learn to improvise
Two big things about improvising…that might surprise you
- Improvisation is not about making stuff up
- Improvisation is way less mysterious than you might think
Let’s unpack that first point. If great jazz improvisers aren’t creating on the fly, just what are they doing? If they’re not making up new stuff, why is it called improvisation? The answer lies in reconceptualizing our notion of jazz improvisation. When we improvise, we are simply speaking in the jazz language.
Think for a minute about how you speak in normal conversation. Most of us use mostly familiar, common vocabulary. We speak that way intuitively in order to communicate easily and effectively. While we might throw in the occasional $100 word, for the most part, we can get our thoughts and feelings across quite well using the same words as everyone else. What makes each of our voices utterly unique, is that each of us is an utterly unique blend of feelings, perceptions and experiences. Even as we speak with the same words as everyone else, our unique identity and personality emerges untouched.
The reason we communicate so easily is that we’ve been speaking in our native language all our lives. We know common words and phrases and how to use them. We know when to speak slowly and when to speed up. We know when to speak softly and when to yell. We know when to pause…for dramatic effect. In short, we are completely comfortable with all the nuances of our native language. Without that level of comfort, our ability to communicate would be severely hampered. Anyone who has studied a second langauge knows exactly what I’m talking about.
So instead of making stuff up, experienced improvisers use the same familiar, established vocabulary. This vocabulary is drawn from a highly specialized and unique language. Using this language, jazz players are endlessly creative in finding new combinations of familiar words and phrases, just as we all do when speaking in our native language.
The jazz language consists of specific combinations of notes, referred to as phrases licks or patterns. Most of these are short musical utterances, ranging from 3-10 notes in length. Familiar melodic patterns occur again and again on countless recordings. Specific rhythms, phrasings and accent patterns are essential elements of the language. Patterns of repetition, both melodic and rhythmic, are idiomatic to the the language. These elements taken together create the sound of jazz.
The sound of the jazz language is unmistakable. It is as recognizable as is the sound of French, German, Italian or any other language. It is a language spoken around the globe. In learning to speak in jazz, you become part of a global community whose shared musical values allow us all to communicate, express and create.
This leads us back to the second point, that jazz improvisation is way less mysterious than you might think. This realization can be a moment of truth for some of us. While there is an undeniable attraction to the notion of jazz as mysterious, magical or unknowable, it’s a counterproductive approach to learning to improvise. If you want to empower yourself to learn to improvise, bid a fond farewell to the notion of improvisation as mysterious. Say hello to learning an incredibly cool, expressive musical language. It’ll take lots of work…but the reward is membership in the global jazz community and unlimited possibilities for personal expression.
Please refer to my video tutorial below to get the most out of the GarageBand lessons:
“Best class at Columbia College Chicago was Peter Saxe’s Jazz Improv 1+2”
“Woo!!! The real deal!”
“Thanks for the clear and patient teaching!”
“Finally someone who talks sense, a teacher who has a method. Thank you Peter Saxe. learning from you is a joy :)”
“Excellent! and exactly the start that was looking for! A huge thank you and I am so looking forward to watching the rest of your videos! 🙂 This has been a very useful set of videos and I have learned a lot – and my thanks for producing them.”