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Improvising - Coming up with Ideas

rhysonsax

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There seem to be lots and lots of approaches to developing skills at improvisation. Just a few that spring to my mind are:
  • Variations based on the melody
  • Musical fragments and thematic development
  • Copying from improvised solos recorded by great players
  • Learning lots of riffs
  • Learning to recognise sequences of chords and what notes or scales work against them
  • Learning about guide tones for chords and how to use them
  • Insert your favourite approach here

I guess that all or most of the techniques can help students to improve at improv, but what I haven't really seen written about is where the ideas of what to play come from.

What are good improvisers thinking about as they play ?

Where do the (good) ideas come from ?

Can students learn techniques to stimulate their imagination ?

How is the "ideas generating" part connected to the "execution" part ?

I read an interview with Dizzy Gillespie where he described thinking up interesting rhythms first and then choosing the notes to play, almost as a separate task (all my words). That seems an amazing skill.

I've read about other improvisers who basically seem to clear their mind and "think of nothing", presumably because the chord sequences are so well internalised that they can function almost on autopilot.

And there is the tale of Sonny Rollins being badly affected by reading Gunther Schuller's analysis of his superb solo on "Blue 7" (Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation) Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation | Jazz Studies Online

Rhys
 

Pete Effamy

Senior Member
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What are good improvisers thinking about as they play ?

Where do the (good) ideas come from ?
Blimey.... The only thing I can say is that it's doubtful there has been a good improvisor who hasn't put in many many hours. A solid technique that you don't have to think or worry about is obviously another useful part.

Sometimes a solo can be auto pilot as has been discussed on here recently - it depends how I feel and whether I relate to the vibe of the other musicians on the gig. Sometimes I might not relate at all to their playing but become quite insular and be more creative through ignoring them - if it's MY solo, then follow me chaps...

Mostly I try to be tied-in with what is going on, rhythmically, harmonically and melodically. I tend to err on lyricism rather than technical, and I'm a big articulation and tone guy.
I might be thinking about anything - but not the music.
 

Pete Effamy

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I'd be surprised if you read anything significant that became a lightbulb moment for you on this one.
 
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rhysonsax

rhysonsax

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Blimey.... The only thing I can say is that it's doubtful there has been a good improvisor who hasn't put in many many hours. A solid technique that you don't have to think or worry about is obviously another useful part.

Sometimes a solo can be auto pilot as has been discussed on here recently - it depends how I feel and whether I relate to the vibe of the other musicians on the gig. Sometimes I might not relate at all to their playing but become quite insular and be more creative through ignoring them - if it's MY solo, then follow me chaps...

Mostly I try to be tied-in with what is going on, rhythmically, harmonically and melodically. I tend to err on lyricism rather than technical, and I'm a big articulation and tone guy.
I might be thinking about anything - but not the music.
You mentioned in the other thread that "the problem is that I'm hearing my idols play my lines as they come out of my head."

It's interesting how many (non-blowing) improvisers sometimes sing or moan along with their solos. They obviously have the skill to execute just what they imagine or hear in their inner ear.

It seems a bit easier to scat vocal improvisations (in private of course), because there seems to be a direct link between idea and execution and "glaringly wrong" notes don't appear or don't throw you off. Maybe that means we should be practising our skills at listening and copying or call and response more than burying our heads in theory.

Rhys

PS The best playing I have ever managed was when I was jamming with Ben Webster, but then I woke up (really).
 

Pete Effamy

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Maybe that means we should be practising our skills at listening and copying or call and response more than burying our heads in theory.
In that case you'll hopefully develop the theoretical knowledge subconsciously. It doesn't matter how it comes, in fact the more of an 'ear' player you become the better your improvising.
 

Pete Effamy

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You mentioned in the other thread that "the problem is that I'm hearing my idols play my lines as they come out of my head."
Yes sometimes. Not always of course. Sometimes I'm thinking about a conversation I had earlier, or my car insurance or whatever. What do you think about when you type, or drive or talk to someone boring, or engaging, or when you listen to music?
 

