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Improvising for beginners


Sax-Mad fiend!
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The Malverns, Worcs
I am preparing for my TG grade 4 jazz sax exam.
For one piece, I have a "head" and am required to then follow on 5 x 12 bars improvising.
My teacher has given me the scale: A, C, D, Eflat, E, G (I think, from memory) and told me to feel my way up and down it.

Bars 11 and 12 of the impro backing have a turnaround, which I am currently having trouble hearing or picking out, but I guess that'll come with time.

I've decided (mainly to calm my nerves) to get a really good, but basic (using just the A, C and maybe D) first 12 bars set in memory, so that I can actually make a start. Once over that, I sort of enjoy myself, to the point of wandering off around the room, and often missing the end of the backing completely, but... is there any "right" way of improvising, or is feeling it as good a way as any?

I tried to follow the other Impro thread, but as I know nothing about chords, I rather lost the plot :crying:

Hi, sounds like a blues scale what with the 12 bars and the turnaround so presumably the piece is a blues - so yes - you should get to know to the pattern the more you listen and play it. hth :)
Hi Mandy

Now I am probably the least qualified to answer this but I will have a go at suggesting something.

When practising try playing the head again over the improv section but just try to embellish it a little.
Get fancier and fancier with your embellishments until what you are playing is still based on the head but bares little resemblance to it.

I think this is how improvised music started back in the day.

You will start playing little bits you really like (keep these) and bits you don't like (junk these) and there you go

When you come to do the ppiece for real you will have more of an idea of what sounds interesting and what doesn't

Hope that makes sense


what you've got there is an A 'Blues scale'.

In the other thread I started banging on about the licks you can make just using these notes. You've already made a great start on this it seems, by thinking of simple ideas using three notes.:welldone

Presuming the 12 bars you're talking about follow a reasonably simple blues form, think of it like this, in four bar phrases:

1)A7, 2)D7, 3)A7, 4)A7,

5)D7, 6)D7, 7)A7, 8)A7,

9)E7, 10)D7, 11)C#m/F#7, 12)Bm/E7

When I play blues I'm mentally ticking off these four-bar sections and then the turnaround is more obvious. Try listening to the backing CD a few times without playing, to try to pick them out.

All of the notes for the blues scale you've been given should work over all of these chords and bars. Some will sound better than others in certain places!!
There's a certain amount of trial and error involved in finding out which are which, so try playing through the sequence hitting the chord notes as they change to get the feel of what that sounds like, and then you can keep experimenting, but with a bit more direction, hopefully!

Good luck, and happy improvising,


P.S. ...and Mamos is quite right about using the head as a starting point!
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Saxnik is spot on. More of that in a moment...

Mamos too with the idea of using the melody as a start point - don't invent something when you can just play around with the timing of the written part, and use some of those notes your teacher has given you to add your own flavour, but keep it simple. You can do an effective blues without a million notes. Which leads us back to where I started.

Do exactly what you proposed, start by playing through the whole 12 bars using just A C and D. The 'guide tones' that give the piece it's real flavour are the root (A) and the flat-3rd (C) and flat-7th (G).

So, using these as the centre of each improv, do what you suggest - start with ONLY the notes A C D. That gives you the flat-3rd plus the notes either side. Play a few simple solos with just these three notes - it can be very effective.

Then play around using the flat-7th (G) as the centre note and play 12 bars only using the notes either side of that - in this case E G A.

This way you don't have to worry about what notes to play because you've only got 3. Instead, you can concentrate on bluesy rythyms or simple phrases. Keep phrases simple so you know where you are in the 12 bar pattern. Start by playing a bar, rest a bar, play a bar, rest a bar until you're back to the top. Nothing more than that.

Once you've done the A C D pattern a few times, and the E G A pattern a few times, you just join them up to move fluently from one octave to another.

You'll note the Eb hasn't appeared in all this. You might want to throw in a few Eb's (passing from D to E typically) but you can leave it out at this point. Basically what we've done is dropped the Eb from the minor blues scale and you have a minor pentatonic scale on A.

hope that makes some sense, give it a go.

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I assume "TG" is "Trinity/Guildhall". All said so far is useful stuff. As it is A Blues you could also leave out the Eb and it is then the A minor pentatonic.

My tuppence is:-

1. If you have 5 x 12 bar sections to fill do vary both the range and dynamics of the piece. For example play section 1 calmly and at mid range, 2 at lower range, 3 back at mid range, bit quicker, 4 at upper range with some sort of climax, and back to 5 at midrange and calming again. (ABACA)

2. Also it is useful to limit any section to just 3/4 notes at a time, rather than cramming everything in all the time. This allows variation, and brings rhythm more into play.

