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Singing and the ability to improvise are they linked ?

jbtsax

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Be warned - Keep an eye on your speedo!

I sang along to a track that I was meant to be improvising along to for an exam - my teacher had suggested singing while driving. When I looked down at the speedo, I was doing 100 mph on the dual carriageway somewhere between Swindon and Cirencester!
I was so carried away with singing my improvisations that I had completely lost track of the speed of the car :shocked: :w00t:

This is another case of words having different meaning in the U.S. and U.K. I am not going to post a picture, but if you don't get what I mean google "speedo" and click "images".
 

Jamesmac

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This is another case of words having different meaning in the U.S. and U.K. I am not going to post a picture, but if you don't get what I mean google "speedo" and click "images".

We are familiar with Speedo swimware over here also. I usually call it the clock. ie youve been clocked doing 50mph
 

Wade Cornell

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Some very interesting takes on this question. There are several elements here that have to do with natural abilities and talent. For some singing well comes easily. However I don't think it's necessary to be a good singer to hear music accurately in your head (as with conductors like Bernstein). There are others who can't easily hear musical lines as Kevgermany honestly states.

There are also several ways of approaching improvisation. What is often taught is a very mechanical means that relies heavily on theory and visualization rather than one's ear. For those who don't hear musical lines in their head it is a means by which they can play convincingly by "playing the changes". In my opinion it's great for those individuals as it would otherwise be impossible for them. Unfortunately it is also the most prevalent mode of teaching improvisation and not (IMHO) suited to those who can hear musical lines or sing them.

Theory is good as it gives you the basis for understanding for what's happening and a means by which you can interpret and play a chart. However it can be a straightjacket if taken literally. I don't think there ever was a great instrumental improviser who played a note, line, or melody they couldn't hear in their head. If you can't hear what you're playing how can you give it feeling, inflection or emotion? Any instrument is played best when it's played as that musician's voice. The players who are most highly thought of all have in common that their instrument was their unique voice. Those (ear) players who can also sing often have a recognizable voice in that it sounds just like how they play. Our own Collin the Bear is a good example.

So short short answer (after all that!): To be a good/great improviser you probably need to be able to hear the music in your head, but don't necessarily need to be a good singer. Being able to sing obviously means that you can hear the music, but doesn't mean that you've got the physical coordination necessary to be a great player. Each can learn within limitations of talent/ability to sing or play.

Knowing your limitations and talents (self knowledge) is the key to being able to advance quickly in any pursuit. Determination can go a long way towards making up for a lack of natural ability, but can also be a depressing dead end unless you are enjoying the process.
 
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old git

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I think it's a bit simplistic to say anyone can sing. It's like saying anyone can be Lewis Hamilton... My first musical experience was as a choirboy. I was always out of tune, going up or down by the wrong intervals. Even now if I try to sing/hum something from memory, I get an interval wrong and change keys mid tune - without realising it. Drives my wife mad...

Two points Kev:=

1) Being one of those who does not hear major keys as anything but a change of starting and subsequent notes, they are not sacrosanct

2) Isn't the sense of your quote above, an excellent description of improvising?
 

wol916

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Someone once said (and it could have been on here) that you can not lie to a saxophone how you feel will always come out, I certainly think this is true to some extent as the whole body is involved. As for the natural ability and singing I am of the opinion it helps and make life a whole lot easier but I am also coming to the conclusion that "singing and natural ability" leads to a level of self confidence which in turn reinforces the improvisation and starts a cycle of one lifting the other.
 

Colin the Bear

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Who was it that said " The more I practice, the more natural ability I appear to find"?
 

visionari1

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So short short answer (after all that!): To be a good/great improviser you probably need to be able to hear the music in your head, but don't necessarily need to be a good singer. Being able to sing obviously means that you can hear the music, but doesn't mean that you've got the physical coordination necessary to be a great player. Each can learn within limitations of talent/ability to sing or play.

Knowing your limitations and talents (self knowledge) is the key to being able to advance quickly in any pursuit. Determination can go a long way towards making up for a lack of natural ability, but can also be a depressing dead end unless you are enjoying the process.

You've struck a chord in me with those words Wade!

After many years of trying to improvise, avoiding scales, theory, buying many books & play alongs...even lessons..

It's all been very slow progress, and host of possible reasons why this elusive improvisation is always just around the next corner.

With the latest foray into Gary Burtons 5 week Introduction into improv...I am still struggling with theory.
Playing the changes...I thought would mean...that now I can really play harmoniously, freely and with instant creativity.

