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Teaching improvisation?

Discussion in 'Ask David Overthrow' started by Gyoon, Mar 5, 2007.

  1. Gyoon


    Nov 12, 2004
    Toronto, Ontario
    I'm a bass and guitar teacher in the Toronto area and I always seem to have a problem teaching improv.

    Scales, chords, is easy. I just can't seem to get a number of students interested in exploring the different sounds that scales can make. I get them to play sequences and such, but some just don't show that spark. Am I trying to push something on people that may not be ready for it?
  2. When teaching improvisation, the student can be given the tools to improvise with but can’t really be taught the creative process. Each student is different in terms of his or her innate ability to be creative on a musical level, so improvising will be easier for some and laborious for others. What I try to do with my students is to have them learn a simple scale, say a minor pentatonic. Before learning more scale choices, have the student try to tell a story with the minor pentatonic. Have the student sing or clap a predetermined rhythm and have them play any notes of the scale with that predetermined rhythm b y first starting with one bar phrases. After that, move onto two bars phrases, and if they can, four bar phrases.

    It sounds like you already have students playing melodic sequences. Perhaps have them attempt to sing their solos. This is something you have to hear and can’t fake. Try to have students improvise on 1 string. For example, if they are using a G dorian scale for improvising, have them improvise playing the G dorian scale on the G string. This may help them play more lyrically and not so much thinking fingerings.

    In the end, encourage students to experiment. When a young adult gets a new computer, they rarely look at the manual. They take it out of the box, turn it on and investigate to see how it works. Encourage your students to do the same with music. By trial and error they will learn more than what is spoon-fed to them.

    They should also listen extensively. When we are babies we learn to speak the English language not by studying but by listening and imitating. Many times students try to bypass this important step of imitating the language. Listening to others, learning some licks, then studying with someone to learn what it is your doing and learning how to expand on that is a good path to take.

    There are many different thoughts and approaches to the question of improvisation and they are all right. Good luck with your students.

  3. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Augusta GA
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    A few thoughts -
    We are all born improvisors; every conversation we have, every time we use a dime to tighten a loose screw, every time we have to come up with a reason we're late for work AGAIN, we improvise a solution. What determines whether or not improvisation within certain musical parameters is important to us is entirely a decision based on personal aesthetic. For some people it's just not important, for others it is the primary reason they pick up an instrument.
    But if your students ARE interested in improvising (and in what idiom?) but don't show much "spark", it may be they are having trouble relating the vocabulary (scales) you are giving them to actually saying something with meaning and intent. By way of analogy, if they want to write poetry in Farsi, all they may be hearing from you are "Here are some words that I think sound really interesting." I am generally not in favor of approaching improvisation from an approach of increasing vocabulary , because it never served me very well in the past. Having more words to choose from never seemed to lead to having something specific to say.

    What DID have a huge affect on that was combining ear training with work on playing arpeggios and working on some specific improvisational exercises designed to maximize hearing the harmony with clarity and, by limiting placement and the rhythmic "unit" involved in the exercise focus on letting your ear lead you through the process of getting the line you are hearing in your head out on your instrument.

    Transcription is great, I would recommend taking it a little further than "data mining" for more vocabulary. That, to me, is like reading a book and memorizing something that somebody else wrote and hoping that you can use it (or just forcing it in anyway) in a conversation at some point. I always recommend listening through at half speed and singing along wth the solo geting all nuances of phrasing (dynamics, legato/staccato, vibrato, slurs etc.) so that when you sing along with the recording it sounds like it's coming out of YOU. Then doing that at full speed. By the time you pick up your instrument (or pen to put it on paper), you are in a much better position to actually hear what's happening AND you are, to all intents and purposes, doing what you would be doing when you improvise i.e. hearing a linwith enough clarity that you can sing and identify each pitch and then playing that on your instrument.

    The thing that gives a line, whether a solo or accompaniment, meaning and intent is the clarity with which you can translate what's happening in your imagination when you hear a set of chord changes into sound out in the air by using your instrument. That's not just vocabulary.
  4. joegeezer


