Why improvising can make you a better singer

Master the art of vocal improvisation and you’ll reap huge rewards, writes Antonio De Lillis. Here he explains how improvising can make you a better vocalist and musician.  

Who am I?

My name is Antonio and I have been in the music industry for over 20 years, as both a singer and singing teacher. In my career I have sung many genres, but I mostly consider myself a jazz singer. As such, I very often find myself improvising and “scatting”. If you are not familiar with the word, “scat” defines that vocal style where a vocalist sings improvised melodies without words, using nonsensical syllables. It is a highly creative process that deeply relies on one’s imagination and listening skills.

Here is a masterful example from Ella Fitzgerald.

My passion for jazz and scat singing motivated me to carry out some research: I wanted to investigate the connections between vocal improvisation and creativity. What I found out is that scatting and improvising can be seriously beneficial to our overall musicianship and even our singing technique. Let’s see why and how.

But first, what is improvisation?

Improvisation is the action of creating music in the moment, as it is being performed. It is normally considered a key feature of jazz music but can be found in many other styles (rock, blues, soul and even baroque!).

Being a very complex form of creative behaviour, music improvisation has sparked the interest of neuroscientists, fascinated by the peculiar challenges it poses to musicians. Whilst improvising, singers must control, at one and the same time, numerous aspects of their musicianship and technique (melodic and rhythmic phrasing, harmonic awareness, fine-motor movements of the vocal tract, plus coordination with other musicians) all for the purpose of making interesting and beautiful music.

When singers scat, their mind is focused on the spontaneous musical flow they are creating. Indeed, if you are not busy reading music notation and lyrics, or following a pre-learnt melody, you are totally free to express your musical ideas and make use of your creativity.

Can creativity be taught?

Although the neurophysiological basis of creativity is yet obscure, some scientific studies seem to indicate that being creative is not a gift, something you were born with. On the contrary, creativity is thought to be an active application of ordinary cognitive processes, or in more simple words, an acquirable skill; a quality that can be nurtured, taught and learnt. Yes, but how?

Before I unravel a few tips and tricks let me tell you one thing. Did you know that many studies seem to indicate that jazz musicians, compared to classical musicians, show a higher level of creative thinking? This could be because they are more used to improvising. In the field of dance, other studies display similar findings: contemporary dancers, who normally improvise on stage, demonstrate higher creativity (measured by specific thinking tasks) than classically trained dancers, typically required to follow well-structured choreographies.

Musical benefits of improvisation

So the act of improvising, researchers suggest, can actually nurture the creative mind. This alone is a wonderful thing, but it looks like there is much more to it.

In fact, it appears that improvisation has a powerful impact on one’s musicianship, with the potential to improve aural, sight reading and rhythm skills, as well as accuracy, phrasing and style. Furthermore, improvising may help you gain a deeper understanding of harmony and music theory, and also develop your expressiveness and stage presence.

Non-musical benefits

If you think the above is great, well just wait to see the rest! There is evidence that the regular practice of vocal improvisation may reduce the fear of making mistakes, and consequentially cut down performance anxiety.

Improvising stimulates the same parts of the brain which are involved in aspects of human behaviour such as adaptation to change, problem solving and risk taking. Aren’t these skills important for us all in our everyday life, let alone music?

Why don’t we all improvise?

Despite its astonishing arrays of benefits, improvisation isn’t so widely practised amongst singers, sometimes troubled by their lack of experience or confidence. If you feel you are one of those singers, stay tuned. This article is the first in a series I am writing on vocal improvisation. In the next article I’ll guide you through the basics and help you take the first steps into this wonderful and creative world.

Italian-born singer, songwriter and singing teacher Antonio De Lillis started studying music and guitar in 1991. He then studied singing at some of the most prestigious music schools in Italy (C.P.M. in Milan, Università della Musica and Saint Louis College of Music in Rome). In 2011 he graduated with a first class degree in jazz arranging and performance at Licinio Refice Conservatoire of Music (Frosinone, Italy). In February 2018, he gained a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Professional Practice (specialism Vocal Pedagogy) from Cardiff Metropolitan University, in conjunction with Voice Workshop Ltd. Antonio sings jazz and pop with several bands performing on television, radio and at numerous gigs, concerts and festivals. He has released four albums, one of which as a band leader. Antonio has been teaching singing since 2000, in different academies, schools, charities and colleges in Rome and London. He regularly leads workshops on vocal technique, jazz singing and vocal improvisation.