Sunday, November 28, 2010

Simple Improvisation Exercise Great for Beginners

Today I feel that I should talk about a simple improvisation exercise that is great for beginners.  It seems that many beginners are totally lost when it comes to learning improvisation, or else the advice that is given to them is just too complicated or hard for them at that moment.  So the question they typically have is something like this, "What is a simple way for me to learn to improvise?"

Today I hope I can give a good answer to this question for all you beginning improvisers.

Recently, well looking through some threads on Cafe Saxophone ,I came across a post where a beginning player was having some trouble with improvisation and feeling confident about their scales.  After reading this I thought I should share a simple improvisation exercise that is great for beginner players.  The following is a part of this gentleman's post.

       "However, when it comes to the improvisation 'slot' I freeze. The teacher is very laid back and  encouraging and often suggests that we just play a few notes from whatever scale we're using.   This sounds very easy at one level, but the things I worry about are:- whether I'll remember and stick to those notes that are contained within that scale (I'm not very confident about my scales yet); what order to play the notes in; what length of notes to play; how to achieve a sort of rhythm that matches the backing track.

      I usually have a go but I really don't like it. It's not about making mistakes or feeling that I should be good at it or worrying that I'll sound rubbish. For me, it's more an anxiety about not knowing what to do. This feels very different from playing from a music score that provides direction (that's comforting even when I know I'm killing the tune!"

I suspect that this individual isn't alone in their feelings of not knowing what to do and not being confident in their scales.  So here is the improvisation exercise that I suggested that helps a player both become more comfortable with their scales and also learn how to make simple melodic ideas at the same time. We all know that simple melodic ideas are the foundation of a good improvisation, so this exercise is great in helping a beginning player take their first steps into the world of jazz improvisation.

To get started with this improvisation exercise we are going to simplify the scale that you want to work on. Then later we will add to it until you have the whole scale mastered.  For this example I will use C major.  To start we will only focus on the first three notes C, E, and D.

You have the notes you’re going to use now it is time to practice making simple melodies.  An example of something you can do is the following.  Play the notes C, D, E with the rhythm being quarter, quarter, followed by a half note.  Then follow it by C, C, D, E being played eighth, eighth, quarter, half note.  You can come up with many different kinds of variations with just these three notes when you add different kinds of rhythms.  You don't always have to start on C either.

The thing to keep in mind with improvisation is that you are making your own melody and expressing yourself.  Learning to make simple melodies out of the tools you have such as scales and various rhythms is a great starting point to learning to improvise well.

Once you have the three note scale down add to it.  So now try using the notes C, D, E, F, and G.  With this you have five notes of the major scale.  After you are comfortable with the first five notes of the scale add the rest, the last two notes being A, B.  You can do this with any scale.

Something else that might be helpful once you are fairly comfortable with a scale is to practice it in a flexible manner.   Basically flexible scale practice is going up and down a scale any way you want.  Ex. you could play something like, C, D, E, F, E, D, C, B, C, D, E, F, G.  Basically you play the scale but you switch directions whenever you feel like it.

The above improvisation exercise is a great starting point for beginners who need to get more comfortable with their scales and who want to learn to improvise at the same time.  After performing the above improvisation exercise you will have a better idea of how to create melody's in real time, and you will have the confidence and direction that will lead to better and better improvisations as you continue to practice.  One thing I should point out about this improvisation exercise for beginners.  It is a starting point, but if you want to sound like a jazz player you still need to develop you style and jazz feel by listening to the music.  

The Best of luck


Sunday, November 14, 2010

Jazz Improvisation: Two Types of Jazz Etudes

Basically when it comes to learning jazz improvisation through the study of jazz etudes there are two types.  The first type of jazz etudes are those etudes that someone else made for you.  The second type are etudes that you made for yourself.  So are they really different? Lets find out.

Type One Jazz Etudes: Etudes made by others

For beginners type one jazz etudes are great.  Someone else has already done all the work for you.  They wrote the etude, decided what should be focused on, and they typically have a progressive format that is designed to help the player grow overtime.  Most often you find type one jazz etudes in books and available as online resources.  Matt Otto's Blog, and Tim Price's website are great online resources that a player can find exercises and jazz etudes to practice.  The main thing about type one jazz etudes is that it gives beginners a good starting place.  Intermediate players can find them helpful too, especially if they have legitimate jazz licks in them.

Some downsides to Type One Jazz Etudes

The downside of using jazz etudes made by someone else is they aren't always tailored specifically to you and your needs/desires.  Also you miss out on the benefits of writing out the etude yourself where you learn important lessons such as how to make jazz theory work in a musical context.  You discover how hard it can be to make the etude flow and feel organic while still keeping it's vitality and freshness.  This lesson in particular helps as your soloing live by giving you the knowledge and tools to improvise in the moment without completely falling back on memorized stuff.  It also helps you make the licks you have learned have that natural feeling.  The final downside is typically if you want to learn more advanced stuff the jazz etudes that are made by others in books and such aren't tailored for advanced methods of playing.  Most jazz etudes in books and on online sources are more geared to the beginning to intermediate players.  So where does this leave us?  Once you have the basics down and some understanding of jazz its time to develop your own jazz etudes and specialize them to your own goals and desires.

Type Two Jazz Etudes:  Etudes Made by You

We have arrived at the second type of jazz etude.  The jazz etude that you develop to further your own goals and develop your own style.  This is the professional approach to learning jazz improvisation through etudes.  What do I mean by this.  I mean that for those professional musicians that use the jazz etude as a way to improve there understanding of jazz improvisation they develop their own jazz etudes tailored to what they want to develop into there own playing.  There is a point in most musicians careers where they find that if they are going to progress to the next level they have to start relying on themselves instead of others.  This means developing their own exercises to help them reach their musical goals.

If you really want to grow musically then you need to follow the professional players lead and start making your own etudes.  What is so great about developing your own etude?  First is it helps you dive deeper into jazz and jazz improvisation.  To make a really good jazz etude you have to do your research.  You have to learn your jazz theory, and along with this you have to learn about the different techniques that players use in their improvisations to make a musical story.   The great thing about developing your own etude is you can take the varying techniques and elements that jazz musicians use and experiment with them in you own way.  Seeing what works and what doesn't work.  You also are able to focus on only one or two things at a time.  Then you can't deny the fact that writing your own music whether it is a tune or a simple etude is a great way to be creative.  In fact it can help your creativity.  It also helps you develop your own personal licks which later leads to your own style.

So back to the question at the beginner.  Is there a difference between the two types of jazz etudes?  Answer, only in the learning value and the growth that can occur.  Type one etudes are good for a start, but if you want to really explode your musical growth then you need to develop your own etudes or in other words be one of those who uses type two jazz etudes.  That's all for today.  Have fun playing and learning.