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Learning to Improvise?

EDDIE ON ALTO

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I've got a handful of standards that I play now, and having learned the heads, it's time to start learning how to improvise over the chord changes. My saxophone teacher suggested writing down the scales and arpeggios that I think would fit over any given chord changes, and practicing those with a backing track, while mixing in parts of the melody. Seems like a great way to get started. Any other tips?

Also, is there technically a difference between improvising within a jazz standard, and improvising a melody over a given set of chord changes? Improvising vs. improvising a melody... Are they the same thing?
 

Wade Cornell

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Good question!!! No, they are not the same thing. A melodic line isn't necessarily made up of chord tones. It is the tune of a song as compared the chords which are the backing for the tune. If you've got the heads for a few "standards" in your ready memory, then you should be able to sing them. Try singing a "variation" on that tune and you'll find that you've then got an improvisation. Being able to play what you can sing sounds easy but can take years of practice s0 that whatever is in your head comes out of the horn. Alternatively there is the "cut and paste" of stringing together riffs and arpeggios according to the changes in the chords. The former is generally your expression and the latter is usually a technical expression. IMHO an audience will always prefer the melodic style unless you're an amazing technician...but even then it can be like watching the world's fastest typist...good for a few minutes entertainment but if they haven't written a great novel while typing there isn't much that's worth remembering. A good heart felt and personal melody tells the listener a story...it communicates something beyond "I've learned how to wiggle my fingers quickly using the right chords".

I don't mean to disparage your teacher as what they propose is very standard teaching. It's good to learn what various chords sound like and how they fit together. This style of playing can become a limitation if ONLY formulating improvisations around worn out arpeggios and riffs and having these become your "go to" mode of playing. IMHO teachers should encourage players to think melodically and try to play what they would be singing. By all means listen to a wide variety of players and styles (your internal library) and learn all of the mechanical aspects. Unfortunately it's a very common mistake for students to fall into a trap of strict mechanical playing (cut and paste).

This boils down to a simple principle: If you don't know the sound that's coming out of your horn before you play it you're thinking mechanically, not thinking musically.
 

EDDIE ON ALTO

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Thanks Wade. I think what you suggest is a great approach because improvising vocally is something that comes very naturally. Even if you aren't a singer, it's easy to play with a melody and create an improvisation on the fly.

Now on the other hand if you were to start playing a jazz progression on the piano and you told me to improvise a brand new melody on top of that, how would you go about teaching someone to approach that?
 

nigeld

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I am a beginner at this improvising malarky, but as I understand it there are two standard techniques that the beginner can use in order to put a first toe in the water:
- using notes from the pentatonic scale
- using notes from the backing chords
In both cases, the intention is to choose notes to play that will not clash horribly with the backing.
Of course, simply choosing notes that don't clash is not in itself going to make a person a good improviser, but it is a very useful skill.

So far my personal experience is that pentatonic/diatonic improvisation is easier than harmonic improvisation, but of course it does not work if the tune changes key.

Improvising using the chords does not mean playing arpeggios. Initially it can just mean selecting one or two notes from the arpeggios for the improvisation. In the longer run it means knowing where the harmony is going and taking account of that. Good improvisation has to take account of the melody and the underlying harmonic structure and the rhythm.

I agree completely with @Wade Cornell that an improvisation that consists entirely of arpeggios is rather tedious, but this is what I am (very, very slowly) trying to learn to do - not because I want to play solos that way but because having the technical ability to do it will help me to play solos the way I want. (And also, as my teacher says, if ones mind goes blank in the middle of a solo, then playing arpeggios is a safe way recover!)
 

Colin the Bear

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Don't get bogged down with the notes. Improv is as much about phrasing. Also, don't get confused between a solo and improv.

A solo can be worked out in advance. Improv just happens.

Knowing how songs are constructed can guide your fingers. Most songs can be harmonised with a I IV V7 format. A bit plain and simple but sometimes a good starting point.

It's good practice to be familiar with chord tones and to be able to read and play them. Knowing how harmony is constructed helps but having said that, you can't beat playing. If you develop your ear your brain will guide your fingers without any theoretical input. Just make a nice noise.
 

Jazzaferri

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IMO the best way to start into the improvising game is to learn to embellish the melody first. Take it a little bit at a time. and over time one can get further and further away from the actual melody notes. Use both rhythmic and melodic devices (aka phrasing) to enhance the melody line.
 

