MUSICAL IMPROVISATION
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PRACTICAL MATTERS

 
  • Make sure the basics are OK. Wind players have to play in tune! Tone must be at least acceptable even though individualistic. Mini-disc recordings of live sessions can be surprisingly good, with the mike placed to get a good balance, every member of the group should hear themselves clearly enough to check these fundamentals. (It is not always a pleasant experience of course!)

  • Tone and tuning are allied to breathing and embouchure. Many never get these right, but it is possible. For saxophone players I would thoroughly recommend (there are link problems here, see footnote below*): http://www.employee.potsdam.edu/crane.faubra/tone.breathing.html
     
  • Rhythm is so important for all music and cannot be practised enough. Build a vocabulary of rhythms from the styles that you enjoy. Take a few notes from a scale or mode and practice as many different rhythms as possible just using those notes. To help with reading skills visually imagine the count of the beat as you play (this can take time to develop and should be started slowly, a visual stroke in ones mind with a number above it can be mentally transferred to the printed page to subdivide the bar, particularly when reading syncopation)
  • Listen and keep listening and try to expand your listening repertoire. Your natural way to improvise will depend on what has been absorbed into the sub-conscious, probably many years ago. Beginners and even advanced players will play and repeat phrases they may not be aware of and on listening to the recording will not like at all. See next bullet.
  • Develop a critical facility while playing. That means listening to what you are playing while practising and  be resolved never to practice anything you do not like! Stop if necessary and make a mental note. (Of course when playing with others one should be listening to them but this is another situation). Try to anticipate the musical sense of the phrase you are about to play.
  • For jazz and related styles, articulation, phrasing and stylistic characteristics make the sound authentic (I always remember Sonny Rollins demonstrating this on a TV interview, he only played the first five notes of the scale up and down in straight tempo to illustrate something quite different, but it was unmistakably jazz.) This is listening again but in the traditional way jazz players have always learned, i.e. by imitation. Literally try and copy the sounds that appeal and work with the recordings of the best players (this is not trying to be a carbon copy of a favourite player, it is to get a feel for style and find a way to put notes across that sounds convincing).
  • Try and invent. Do not be put off by your own self-criticism, e.g. 'I'm not imaginative enough,' is a phrase I have heard more than once, sometimes from quite serious players. Invention like everything else has to be developed by study and practice. The way forward is to mentally assemble some basic materials and work with those; the basic materials can be gradually expanded with time. Basic materials could be scales and arpeggios, but do not stick to those or it will not sound very interesting, much better to experiment with a limited number of notes, like a pentatonic scale. (It does not have to be the pentatonic scale). Chord sequences are basic materials, why not invent your own!  Choose a sequence of five chords, spaced out interesting intervals. Change them if you do not like. This is good for group improvisation. If it does not work, it is probably the fault of poor rhythms rather than the chords themselves. Rhythm sections might wish to go home and practice developing some interesting rhythmic patterns that they can feed off each other at the next rehearsal.
  • Some will not want to invent. They would prefer to copy perhaps to keep alive the tradition of a certain style of music, or maybe just a desire to sound like an admired player. That is fine, the only problem is that even with the greatest technique one will never sound like that player except in a superficial way. Ones own individuality will still come through of course, but is it not much better to try and develop something of ones own? To me this is the essence of improvisation and what is to be found in all great players; most of us will probably never be that great, but we can be individuals.

(*The series of files indicated above appear to have been withdrawn, the author 'faubra'? has apparently left the music school and taken his files with him. This is a pity since they are very good and would be worth tracking down.  I can e-mail copies to anyone who is really interested.)
 

 
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