3. Vary between the two scales above, makes a subtle but noticeable difference.

4. Muck about practising some 2 bar phrases, as you will then have something stored away for a rainy day, which you can just play automatically/repeat during a piece - always creates interesting soloing - repetition is a good thing!

I've done up to Grade 5 on ABRSM Jazz Grades, and a 70 bar
improvisation solo is good going.......

Good Luck with your learning!
Tom :cool:
Altolady ~ you're not alone! It's like looking at calculus.

MandyH - it sounds like you're off to a great start!

Just seeing the word "improvisation" makes my throat close up, perspiration begins, and I feel nauseous. I think it's an allergic reaction.

I'm actually feeling sick now just thinking about it.

Had a Jazz band director that used to make me 1) close my eyes, 2) listen first to what I heard in my head, 3) take a few deep breaths and just play. For me, stopping the panic attack was the key. If the chord changes were tricky, try writing out some samples on staff paper after picking out the notes on the piano, just to use as a guide in case you freeze.

Memorizing the first bits to get comfortable is a good start. Try putting on a favorite jazz record and playing along (a favorite of mine used to be Grover Washington's "Mr. Magic"). It sounds like you are finding your way, and what works for you.

I think improv is a personal thing, like dancing. Some people just go with the flow, other people need to memorize the dance steps.

If I think about it too much - I just get a headache.

Best of luck with your exam MandyH - you'll be great!
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I can't wait to understand this thread.....wonder how many years it'll take me?? :shocked:

Question to ask yourself, Alto Lady:-Why do you want to improvise?
Probable answer:-Because you like it and find it interesting.

Ian mentioned the most important guide, "Does it sound good?"

Many excellent jazz performers couldn't read music, many could not name chord sequences, more would not be able to tell one mode from another yet obviously heard those changes and played good stuff. Chet Baker, a trumpeter cooler than Miles Davis and valued by Bird, taught himself to play and as a result used very strange fingerings and was certainly not a theoretical technician. Does it matter? Not if you listen to his music but a swine if you are trying to explain it.
Second question to ask yourself:-Does it really matter if you don't understand the thread?
Probable answer:-Not really, if you can reach your goals without that technical theory.

Don't knock those who wish to know how and why but if you are happy to judge for yourself, use your ears and, as they did, inherit that feeling.

Lies back and waits for the assorted slaggings.;}
There is stuff around that can be really helpful - but best I picked up was to start simple. Lets say you have 8 empty bars of solo/improvisation, 4 with the Chord sign F (F A C ) or something, where the base note is F. Just play 4 F's (if the beat is 4/4) per bar for next 4 bars and so on - lets say the next 4 bars is Bb (Bb D F) then play Bb for 4 beats, and so on.

As the improvisation is for 8 bars, organised in 2 sets of 4 bars you could play the whole 8 bars in this way. Once this is easy enough you could change it slightly. Instead of playing F F F F each bar (1st 4 bars) followed by Bb Bb Bb Bb each bar(2nd 4 bars) you could play F F F A, followed by Bb Bb Bb D until you get used to playing right through the 8 bars from beginning to end.

After a while the fear should start to go and you can try and change it further - important thing is that you feel you can get through it from start to finish, and are not just staring at empty space that stretches out in front of you. For example you could concentrate on 2 bars at a time (solo is then 4 x 2 bars and you could play some 8 note (2 bar) phrases (e.g. F F A A C C A A) to see what sounds nice/interesting/fun and so on.

Hope the above is understandable enough to get you started - just start as simple as is OK and don't rush it. Just stick with the notes in the particular chord, and leave the rest for another day!

Kind regards
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With your permission, may I print out your last response - very concise, easy to understand and best of all...encouraging :)

I'm always envious of artists and musicians that are just born with the ear and the bravery to play.

Understanding the theory demystifies the process and thereby, removes the panic factor. :welldone
Quote-Don't knock those who wish to know how and why but if you are happy to judge for yourself, use your ears and, as they did, inherit that feeling.

OG, I'm knocking no-one, it was a sincere comment. I leave sarcasm to those who do it well.
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Wow, thanks Guys.
Phil and Tom, I'm going to work on your advice, it all makes sense to me so hopefully I'll get a bit more exciting than my attempts so far.

SaxNik, I'm sorry but I was doing well, until you introduced chords, then I was lost :crying:. But I'll come back and try to understand later :)

I think Phil and Tom are just about hitting my level.

Oh and one of the "problems" I have is that once I get going I tend to wander around the room and really enjoy myself. My teacher assures me the exam will be taking place in a church, and I have lots of room to move! for some reason I just can't improvise and stand still. I hope the examiner doesn't mind too much :)))
Hi Mandy,

Great thread - thanks for starting it. I'm doing the ABRSM jazz grade 3 in March and find the improvisation one of the hardest parts. I was finding that my improvisation for all three pieces was exactly the same - just twiddling about with the same notes in a random fashion.