    Mar 9, 2005
    Northern Wisconsin
    Avatar Club#12 Eden Club Lucky# 13--USA Peavey Club#37 Carvin Club#5
    When I was young, and learning, I played with a guitar player who would just play along with me, and we would just try to work off of each other, trying lines and keeping the flow going for each other, as we would trade off trying different licks. It seemed so much easier that way, having someone else keeping that beat and groove going. we didn't care if we lost it, and had to search for notes, hitting bad ones, because the other would just keep going till we found the lines we were searching for. I think thats the easiest way to learn how to improvise.
  5. Hello to everyone. Let me first address my first post, which was a response to a question regarding improvisation and how to give a student a “spark”. I have to admit that my reply was brief as I was preparing for a studio session. In my response I could have said that a jazz student, more particularly a jazz bassist, should become familiar with all 12 major scales, the diatonic harmony within them, practice all arpeggios in one-octave, two octaves and inversions. I could have discussed minor scales, natural, harmonic and melodic, with the emphasis on melodic minor (jazz minor). I could have discussed learning the modes of the melodic minor scale as they are used extensively in jazz improvisation. Then talked about diminished scales, altered scales, whole-tone scales, pentatonic scales, blues scales, and also could have discussed how over minor ii-V-I progressions jazz players often think three different melodic minor scales, which allow them to play the same lick on the ii and V chords but a minor 3rd apart and this allows for playing “sequences” which is a great way to make you sound like you know what you are doing. I could have discussed how improvisers often draw their vocabulary from the following: major scale harmony, melodic minor scale harmony, diminished scale harmony and whole tone scale harmony.

    Also to be discussed could be suggestions on how to practice scales:
    1) In intervals larger than 2nds, such as 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, 6ths, and 7ths.
    2) In groups of three (For ex. 123,234,345,456,567 etc.), groups of four, five six and seven.
    3) Play three note permutations (For example, 123,321,213,231)-(234,432,324,342) etc.
    4) Put a metronome or drum machine on and make music with the scale other than simply practicing the technical facility. Make melodies, bass lines etc…
    5) Practice two or three octave scales on three strings, two strings, and one string.
    6) Play from each scale degree to its octave (modes)

    Another topic to discuss would be the art of walking bass. If a player can create walking bass lines on a set of chord changes, this tells a lot about what they know and that he can play. Walking bass lines can begin with roots & fifths, then add chord tones to provide color, then scale tones to provide fluidity, then rhythmic activity in the line, then chromatic passing tones, approach tones, re-harmonization and so on….

    We could talk about improvising by playing variations of the melody, melodic variation, key centers, guide tones, 4 and 8 bar phrases, standard jazz forms and chord progressions, mastering the ii-V. We could talk about the importance of listening to other players and how the ear is really the most important thing. With all of these chords and scales and chord changes, when you learn the changes and learn the scales and learn the chord types so well that you can forget them, then you are free from having to think about them and can make music with them. Learn the theory well enough so you can work your magic with it. By the same token, don’t let theory become a straight jacket, but rather a guide to help get you through the journey.

    So, back to my first post in regards to the original question, how do I help a student find a spark and in order to improvise. My first sentence was that tools can be taught but creativity can’t be. A guide full of tools such as scales, chords, soloing techniques, such as melodic sequences, a rhythmic motif, a melodic shape, playing what you hear in your head (sing it first) developing ear training skills) etc…can certainly help a player on their journey to improvise. I feel that within each of us is individual magic that each of us has our own musical voice. This voice comes out when we investigate it ourselves using the tools given to us. Not one else can really tell us how we should express ourselves. When we start with a blues scale and have 8 different guitar players play the same blues scale lick, it will sound different from each player. This is because each of us has a different degree of engagement in the process, a different degree of passion, and a different degree of dedication to that musical phrase and enthusiasm and spark. Improvisation is to a degree about expressing “you” and that portion of the magic can‘t be taught, but does exist in all of us. To tap into this magic, the more prepared you are with learning your chords and scales so well that you don’t have to think about them, the less your brain is occupied with having to “think” the creativity and magic takes over.

    There are so many good players out there and so many schools of thought that as I said in my last post, I don’t think of anything that works for anyone as a wrong answer. Whatever it is you are doing works for you, then it is right for you. Music theory is a very helpful guide to help get us through the huge task of jazz improvisation. But in the end, remember that music is a subjective art. What sounds pleasing to one may not sound pleasing to another. Take two opposite ends of the spectrum, Kenny G to Ornette Coleman. There’s a lot of great stuff in between. This is a sort of addendum to my first post.

    WHEEEW! No wonder I didn’t get into that in my last response. That’s a lot of writing!
    Hope it wasn’t too much reading.

    I have just finished a book called TOTAL JAZZ BASS. I co-authored this book with my old friend Tim Ferguson. The book talks about technique (both electric and upright), chords, major scales, minor scales and diatonic harmony of each, walking bass lines, improvisation techniques, major ii-V-I, minor ii-V-I, Dominant 7th chord scales, bebop scales, altered scales, diminished scales, standard chord progressions, soling, Latin, Bebop, Funk, Personalities, Practicing tips and more. Much of what is in this book is a much lengthier response to questions regarding jazz bass, improvisation, and soloing. The book is published by Alfred/NGW and should be released by the summer.

    Peace to all
    “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. I get most joy in life out of music”. – Albert Einstein
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