Pete Effamy

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Someone on here once mentioned using 3-notes to improvise over. I used to use this idea with students too. It could give you a sense of how to play with more purpose:

I'm not hungry
I'M not hungry
I'm NOT hungry
I'm not HUNGRY

and then:

I am hungry.

Etc, you can see where I'm going. The beauty of playing motifs like this are easily latched onto by the listener. Humans like repetition. They like it even more if you repeat, and then twist the end. It fills space too. The above probably fills 4 bars easily and can be strung out to 8 bars. If you essentially play the same thing again and follow the next bit of harmony you have even more of your solo. Etc.
 

randulo

playing 2 years
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I believe the saying was born in the 1950's among jazzers:

"It's all rhythm"

It's often mentioned that "There are only 12 notes". This is true in theory, not in practice. There are many more, at least 36 at a quick guess. But there are infinite rhythms, and these are created, among other ways, by interference patterns. I just posted the YouTube of Strasbourg Saint Denis of Roy Hargrove. How did any of the players improvise over the few chords and notes in that song?

"It's all rhythm"

A couple of drops of water beating on a roof or hammers on a construction site will furnish many interference patterns and in that infinite variety, are all possible variations in all time signatures. But of course, you can also contrive these, and very easily.

How do spiders know how to spin a web? How do musicians know how to improvise?
 

randulo

playing 2 years
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In case any beginning improvisers are scratching their heads in wonder, here's a simple exercise anyone who can play three notes can do, and it doesn't matter which notes.

Play A, B, C, in a continuous loop, ABCABCABC (or any three).
Play the A louder than the other two for a few repetitions.
Then do the B louder.
Then the C.

Mix 'em up now. You're improvising! You only have to make it music.

I just read Pete's post about three notes! Great minds and all that.
 

spike

Old Indian
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I just walk around with my ears open and when I hear something promising I grab it.
"Thankyou very much I'll have that" . . . and I'll move it around and give it a good chew.
So when I'm playing all this stuff comes out - re gurgitated - as it were
past tense: regurgitated; past participle: regurgitated
  1. 1.
    bring (swallowed food) up again to the mouth.
    "gulls regurgitate food for the chicks"
Similarly one could say:
bring swallowed ideas up again to the mouth and beyond.
"Sax players regurgitate notes for the chicks"
 

Pete Effamy

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I just walk around with my ears open and when I hear something promising I grab it.
"Thankyou very much I'll have that" . . . and I'll move it around and give it a good chew.
So when I'm playing all this stuff comes out - re gurgitated - as it were

Everything you play is covered in bile? :banana:
 
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rhysonsax

rhysonsax

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What do you think about when you type, or drive or talk to someone boring, or engaging, or when you listen to music?
When I drive I may be thinking about just about anything, except when the traffic or road conditions demand a high level of cognition. I sometimes switch off the radio/music when I'm at a difficult junction or in very heavy traffic.

When I'm listening to music I guess it depends how engaging or familiar or awful the music is. I can be drifting off, getting down or being distracted.

When I'm talking to someone I guess I am trying to listen, understand and shape my replies or questions. But only in conceptual terms, the words, phrases and sentences sort of take care of themselves.

If I'm trying to tell a joke or give a presentation, then I try to get sufficiently familiar with the subject matter that the stuff coming out of my mouth generally takes care of itself. There aren't too many "avoid notes" or maybe with experience it's easy to steer clear of inappropriate subject matter and words.

If I've got a problem to solve then I often go for a walk outside and usually a solution or two will pop into my mind. Does that ever happen with music ?

Rhys
 

Pete Effamy

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Does that ever happen with music ?

- wouldn’t “reply”quote from my phone -

umm, I don’t know. If I’m recording a track that is going to be a “thing” rather than just blowing a solo I end up coming up with phrases that I like, if I haven’t nailed it first time.
 

Wade Cornell

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Rhysonsax has an interesting list as it's fairly complete, but it doesn't take into account the basic learning divide between visual and auditory learners. There is also a divide between those who have natural musical ability and others who are keen, but require a step by step academic method of learning.

