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Looking to get a good foundation in jazz improvising

Reed Warbler

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Try singing an improvisation against anything. If you cant think of anything to sing, it wont get easier when you try and create something through your sax. Ability to play the notes in your head is a wonderful thing, not learned instantly. The more familiar you are with the notes on your horn, the easier it will be to express yourself through it.
 

Jeanette

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Eh? You have a saxophone and can make a sound with it. What's stopping you?

Good question, don't quite know where to start and a lack of confidence I think.

I am too used to just playing what is in front of me (and don't do that too well) take away the written music and I don't have a clue.

Jx
 

Nick Wyver

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The lack of confidence is a funny thing that I come across a lot as a teacher. It's as though the student feels that they should be good at improvising before they even attempt it. They don't see the absurdity of that position. You need to accept that you're going to be crap to start with, just like you were when you first picked up a sax. So, just as you did then, you start with only a few notes. You can do quite a lot with just 2 notes. If you have a backing track that stays with one chord then try playing just the root and 3rd perhaps. Your first attempts may not be desperately interesting - but why would you expect them to be? You will get better if you keep doing it. It's no good waiting until you can play transcribed Charlie Parker solos - that'll only reinforce the idea that it's hard - it isn't, but you do have to work at it. You have to do it now.
 

kernewegor

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Good question, don't quite know where to start and a lack of confidence I think.

I am too used to just playing what is in front of me (and don't do that too well) take away the written music and I don't have a clue.

Jx

Here are a few thoughts...

As I suggested further up the thread to the OP, building up a repertoire of melodies which you can play from memory is essential. To start with it will give you confidence to play without the 'safety belt' of a score in front of you. And if you are going to be an improviser it has to be done anyway...

Go for tunes which will be easy to improvise on - Summertime, basic twelve bar blues tunes and so on. There are lists of these...

Playing from memory will get your mind focused on the music in your head and fingers instead of just following orders from a piece of paper. It uses different parts of the brain, the ones you need for improvising. When you can play a dozen or more songs from memory so well that you hardly have to think about what you are playing, your mind will have plenty to work on for improvisation. And you will be in the right mood.

It 'feels' like a mood, but there is a lot under the surface. By memorising melodies thoroughly circuits and pathways will have been used repeatedly and traces laid down in your brain which won't happen by playing from a score (knowing a smidgeon of over-simplified neurological science may not open up a new career in medicine, but gives valuable clues about learning and creative thinking. As much science as fits on the back of a fag packet is plenty...)

Then just 'jazz the tune up' a bit. It doesn't have to be more than a little variation here and there at first. Build your confidence. Experiment. Have fun. Try 'straight' variations, silly ones, comical ones, inappropriate ones, taking the mickey ones - they all help build confidence and give clues about self expression.

Don't worry about what notes you play too much (especially bum notes!) but get really good at making what you play swing. Don't develop an internal metronome inside your head, develop an internal drummer instead, and when you play some little variations (and they can be as simple as you like) imagine that you are the drummer who has amazingly switched to sax.... rhythm is everything (almost - at least, if the rhythm is crap everything sounds crap!)

Once you are confident about 'variations on a theme', try playing about with the same tunes using Colin's suggestion of playing one note in each bar through a chord progression, and building on that... try to think melodically and harmonically at the same time, try one and then the other... keep trying until it 'clicks'..

It's like learning to ride a bike, or swimming... you have to keep trying until you suddenly discover the knack, then keep at it to become better and better...
 
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Nick Wyver

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building up a repertoire of melodies which you can play from memory is essential. To start with it will give you confidence to play without the 'safety belt' of a score in front of you. And if you are going to be an improviser is has to be done anyway...

Playing from memory will get your mind focused on the music in your head and fingers instead of just following orders from a piece of paper. It uses different parts of the brain, the ones you need for improvising.When you can play a dozen or more songs from memory so well that you hardly have to think about what you are playing, your mind will be in a suitable mood for improvisation.

That may well have worked for you but it doesn't for everyone. I'm rubbish at memorising tunes. I don't find it easy at all. What's really easy is forgetting them. I can improvise much more easily on a tune if it's written down in front of me, then I don't have to use up most of my limited brain power in remembering the damn thing.

Having a repertoire of melodies that you play from memory has not been essential for me. Which ones do you pick? Will you ever find a band that plays the songs you pick? When I played in a ceilidh band I learned the tunes I needed for that. 6 months after leaving I'd forgotten them all. Now I can remember the the stuff I play in my current band but, if I left, they'd be gone in a few months. Doesn't stop me from improvising.
 
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Nick Wyver

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Just adding to the above.

I used to play in a band with a chap a bit older than me - played mostly trad. Exactly the opposite to me. You could mention a tune to him and he'd go, "Oh, yes. I played that once about 25 years ago in the Louis Armstrong in Dover. It goes like this". And he'd play it. I can't even begin to imagine having a memory like that.
 

MandyH

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I'm not at the stage of wanting to improvise
Jx
My teacher had me improvising on my first lesson. After 5 years, I still don't think I am "at the stage" of being able to improvise, but I know lots of theory! I've done lots of improvising, but I wouldn't class myself as any good.
 

jbtsax

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We all have tunes that we recognize, some of which we could hum or sing the melody. That means the song is already in your head. In other words it is already memorized from hearing it many times.

The next step is to transfer the tune from the memory to the fingerings on the saxophone. This is a bit time consuming at first, but gets faster with practice. Pick a note to start on, then find the second note, then the third and so on. Some jokingly call this learning a song by using the "hunt method". You know instantly that a note is the right or wrong choice by whether it fits the tune in your head.

Most popular music has a verse that repeats and a chorus or bridge. Once you have picked out the verse, you already have learned 2/3 of the song! I did this with lots of tunes when I was learning to play the sax when I was young. I just thought it was fun, and besides there was no internet or music store within hundreds of miles to get the printed music. It was the only way to learn tunes that I liked such as Pink Panther, Take 5, Yakkety Sax, and so on. I didn't know it but I was developing my ear at the same time. Perhaps there are too many resources for students today. Who knows?
 

kevgermany

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I'm like Nick. Useless at remembering tunes, I can't even hold a couple of bars in my head for long enough to turn the page.
 

Colin the Bear

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Improvising is merely playing by ear ...going wrong....and digging your way out...with a beat.
 

Jeanette

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Improvising is merely playing by ear ...going wrong....and digging your way out...with a beat.


Therein lies my biggest problem the beat ;)

Actually it would probably help that as a lot of what I play doesn't have a backing track so there is no beat except what I am supposed to count or feel but I struggle with this.

Jx
 

jbtsax

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In jazz improvisation there are no wrong notes, only "passing tones". :)
 

MandyH

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Therein lies my biggest problem the beat ;)

Actually it would probably help that as a lot of what I play doesn't have a backing track so there is no beat except what I am supposed to count or feel but I struggle with this.

Jx
Interestingly, one of the subjects raised in the "leading an ensemble" online course that I am doing (based around conducting) makes the point that many people cannot keep time / feel the beat. The lecturer comments that even his 1st year undergraduates are often incapable.
I seem to have an in-built metronome....one thing that I know I do well is keep the beat, even if I feel uncomfortable improvising.

Mind you, I play in my children's secondary school Jazz band, and the lead alto sax (who I sit next to when playing my Bari) is an amazing improviser, so my humble efforts are a real anti-climax by comparison.
 

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