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GMartin

Improvisation

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tps__fan asked the following question.

"What is the best (type of) approach of learning how to improvise? I'm interested in any suggestions whether it's in terms of instructional materials or ideal work in recorded formats".

I agree with Dr. Seik's response to this question. As a jazz trombone player I can give you my philosophy and tell you what I work on and assign my students to work on. I think the same general process would work for any style of music.

Learning to improvise is like learning any other skill that requires an automatic response for its effect. One has to memorize and ingrain the fundamental materials of music on one's instrument until they can be recalled instantaneously without conscious deliberation. Deliberation does have to happen in the initial stages of programming. Ideally, in performance, the subconscious then takes over and does most of the work, creating new music from the previously stored materials. Of course, the improviser decides on the general way that he wants things to go, and a from time to time lets the conscious mind step in and give direction. But, after the initial purposeful direction is given, the music flows mostly from the subconscious. It is like giving a speech or talk on a subject that one knows well, and can be done without constant reference to notes.

This general process is much like a technique that Ms. Rand described in her Fiction Writing course. The subconscious is "stoked" with relevant materials. Then one starts writing, letting the subconscious determine the flow. In the case of fiction, one can go back and edit. Jazz players edit "on the fly", or they try to do it a better way the next time they play.

A student should constantly listen to jazz by players that he admires. This helps to ingrain the rhythmic and melodic nuances of the particular style that one wants to play in. Transcribing improvised solos by great players also helps to develop general jazz style and vocabulary, and musical hearing ability. Transcribing is done while listening and playing along on one's instrument with a recording, memorizing the solo as one goes.

In my own playing, I practice all chord types and scale types in all keys around the circle of 5ths, and by all other intervals on a regular basis. I do the same with simple folk songs, themes, and other familiar tunes. Learning simple tunes helps to develop lyricism, phrasing and a sense of tonality on one's instrument. I also work on memorizing the first and last phrases of jazz tunes and standards that I like, and memorize some complete jazz tunes in every key. Another drill I work on is playing melodic fragments and patterns through common harmonic progressions in all keys.

Memorizing a wide range of musical materials will give the subconscious plenty to call upon to create with. The memorized materials act as a data base of musical ideas that can be automatically drawn from, to be changed and permutated for the purpose of creating new musical ideas. The goal is for your instrument to be like your vocal chords, which can sing what your mind can hear without knowing the names of the notes or what buttons or keys to push to make them come out. This requires constant drill, practice and a proper method.

Method books and materials that I would recommend are: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles by John Mehegan (Amsco) and A New Approach to Jazz Improvisation, by Jamey Aebersold, vol. 1, (Play-along CD & Book-Aebersold). Another great learning aid is Band in a Box by PG Music. This amazing program allows one to generate a rhythm section to practice improvising or playing with in jazz or any other style.

Glenn Martin

Instructor of Music Theory, History, & Trombone

Tennessee State University

Nashville, Tennessee

Cumberland University

Lebanon, Tennessee

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Learning to improvise is like learning any other skill that requires an automatic response for its effect.  One has to memorize and ingrain the fundamental materials of music on one's instrument until they can be recalled instantaneously without conscious deliberation.... It is like giving a speech or talk on a subject that one knows well, and can be done without constant reference to notes.

This is an interesting analogy that you draw. I suppose that certain combinations of notes in music have their counterpart of words and phrases in language, and music has a certain structure that may be likened in some respects to grammatical structure in language. But I am curious about a comparison of the role of context in music, as compared to language. When giving a speech one would hardly set the context of "talk about everything that you know." Instead, the speech has some delimited subject matter, and the speaker has a set purpose in mind. This is part of the context of the speech. My question is, what would be the counterpart to this in musical improvisation? In other words, in what manner does one set the context in improvisation, so that instead of hearing a general outpouring of everything one knows musically, one hears a purposeful, meaningful, and integrated piece that is improvised?

p.s. Yours was a very nice post, Glenn. One thing, though. I would be remiss as a moderator if I did not note that, as discussed in our Guidelines, we refer to "Ayn Rand" or "Miss Rand" instead of "Ms. Rand."

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In other words, in what manner does one set the context in improvisation, so that instead of hearing a general outpouring of everything one knows musically, one hears a purposeful, meaningful, and integrated piece that is improvised?

