Ten Things You Can Do To Improvise Over Familiar Material In New Ways

In just about any improvisational music discipline, there is a recognized repertoire of pieces that musicians are expected to be familiar with. These are pieces that are used as an easy and convenient means for musicians to play together with little to no rehearsal.  A template for immediate communication, as it were.

In the world of jazz we refer the these pieces as standards. Some of these are songs from the Great American Songbook, such as All The Things You Are, Night And Day, etc. Others are compositions penned by well-known jazz musicians, such as Confirmation, Joy Spring, etc.

It’s easy to become somewhat jaded when playing these pieces, being seemingly unable to find anything new to say when improvising over them. This shouldn’t be the case, as there are always new ways to play on familiar material, if you maintain an attitude of exploration.

Here are 10 things you can do (things that I do myself) to help you immediately find new ways to play over familiar tunes:

1.Change the key-As obvious as it sounds, you’d be surprised at the amount of jazz musicians who have never explored a standard in an unfamiliar key. Besides giving your thinking a good workout (by mentally transposing the melody and harmony) you’ll find that you come up with new ways to phrase and otherwise think about the tune. Take a tune that you know and spend a few days improvising over it in all 12 keys. (If you aren’t already doing this on a regular basis, you should seriously consider making this a part of your daily practice plan.

2. Improvise slowly-Set your metronome from anywhere between quarter note equals 60 to 80. Don’t launch right into double-time playing. Instead, really let yourself experience and embrace the slow single-time feel. Make your time feel beautiful and clear. You’ll find all kinds of new ways to combine notes and create melodies that you’ve never thought of or heard before, many of them surprising and delighting you.

3. Improvise out of time-I call this “unaccompanied playing”. Improvise off of the entire piece by embellishing the melody with the harmony in a manner that resembles an unaccompanied cadenza. Take the time way out, rubato style. Stay strongly connected to the melody in your aural imagination. Take liberties with the harmonic structure, completely ignoring or redefining the harmony if you wish.

4. Improvise off the melody only-Playing in real time (either with a metronome or play along track) ignore the harmony (as much as you can) and build your linear improvisations from the melody itself. One of the methods for this that Lee Konitz said he learned from Lennie Tristano was to play ten choruses in a row improvising over the melody: the first chorus is the melody unembellished; the second chorus is the melody with slight embellishment. From the third through the tenth chorus, you gradually embellish the melody to the point where the melody seems to disappear completely. The key point here is to stay close to the melody in your aural imagination, no matter what you play.

5. Change the time signature-By simply changing the time signature, you force your imagination to conceive of form and harmonic connections in an entirely different way. Putting a piece in originally written in 4/4 into 3/4 is a simple way to notice how immediately differently you’ll improvise. Putting a piece written in 4/4 into 7/8 (this is what I like to do) will radically change how you organize your musical thinking and melodic organization. It will broadly expand your possibilities when you go back to playing the piece in 4/4.

6. Change the time feel (and articulation)-If it’s piece that  you normally play with a swing feel, don’t swing it. If it’s a Bossa Nova, Afro-Cuban, or other type of latin feel, improvise with a swing feel. It’s also a great idea to improvise a swing feel piece with a completely legato articulation. You can do this both with a “swing” eighth note feel and a straight and even eighth note feel. It might surprise you to find how much of your improvisational imagination is defined by your pre-conceived notion of articulation.

7. Use negative space-Explore the power and possibility of silence in your improvisations. Here’s a method I use sometimes to help with this: I play only one phrase (it doesn’t matter how long or short) over an entire chorus of a tune. The rest of the chorus is silence. Next, I play two phrases over the entire chorus, letting the rest of the chorus be silence. I go on to playing three phrases, etc., all the way until it feels as if I’m not consciously “using silence” in my improvisations. I’m always surprised with how much more sparse, but more meaningful my improvising becomes when I do this.

8. Improvise thematically-I’m talking about using one of your own themes. Improvise a first phrase over a tune. Stop and play your phrase over and over until you internalize it. Then go back and see if you can play two phrases, the first being what you originally played, and your second being a variation off the first. Then play three phrases following the same procedure, and so on until you feel that you can improvise endlessly off of your own thematic idea.

9. Write an etude-Sitting down to really use your intellect and imagination by composing an etude over a standard is a great way to clarify your musical imagination. It’s also a good way to codify and apply any new harmonic, rhythmic and/or melodic material you might be practicing.

10. Displace the rhythm-Chose a simple rhythmic pattern (such as 4 eighth notes followed by 2 quarter notes) and use it to improvise over an entire chorus of a tune. Then, go back and improvise a chorus displacing the pattern by one eighth note (e.g., starting on the upbeat of one). Then displace the pattern by one beat for a chorus (starting on the downbeat of two). Continue to do so, chorus by chorus, until you’ve played the pattern from every part of the up and down beat of the measure. This will greatly improve your rhythmic and phrasing imagination.

By approaching familiar things in novel ways, you’ll give yourself the chance to always stay fresh and growing, now matter how many times you’ve played a piece. There are no stale tunes, only stale imaginations.


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