The more I go down this path.....without ear training...without being able to hold a phrase or tune in my mind and able to sing it.....I am now sure ...for me is the wrong way to go about learning to improvise......I've started to transcribe tunes by a mix of ear and writing down the notes (not on staff paper) and really copy the feel, the rhythm the swagger of it, by ear.

I am sure when I can't play it.......I find I can't even sing it....so I break it down until I can sing it...then eventually I can get to the point of finding the notes. Even looping a section and getting it near perfect, playing it slow and fast, thinking now I've got this, then if I have a 1 minute break....I find I can't remember the starting note...this is the point where I think, if I can sing it...I will have it.

Is this common amongst others or is my brain simply not very suited to improv........?

As Wade says above....... "can also be a depressing dead end unless you are enjoying the process"

I hope or assume that singing, may just be the magical key to unlock this improv door and open a new world of enjoyment!
 

Chris

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I don't think it has been mentioned yet, but you have to listen to the type of music you want to play. Listening to big band swing and wanting to play BeBop like Charlie Parker won't cut it. Listening to smooth jazz and then trying to improvise like Dexter Gordon' likewise won't work. Regardless of what anyone says Jazz is language that you have to learn. So if you don't listen to it you will not be able to play it..
 

Sue

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Such a great discussion and lots of great views. It's interesting that since I've fairly recently had the inclination to give this elusive improvisation a go, I've started singing tunes in my head whilst playing. And not the tune I'm playing, which is why I'm still quite disjointed. In big band I've normally played the 'written' solos but have now started to improvise some of the solos. We are often asked for a fair few rock and roll numbers for dancing and in the Shake Rattle & Roll solo, I sing along to Chantilly Lace by Big Bopper (in my head) and it seems to work okay. I might be brave and mix it up with a bit of Peggy Sue next time :)

I'm always singing in the car or pottering around so I should be the world's greatest improviser if there is a link - sadly I'm not nor will i ever be :( Perhaps I should be as uninhibited playing sax as I am singing!
 

Andrew Sanders

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I've always considered singing a fundamental part of music making whatever instrument you play.
If I play jazz or pop standards it's important to hear and feel the words and melody
of the tune in your head to keep grounded, even if the improvisation takes you well away from the actual melody line.

In the past if I've needed to work on a song I tried to find as many examples as possible and take ideas from the phrasing of the singers.A lot can be learned from singers like Ella Fitzgerald, (first call with any American songbook piece) and Joni Mitchell, who can stretch time and phrases so beautifully.

If I can sing something I can find a way to play it.
 

Wade Cornell

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I hope or assume that singing, may just be the magical key to unlock this improv door and open a new world of enjoyment!

If there were only a "one size fits all" solution.

Each of us has our strong points and abilities. Using our strong points can be the key to moving ahead. Theory and "playing changes" may be the key for visually oriented people and those who need to understand the how and why. This can possibly give them a means of playing convincingly (although not necessarily very creatively).

Aurally oriented people are already "wired for sound". Other aspects that overlay those two basic types are: coordination, creativity, attention span, environment (music in the house as child, peer's tastes, culture, etc.), IQ, etc.

I don't think it's possible for anyone to say what path is best for another individual unless they are a very experienced teacher who familiarizes themselves with their student and constructs a programme tailored to that students abilities and needs.

Unfortunately today's most prevalent paradigm is to teach everyone as though they are visually oriented and wish to play mainstream jazz (standards).
 

Wade Cornell

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Such a great discussion and lots of great views. It's interesting that since I've fairly recently had the inclination to give this elusive improvisation a go, I've started singing tunes in my head whilst playing. And not the tune I'm playing, which is why I'm still quite disjointed. In big band I've normally played the 'written' solos but have now started to improvise some of the solos. We are often asked for a fair few rock and roll numbers for dancing and in the Shake Rattle & Roll solo, I sing along to Chantilly Lace by Big Bopper (in my head) and it seems to work okay. I might be brave and mix it up with a bit of Peggy Sue next time :)

I'm always singing in the car or pottering around so I should be the world's greatest improviser if there is a link - sadly I'm not nor will i ever be :( Perhaps I should be as uninhibited playing sax as I am singing!

You sound like a very aurally oriented individual, but have been trained mechanically. Most teaching is based on vision/reading: eye reads note, fingers respond with correct position without that note being heard first by your mind. It's a good basic grounding in which anyone can learn to play music without that music necessarily being a part of them, like painting by the numbers.