If one has to categorize (pigeon hole) then there is a big divide between being a cut and paste player and a melodic ear player. It may be best to play to your strengths by practicing being one or the other (lots of grey areas in there).

The cut and past player does a lot of copying and gets as many licks and arpeggios under their fingers as possible and uses them according to the chord changes. It can be impressive if played fast, clean, and with a good sense of rhythm, but often lacks any story, melodic content, or communication other than "I've put in the time and effort to be technically proficient". Bottom line is that it's a formulaic way to play. You can play and impress others even though you haven't got anything that comes from within you as musical communication.

The second type takes talent...latent or blatant. You are trying to sing through your horn. It also requires a mental musical library, but it's not cut and paste, more a flow of (sub) consciousness. You are in the music and in the moment. Musical knowledge can certainly improve your choices or ability, but there are people who seem to be able to master improvisation without being able to read music. It takes a massive amount of practice to make the link between your musical thoughts and your fingers so that whatever you can hear in your head can come out of the horn.

There is an enormous amount of information that emphasizes the cut and paste methods as it's a visual type of learning that suits the vast majority of people. There is precious little for the audio learning types who hear music in their head that they wish to play. The situation reminds me of right and left hand teaching for writing/penmanship. The left handers were mostly forced (if possible) to write with their right hand. Those that couldn't didn't have a particularly easy means of conforming when their natural way to write was to start from the right side of the page and go left!

As always teaching systems favor the visual learning majority, even though music is a totally auditory experience!

There are a few who have attempted to cater to the auditory learners. The Suzuki method stands out. As mentioned by Pete I offered a simple exercise here (in another thread) using limited scale improvisation to stimulate those who may feel more comfortable learning to improvise in an auditory mode. Pete Thomas also offered that he has taught a similar limited note choice to do the same thing. Few responded and none asked to follow it up, so it's (as expected) mostly "music by the book"...and not by ear.
 
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randulo

playing 2 years
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I believe that learning to improvise on the saxophone has a number of unique features, like each instrument does. Many of these take a couple of years to learn. If you've been playing awhile and are past this stage (I am not!), I think it would be interesting to take an inventory of all these nuances. In addition, I listen to other voice-like instruments like harmonica, and rhythm/multiphonic instruments like piano. In the end, though, improvisation is the invention of structure where there is only a general guide. All the ideas concerning three or four note modules are excellent for practicing. Varying them, putting the together in new ways, the cleverness and communicative value lies in structures, like question and answer, callback, quotes and such.

Structure and guide

By guide, I meant a chord chart (harmony), melody and groove (rhythm), although you can start with nothing and improvise these, too. And rubato counts as "rhythm". Even solo and rubato, you still would normally want structure, unless it's chaos you're aiming for, which is a thing.

The structure you invent lies in phrases and silences. The secret is how you come up with these. Studying the greats (not copying, just understanding them) is a start. Also Rhys, you mentioned public speaking. It's perfectly comparable. There are boring speakers and compelling ones.
 
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rhysonsax

rhysonsax

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Also Rhys, you mentioned public speaking. It's perfectly comparable. There are boring speakers and compelling ones.
A really good speaker has something to say and will come across as sincere, rather than just being articulate or knowing a bag of rhetorical tricks. I won't try to link this to our current politics.

That reminds me of the story about Sonny Stitt from Dave Gelly's excellent biography of Lester Young. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Being-Prez-Music-Lester-Young/dp/0195334779

Stan Getz delighted in recounting this story about Lester Young, from a jazz at the philharmonic tour bus in 1957; Sonny Stitt, a formidable accomplished but very competitive saxophone virtuoso began stomping up and down the aisle, playing one technically amazing phrase after the other. Everybody on the bus ignored him or pretended to be asleep. So too Lester Young, pork pie hat half covering his eyes. Sonny stopped right next to Lester played a last blindingly fast bebop lick and said ''Hey Prez, dig that!'' Lester peered up at him from underneath his hat and said; ''Very nice Lady Stitt, but can you sing me a song?

Rhys
 
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