David Michael

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One of the reasons I started to play saxophone was the attraction of improv on blues (and other music). So I have being trying to do that almost since I broke away from Tune-a-Day!! Every now and again my teacher will take me through a period of improv lessons. So, I can say that all of the advice above is, in my experience, true. These things are not mutually exclusive. There are so many different approaches to improv and you should try them all.
 

ellinas

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It's a really good start to know your (Extended) chord tones inside out. It's the best start actually to learn to improvise.
Those exercises teach you how to have an internal GPS, on where and when you play what according to the changes.

If you listen to players that perform solo, and even though they play alone, you clearly hear the changes, they are 100% people that know their chord tones inside out. Through those tones you understand that the chord has changed. Listen to the big players, analyse some transcriptions, and you will see just that. The can be "in" they can be "out" but through approaching chord tones, they "tell" us that the chord has changed with their playing. This is a very very useful skill.

The actual improvisation is so much more than that, and can't be mechanical, but knowing your basics is step #1.
 

MikeMorrell

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I'm pretty hopeless at improvising (in Big Band solos) but I try anyway :). I usually just 'wing it' by playing something based on what I hear. But for longer, less predictable chord sequences I've found it useful - as your teacher suggests - to sketch out the chord structure/pattern.
I would go one step further and play/listen to the basic chords (triads) in the pattern - leaving out the 7ths/9ths, etc. - so you get a sense of the 'shape' of the chord sequence. I often use a guitar/keyboard for this but a sax will work too. Many chord sequences are fairly predictable (I II IV V) but some chords are less so. I've found it useful to make sure that I know when these 'less predictable' chords occur in the sequence.

With my limited experience/ability my tips are:
- keep your improvisations 'musically related' to the head (melody/rhythm) in some way; variations on the head (melody/rhythm) are usually more interesting to listen to than random demonstrations of 'playing technique' that match the same chords
- like @Jazzaferri, I'd suggest starting with a few variations on the head (melody/rhythm); variations on rhythm, especially, are often overlooked as a source of improvisation. One, two or three notes played in different rhythms are often more interesting than endless 'arpeggios'. The more you play the improv for a tune, the more you can experiment, learn and expand; develop your variations from a solid base
- experiment and make "mistakes"! Learning to improvise on a head is IMHO learning what works and what doesn't and what you like and don't like. If you try to avoid making "mistakes" you probably won't learn as much. Don't overthink it. Learn by what you hear.
- when all's said and done your solo/improv is about you; there are no rules and no standards to live up to. When you play something (however small a variation) that you felt (in the moment) you wanted to play - even if it didn't sound so great - it's musical. If you're playing constrained by 'rules', it's probably not.

When I'm not just winging it, I try and remember where the 'blue notes' are in a chord and include them.
 

jbtsax

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I've got a handful of standards that I play now, and having learned the heads, it's time to start learning how to improvise over the chord changes. My saxophone teacher suggested writing down the scales and arpeggios that I think would fit over any given chord changes, and practicing those with a backing track, while mixing in parts of the melody. Seems like a great way to get started. Any other tips?

Also, is there technically a difference between improvising within a jazz standard, and improvising a melody over a given set of chord changes? Improvising vs. improvising a melody... Are they the same thing?

Your teacher is giving some good advice IMO. Something that helps me a lot is to just play the 3rds and 7ths of the chords listening to the backing track. This gives what I call the "skeletal harmony" of the song and helps your ear to hear the "voice leading" that can make the lines you play flow and connect better and make sense harmonically. The following links give an example of this on a ballad with lots of chord changes. Please forgive the alto playing---I was searching for an embouchure and/or mouthpiece during that period.

I Remember Clifford
I Rember Clifford 3rds 7ths written out

Your question whether improvising and improvising a melody are the same thing is profound and could be the topic of a whole new thread. My opinion is that they can be radically different when improvising just involves playing a bunch of be-bop licks, pentatonic patterns, and repeated "riffs". I have always gravitated to players whose improvisations are more melodic in nature than just a display of technique. Some of these are Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan (Desmond down an octave :), and Stan Getz. In their playing you will often hear a "motif" that is repeated a few times either higher or lower, and then you variations on that motif---just like a composer writes a new work. What ever they play it is more melodic and memorable than just a bunch of notes.
 
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