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 familiar, common vocabulary. We speak that way intuitively in order to communicate easily and effectively. While we might throw in the occasional $1000 word, for the most part, we communicate our thoughts and feelings using everyday common language. What makes each of our voices unique, is that each of us is an utterly unique blend of feelings, perceptions and experiences. Even as we speak using common language, each of our unique identities and personalities naturally emerge.
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 comfortable with the nuances of our native language. Without that level of comfort, our ability to communicate would be severely hampered. If you’ve studied a second language, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Instead of making stuff up, experienced improvisers draw from a well-established, common 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 tongue.
The jazz language consists of specific combinations of notes, referred to as phrases, licks or patterns. Many of these are short musical utterances, ranging from 3-10 notes in length. Their melodies, shapes and rhythms are essential elements of the language. In subtly different guises, they recur again and again in virtually all classic jazz performances. These elements taken together create the sound of jazz.
The sound of jazz is unmistakable. It is as clear and recognizable as is the sound of French, German, Italian or any other language. The more fluent you become, the greater your capacity to speak in your own voice. When you command the language, you’ll connect better with your audience and with your fellow musicians.
Acknowledging that jazz is a language illuminates the second point; jazz improvisation is way less mysterious than you might think. This realization should be a moment of truth. While there is an undeniable attraction to the notion of jazz as mysterious, magical and unknowable, it’s a counterproductive approach to learning to improvise.
If you want to learn to improvise well, bid a fond farewell to the notion of improvisation as mysterious. Say hello to learning an incredibly cool, expressive musical language. It’ll take a lot of hard work, but the rewards include greater personal expression, meaningful collaborations, and the undying respect of your fellow jazzers, all of whom have worked equally hard at mastering the language.
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.”