The context is the melody and chord progression of the particular song being used for improvisation. After the intial statement of the melody and harmony, the harmonic progression is repeaded over and over. This acts as a unifying factor for the soloist and the listener.

Autumn Leaves has a melody and a set chord progression. A soloist might use a phrase or motive from the melody (causing integration) as a starting point. The player then might permutate or sequence that motive through the harmonic progression in interesting and creative ways. Or he might make up his own motive and do the same.

Some players evolve motives, gradually changing them to other similar motives, giving a sense of unity, but also change or variety. Saxophonist, Wayne Shorter did this beautifully when he was a member of the Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. His solos were very integrated by his use of motivic permutaion, sequence, and evolution. The listener could hear what was similar as the motive was gradually changed, but also got the "different" or variety from the permutation and change.

Some players combine melodic improvisation with the emphasizing of notes of certain chords. There are many combinations of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic techniques that can be used to create meaningful improvised solos. All of the criteria for composing beautiful or interesting melodies would apply to improvising melodies.

Another integrating factor is that the melody is usually played before and after the improvisations.

Most jazz is a type of theme and variations similar to chorale variations or the chaconne of the Baroque period. A given harmonic sequence is repeated over and over and the improvisor creates new melodic variations on each repetition

Glenn Martin

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Thanks for the explanation, Glenn. Very informative.

One more question: I cannot point to a specific instance of this right now, but I know I have heard more than one melody come into play in an improvisation. I assume this opens up a certain higher-level richness, similar to having more than one fundamental idea weaving their way through a speech. Since you mention the statement of melody as integrator, is there some higher-level integrator when more than one melody is involved? Going back to the speech analogy, such an integrator would be a higher-level concept that subsumes the fundamental ideas of the speech. Does this make sense for improvisation?

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Since you mention the statement of melody as integrator, is there some higher-level integrator when more than one melody is involved? 

If you mean the idea of having a certain planned form for the solo ahead of time where two motives or themes would be used, then that form could be considered a more complex factor for music integration. Probably, Bach or Mozart had little trouble improvising four-part fugues or even double fugues (fugues with two nearly simultaneous subjects or themes). This is more feasible for the pianist, but it is even possible to play or outline two melodies at once on a single-voiced instrument, or at least a bass line and a melody. The Bach Violoncello Suites are full of this type of writing. I have also heard jazz soloists (horn players) alternate segments of a theme in the low register of their instrument with segments of a different theme in the upper register every few beats or bars, giving the effect of two instruments playing two different melodies at once.

I think that the improvisation process (letting the subconscious do the work), is more perceptual in nature than conceptual. It deals with hearing tones in one's mind and automatically and simultaneously reproducing them on an instrument. The more forethought and conscious direction involved on the part of the player during the actual playing, the more conceptual the process would be. The listener can take it in as a purely perceptual experience, or he can listen analytically, or both (Miss Rand discusses music cognition in The Romantic Manefesto , Chapter Four, "Art and Cognition").

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I have a related hypothesis. I _suspect_ that the key of a song (at a given moment in time) could be one context-delimiter.

In fact, when Steven Speicher asked, "...is there some higher-level integrator when more than one melody is involved?", I have to wonder if the keynote, which one definition has as the "basic note or tone of a scale", doesn't provide this purpose.

This interests me: A harmony can have running parallel lines or it can be comprised of widely divergent lines. Also, I would think that the number of lines would only be limited by hearing range and available instrumentation. Note intensity and duration as well as the use of special effects can also vary. Meanwhile, for a given section, the key must remain stable, right?

I've never thought about music in this explicit way before!

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"I have a related hypothesis. I _suspect_ that the key of a song (at a given moment in time) could be one context-delimiter." (tps_fan)

There are several integrating factors in improvisation. The key note or tonal center (tonic) would be one. Also, the melody and the chord changes would be integrators. The form of the melody would be one too. All of these might be considered the structure of the piece being improvised upon. Many songs do change key centers. The soloist would hold all of these factors in his subconscious as a context as he performed.

The talent and technique of the improvisor would also be factors, as well as his psycho-epistemology and sense of life.

All of these factors in addition to other subconsciously stored musical materials, would contribute to the end product, the improvised solo.

GMartin

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