Four Skills Every Beginning Jazz Improviser Must Develop

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One of the unfortunate things that beginning students of jazz improvisation often face is frustration. To create music spontaneously can seem like such a vast, daunting, almost shapeless subject.

As a teacher, many of the novices I encounter have already started practicing improvisation. But because they are working on it in an illogical, or inefficient way, they don’t seem to get past square one:

I can’t seem to make any music out of it all when I try to improvise. Just random, seemingly unrelated attempts at stringing notes together.

Exasperations such as this are quite common from the beginner, especially if she/he has lots of experience (and reasonable skill) playing notated music.

How do you approach such a discipline as jazz? Where do you begin?

You begin with having a genuine passion about the music, and with the thrilling process of spontaneous creation we call improvisation. Without that, nothing really happens.

Improvisation is a process of self-expression. It’s not a “right/wrong” type of skill like engineering or grammar. You can’t really learn it in a sterile, “test tube” kind of way. It’s more of a “I want to say it like this, because that’s how I feel” kind of thing.

If you’re passionate about the music, you can then commit to regular serious study (regardless how limited your time is).

So what to study? How do you minimize frustration?

Well (if you haven’t already), listen to lots and lots of recordings of the artists you most admire. The more you listen, the clearer your internal conception of the jazz language becomes.

Then, work on developing a constructive  practice process to help you cultivate the skills that will enable you to express yourself within this language.

There are essentially four skills that every jazz musician is constantly (or should be!) developing in order to grow. These four skills are necessary no matter where you are in your journey. They are:

1.Hearing-You need to be constantly working toward connecting what you hear  with what you play  (or would like to play). Ultimately, improvisation is a process that is driven by your aural imagination. This applies to rhythm and time feel, pitch and form (see below). The more vividly you hear something, the more likely it is to come of your instrument as you improvise.

2. Controlling time and rhythm-You must be able to move. It’s that simple. Improvisation involves moving pitch in time. If you have nothing to imagine (which rhythms, what kind of time feel), you lack the necessary impetus to move.

3. Controlling pitch-Of course you need to gain control of the notes you’re playing. Whether you’re improvising over harmonic progressions, modes, or even freely, the question of how you choose and organize pitch is a never-ending pursuit. Scales, chords, passing tones, melodic patterns, classic licks, etc., all need to be studied and absorbed over time in your practice process. But all of your note choices must be integrated with (and driven by) your rhythmic and time/feel impulse.

4. Internalizing form-Being able to feel  bar forms, song structures, etc.,  without having to think about it (get distracted by it) is crucial  if you’re going to express yourself  freely as you improvise. Learning to feel the building blocks of two-measure phrases and then learning to connect these blocks to internalize longer forms (like standard songs, for example) is necessary to allow you to play confidently with other musicians, as well as give you a broader perspective of the canvas on which you’re painting your improvised picture.

It is important that you prioritize these skills in the most productive manner, and organize your practice efforts around these priorities.

The biggest mistake I see novice improvers make is putting far too much emphasis on which notes to play. Sure, pitch is important. It’s very important. But if you can’t move, if you can’t dance with the pitches, you have nothing but nondescript spatterings of random notes.

Start with controlling time and rhythm  instead. Start by working on simple, pre-determined rhythmic patterns, with a limited pitch set (for example, a pentatonic scale, or blues scale). Find easily singable melodic patterns that you can bring to life. You should be able to dance  to what you play. Work in two-bar phrase segments, in order to help you deepen your sense of form.

The second biggest mistake I see novice improvisers make is biting off more than they can chew. Simpler, easier, clearer and more precise…all better choices. If you’re getting frustrated with what you’re working on, regress it. Make it more doable and  more satisfying. Avoid what the great pianist Bill Evans described as “approximating”. Build patiently on what you have.

Sing as much as you can! If you learn a blues scale, for example, practice improvising without your instrument. Sing your solo. And listen to your favorite improvisers very mindfully, noting as many details as you can about their time feel, phrasing, rhythmic  and pitch choices. Listen to a solo until you can sing it vividly, bringing it to life with these details.

Your clear conception in conjunction with your ability to move (rhythm, time, form) will have you steadily and surely developing your true voice as an improviser.




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