When you improvise music, you’re taking a chance. Maybe you’ll get lucky and create a piece that hangs together as if it had been composed in advance. Or maybe you’ll get caught in a cycle of rambling or noodling that sounds aimless, unconvincing.

But is it all up to luck?

You can create better improvisations by pursuing a quality we’ll call endfulness.

Endfullness is the opposite of endlessness. It’s when the listener senses that an improvisation is moving toward a conclusion. It’s when the listener can imagine how the improvisation might end, even if that end is far away, and even if the search is full of twists and turns.

How can you achieve the quality of endfulness?

  • Before you begin the improvisation, decide how you’re going to end it. What phrases, chords, range, dynamics, etc. are you going to use?
  • Give the listener an early glimpse of the possible conclusion. Soon after you begin playing, reveal some of the building blocks or raw materials that you’re going to combine later to form the ending.
  • As you keep playing, keep hinting at the conclusion, and make the hints stronger and more vivid.

The value of endfulness became clear for me last weekend when I played an improvisation game with my partner. I would hum a couple of notes and then he would repeat them or respond with a new, simple phrase of his own.

Often when we do this – usually during a hike in the woods – we’ll have fun for a while, then start running out of ideas. Eventually we’ll get bored, stop, laugh, and forget about the whole thing.

But yesterday I decided to end the game while the ideas were still flowing. So I started singing phrases with a cadential feel. He didn’t get the idea immediately, so he kept exploring new ground. For a while, we had an alternation going. He’d sing a new phrase and I’d repeat a concluding phrase. Eventually, one of his phrases seemed to pair with one of mine to create a strong cadence and we stopped.

This time, it felt like we’d composed a little “piece” rather than just dabbling and giving up. The pursuit of the ending, the suspense about when it would actually occur, the conflict between ending and continuing – all these things made the game more satisfying than it had ever been. ■

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