Singers must be able to hear the note or it would be impossible to sing. When singers read music they hear the note. Aurally oriented instrument players after mastering their instrument can usually also hear the note they are reading which allows them to play with feeling and conviction even though they may be reading a piece for the first time.

As an aurally oriented individual, but trained visually/mechanically, it's not an automatic process for you to be able to improvise. But you will have an enormous advantage and potentially the ability to improvise creatively/melodically. The key is to make your instrument your voice. This means that whatever you would sing you could play in any key. It's a completely different training to being a proficient reader and can take years. Every good/great creative player must be able to do this and it is not just a matter of "playing the changes". It's hearing the music and playing it as you would sing.

A word of caution: There are heaps of people who can sing in the shower. If you make time in your life to make an instrument your voice it may not have any more to offer than what you sing in the shower. This is where having a wide mental musical library or being creative comes into play.
 
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visionari1

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The key is to make your instrument your voice. This means that whatever you would sing you could play in any key. It's a completely different training to being a proficient reader and can take years. Every good/great creative player must be able to do this and it is not just a matter of "playing the changes". It's hearing the music and playing it as you would sing.

A word of caution: There are heaps of people who can sing in the shower. If you make time in your life to make an instrument your voice it may not have any more to offer than what you sing in the shower. This is where having a wide mental musical library or being creative comes into play.

Hi Wade,
Never thought of being audio or visually inclined....an interesting concept. Not sure which direction I'd lean with long intersts in art, furniture making, photography, travel etc all are obviously visually based. However the reason for playing sax is purely sound orientated, I've been bashing away on being able to play the chord changes, seem like for ever, and even now hearing these chord changes is still like pulling teeth.
I agree with your opinion that each person needs to find there own way to improv and am starting to think that playing the changes, simply ain't for me. I do seem to have issues of keeping the tune running in my head and also a flexible concept around time.

Maybe it's time to simply embelish and embellish the embellishment.

I do think that singing is definately key......showers are also always good...& what about scat singing in the shower!
 

Colin the Bear

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I just bumble around and remember where the wrong notes are. I sometimes have to play a thing for years to get a decent version.

You have to decide what you want to say. I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm reading the chords of a music stand. I like to say "I really like this song" then impersonate different singers and all the different instruments in the band. Trumpet high on the alto, trombone low on the alto, then a wasp in a jam jar, a bit of fuzz guitar, some pan pipes.

Rhythm and phrasing is more important than being clever with the notes. Use the chord structure as a menu to pick things off rather than a shopping list to complete.
 

Wade Cornell

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Hi Wade,
Never thought of being audio or visually inclined....an interesting concept. Not sure which direction I'd lean with long intersts in art, furniture making, photography, travel etc all are obviously visually based. However the reason for playing sax is purely sound orientated, I've been bashing away on being able to play the chord changes, seem like for ever, and even now hearing these chord changes is still like pulling teeth.
I agree with your opinion that each person needs to find there own way to improv and am starting to think that playing the changes, simply ain't for me. I do seem to have issues of keeping the tune running in my head and also a flexible concept around time.

Maybe it's time to simply embelish and embellish the embellishment.

I do think that singing is definately key......showers are also always good...& what about scat singing in the shower!

Hearing chord changes is difficult for most people, but intellectually understanding what notes comprise those chords is simply a matter of study and memory that doesn't require hearing. If you are visually orientated then it's possible to play changes based on theory.

If you can sing, then you can hear a line of notes (a melody). We can only play one note at a time, so there is no need to stress about "the changes" as long as the notes you hear work within the framework of the music. That brings you back to either hearing what's happening in the music and an appropriate line, or having to read the chart so that you can (intellectually/mechanically) play notes that fit (but you probably don't hear), and aren't necessarily a melodic line.

Colin has made some excellent observations that could help you. He works tunes for a long time until it's ingrained (my words not his). He can then embellish them, give feeling and use his ear to hear different parts to play. He is obviously playing as he would sing or play different instruments. He plays by ear, but needs to fill his ears for a long while to feel comfortable playing a tune as his own. His quote: "Rhythm and phrasing is more important than being clever with the notes. Use the chord structure as a menu to pick things off rather than a shopping list to complete" is also excellent advice.

