phrase something differently, try different timing, etc. It can all take you in some cool directions. I know great improvisers who have written books on music theory and others who play 100% by ear. I don’t think it’s essential to know theory to be a great improviser, but every bit of theory that you CAN learn helps. I also think of it as having more tools available to help you say what you need to say at any given moment. Remember that it’s what you’re saying and expressing, rather than how many notes you play, or how crazy or fast they are. I love older musicians who have nothing to prove for just that reason. They say so much with a single note.
How do you incorporate playing “in” and playing “out” to build up your solos?
It depends so much on context! I always just try to maintain a balance. Following lots of pleasant “in” licks with some edgy “out” ones can be powerful, and vice versa. Especially if you’re in a rock or pop context, just a little bit of playing “out” can be a really cool spice to add.
How much rehearsal prep for solos do you do when learning a song for a gig, or prepping for a recording?
If it’s with a pop/rock/etc. artist, I always make sure that I know the chords underneath, the vibe of the song, etc. I usually won’t write out something note for note, though I have done that once or twice. If it’s my Trio, I keep it looser. With them I just make sure I know the changes and then go with the vibe of the moment. If the solo is over really tough chords or meter changes, then I’ll definitely practice things like scales, voice pairings, etc. so I’m at least comfortable with the “ingredients” that I’ll need to say something meaningful in the moment.
Do you record your solos? How do you critique yourself & learn from past performances?
Audio and/or video recording can be super helpful. Sometimes things you thought were great weren’t so hot after all, and sometimes things that you thought flopped were actually spectacular. It can be hard to know in the moment. Don’t fixate on recordings, though. It can drive you crazy. They’re useful as reference so you know what worked and what didn’t, but try to focus on broad lessons learned and then dive into the next solo when the time comes. It’s also cool to listen back to recordings of you soloing from years ago and hear how far you’ve come.
What does collaborating with other musicians add to your improv strategy?
Energy, ideas, inspiration, and a good sort of chaos. You never know how your band mates are going to respond to what you’re playing, so it keeps things exciting. As I said earlier, it adds to the conversational aspect of improv. You can end up with magical moments when everyone aligns. Having other musicains involved also makes it that much more important to listen. The improv isn’t just about you, it’s about your bandmates, the audience, the song itself, and telling a story that means something.
What resources do you recommend for further reading and study?
Even if you don’t play jazz, “The Jazz Theory Book” by Mark Levine is a good book. The lessons learned can be applied to nearly any genre. Again, listening is key. Monk, Herbie Hancock, Ella, Louis Armstrong, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jimi, whoever you love. Trying to transcribe solos (again, in any genre) can be like doing musical bench presses. Really educational and inspirational!
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