My teacher starts off letting me do my own thing when I first start a new piece. Telling me just to listen to the background music at first and then what notes to use myself.

Now we're getting nearer to the exam she's going into more detail. We did Mercy, mercy, mercy last night which has twelve bars of improvisation. Now, when we started I was just doing my normal frenetic playing of the notes up and down the scale. She said it wasn't too bad, but suggested I use low notes for the first 4 bars and include lots of 'quiet', next four bars, a bit higher notes and not so much quiet, and higher, louder and quicker notes for the last four bars. It sounded much better after that - I'll have to practice and see if I can impress her next week.

The other bit I have problems with, is getting back to where I'm supposed to be playing from the music again. I tend to get a bit carried away with the improvisation, and miss the link back to the tune proper!!!
I've said this before in many a thread.......... my teacher says transcribing the likes of Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon (and others) really opens up your ears. When you improvise, keep it simple to start off and work around the guide chord tones on beats one and three - using the 3rd and 7th note of the chord spells out the changes though you don't need to do this in every bar, perhaps at the beginning and end of a phrase.

And as always as OG says, what sounds good generally is good. There are no wrong notes just poor choices. Or so Miles Davis says :)

I don't think there is any other way to get into improvising well other than listening to good players improvising. Some theory is useful unless you are lucky and can just feel/hear what is going on and then translate that into your own playing. I can't.

I've a pretty good tone, my technical ability is average at best (so Karen says) but improving and I am a babe in arms with improvisation. But that doesn't stop me having a great time and every now and then I play a phrase that sound really good. Of course, it's gone in an instant and the rest is as usual
With the issue of getting back to the music you may want to try 3 things:

1. Only practice playing the 2 bars before the music restarts in such a way that it is a re-introduction to the music itself, not just the end of the solo. That way you will have learned various ways of reconnecting to the music.

2. Play just two or three bars of the last 4 bar line in order to practice bringing the solo to an end (make it a 10/11 bar solo), where the next 1/2 bars are a reconnecting phrase. It will be a lot easier than just jumping from one to the other, especially if you have "gone off on one....".

3. Never be afraid to leave a 2/3 beat gap between the end of your solo and restarting the music. Reconnecting to the music may just involve a 2 beat pause followed by a 2 beat (2/3/4 note) phrase back in to the music.

Nice piece "Mercy..." which I did at Grade 3 as well!
Kind regards

p.s. I would say that the skill of listening to the backing as a way of deciding on a solo is really quite hard - I can do it now, but when I was at Grade 3 I was concentrating almost 100% on the solo, not the backing track, and just hoping I would stop in time in order to reconnect accurately with the music - almost as if the backing music was not audible when I was playing. My assumption is that many teachers use language/ideas that are a bit ahead of where their pupils are, and that sometimes this area ends up not being adequately addressed.
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SaxNik, I'm sorry but I was doing well, until you introduced chords, then I was lost :crying:. But I'll come back and try to understand later :)

Don't worry!! I wasn't particularly 'introducing' chords - more checking that what I was assuming was what you're seeing in the exam piece.

I didn't want to tell you stuff about blues sequences if it's not a blues sequence you're playing. Everyone since has assumed it too I think - perhaps you can clarify?!

I think Phil and Tom are just about hitting my level.

Perhaps I explained myself badly, sorry. Feel free to take this information to your teacher - hopefully they can explain in more depth, since they know you a bit better!!

What I was getting at is more or less what Tom was saying.
Re-reading the post, I said 'use the chord notes' - by which I meant the tonic notes of each chord, the ones written above the music. If you see 'A7', hit the A on beat one as that bar goes past. For 'D7' play D, etc. This way you're hearing the bass line, as Tom suggests, and you can use that as a springboard, hopefully.
For advanced study, write down the arpeggios of the chords (i.e. A7 = A,C#,E,G) in your music on manuscript (again, this has been suggested) and practice them. Then try to play them in the correct bars of the solo with the playalong CD!
(Even if you are worried by this advice or choose to ignore it I'm writing it hoping that it may help other people reading the thread! ;})

Oh and one of the "problems" I have is that once I get going I tend to wander around the room and really enjoy myself. My teacher assures me the exam will be taking place in a church, and I have lots of room to move! for some reason I just can't improvise and stand still. I hope the examiner doesn't mind too much :)))

I don't think they'll have a problem with this, as long as you know where you are in your solo!
Tom is right too, about planning what you're going to do with the solo - have a fixed idea about the structure, so that you don't get lost in the music and miss the re-entry. Chopping it into chunks always helps me - that's another reason I wrote out the chord scheme, to illustrate the four-bar sections.
Definitely do try to get used to counting in four-bar sections - most music (not just jazz) styles use them.

If you want me to try to explain any better please send me a PM.


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