A player who can run fast licks and arpeggios may impress during those fleeting moments, but audiences don't stay impressed or pay attention for long (only jealous sax players). The player who can spin a good melody and communicate feeling in their playing will win an audience and keep their attention. Audiences always get it when a performer is just trying to impress and TAKE something from their audience compared to the entertainer who communicates and has something to GIVE.
 

wol916

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A player who can run fast licks and arpeggios may impress during those fleeting moments, but audiences don't stay impressed or pay attention for long (only jealous sax players). The player who can spin a good melody and communicate feeling in their playing will win an audience and keep their attention. Audiences always get it when a performer is just trying to impress and TAKE something from their audience compared to the entertainer who communicates and has something to GIVE.

A great (sorry none Sax) example of this is BB King. He can get more feeling into two notes than most of the flashy fast guitarist get into a whole song. Any body can play those two notes but but few can make them sound the same - getting that emotion in there is a whole different thing and guess what he can sing.

Warren
 

Tenor Viol

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Thus far, I have shied away from replying to this thread....

I think it's a "left brain" / "right brain" type of thing and that we're all different.

I have in the course of work taken a Myers-Briggs test several times. I always come out on the right hand side of the diagram. This means I need FACTS and INFO - if you want to kill me, don't give me an explanation, just say 'it is' ;} . I have colleagues (who tend to be very good programmers) who come out on the left side of the diagram. They tend to be craftsmen, who aren't happy unless it is 'just so'.

We either work in the style that comes naturally to us, or we have to work hard on the one that doesn't.

In chamber choir tonight, I was trying to work out why our bass note was struggling to stay in tune. Answer? When I looked at the other parts, it was a 9th chord with the bass having the 9th of the chord. This means two things: my note (G) must have been dissonant against the root of the chord F# (the chord was I think F# A C# E G) and it was obviously inverted (root not in the bass) which adds to the instability of the chord. I needed to understand WHY that chord was a problem. Some people don't care... It's horses for courses and we're all slightly different.
 

Colin the Bear

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Only get the instructions out if it won't work. How many people are like that? Me for one
 

BigMartin

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Hearing chord changes is difficult for most people, but intellectually understanding what notes comprise those chords is simply a matter of study and memory that doesn't require hearing. If you are visually orientated then it's possible to play changes based on theory.
For me, the theory has been a way into learning to hear the changes (and therefore being able to play something relevant on them). For instance, playing arpeggios, scale fragments and any other patterns you can think of over a chord progression over and over until you can hear it (at least partly) without a backing track or band-in-a-box. But without knowing something about chords, chord scales and voice leading I wouldn't be able to make those exercises up for myself on a given song.

I hear much more than I did two years ago, and it's made a huge difference to my playing. I'm not saying I'm good (yet!) but I'm already doing stuff I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to do. I don't think I would have been able to get here wouthout some kind of theoretical framework. Other people seem to benefit from a different approach. I don't think I'm really disagreeing with you here, Wade, but some of your posts seem to suggest that you think theory is harmful. I think what I'm trying to say is that it's only harmful if it's misapplied.
 

Sue

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Thus far, I have shied away from replying to this thread....

I think it's a "left brain" / "right brain" type of thing and that we're all different.

I have in the course of work taken a Myers-Briggs test several times. I always come out on the right hand side of the diagram. This means I need FACTS and INFO - if you want to kill me, don't give me an explanation, just say 'it is' ;} . I have colleagues (who tend to be very good programmers) who come out on the left side of the diagram. They tend to be craftsmen, who aren't happy unless it is 'just so'.

We either work in the style that comes naturally to us, or we have to work hard on the one that doesn't.

In chamber choir tonight, I was trying to work out why our bass note was struggling to stay in tune. Answer? When I looked at the other parts, it was a 9th chord with the bass having the 9th of the chord. This means two things: my note (G) must have been dissonant against the root of the chord F# (the chord was I think F# A C# E G) and it was obviously inverted (root not in the bass) which adds to the instability of the chord. I needed to understand WHY that chord was a problem. Some people don't care... It's horses for courses and we're all slightly different.

I took that test several times and always came out as Extravert and Perceiver but sometimes either Sensor or Thinker, Feeler or Thinker. It's a long while ago but from memory I was always seen as the creative one with all the 'different' ideas. I used to love all that stuff :)

Only get the instructions out if it won't work. How many people are like that? Me for one

Me too - drives my husband nuts - he just loves to read all the manuals beforehand. I'm straight in there and then when I'm saying "It doesn't work" , John says read the bloody instructions then - lol
 

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