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  • Improvisation: A union of mind, body and music

    Improvising on the saxophone has transformed my life forever. It has awakened me to a completely new level of spirituality – hard words for me to type, as a rationalist. Improvisation is a religious revelation. It is meditation, red mist and the soul. Playing music without a plan showed me the full dignity of the human consciousness and the hot power of the mind. It made me question everything that had gone before, and opened up unlimited possibilities for everything that lay ahead. It very nearly never happened. I want to share my story, and my elation, about how it did. Somebody showed me how.

    When I was about 11, my parents made me start taking lessons once a week for 30 minutes, together with another kid. Our teacher, a clarinet player, would take us through the required pieces for the next grade exam. They were classical: The melodies felt stiff. I thought the saxophone was the stupidest thing on the planet, and I gave up around four years later. I don’t think I played the instrument at home even once.
    During a visit home around 12 years later, my mum told me to dig the instrument out of the back of the cupboard under the stairs and put it on eBay. For some reason, I decided to take it back to Germany. I signed up for a group lesson at the local community centre and began wrecking our neighbours’ lives forever by practising in the kitchen in our flat a couple of nights a week. I enjoyed meeting new people and re-learning to read sheet music, but I had still never really heard a piece of music featuring a sax that didn’t seem to belong to a dead tradition. It felt nostalgic and a little bit silly: Music from a naïve and embarrassing era of badly-fitting trousers and people smoking cigarettes through little plastic tubes. Saxophone lessons felt like history lessons. I began to think eBay wasn’t such a bad idea.

    And then one day our teacher, Simon, wrote a set of notes on the board (I now know this was the G blues scale), sat down at the piano, and started playing the chords in the 12-bar blues progression. The others in the group had been attending the lessons for a while: One by one, they began to play – and it sounded good. It honestly sounded good. I was intimidated, and not a little bit confused: They had all sounded just as crap as me when we were murdering Summertime. When it was my turn, I (almost certainly) turned red, and passed to the next person in the class without playing a note.

    Once every student had played, Simon finished at the piano and gave each student some short feedback on what they had done well and what they could try in the future. He explained the task to me: Any of the notes on the board would sound good at any time, in any order. Just pick up your sax, and blow. Make shapes. Try different runs. Play long and short notes, soft and loud. Adjust your lips on the mouthpiece. Play notes that are close together, and play notes that are far apart. Build ideas. Experiment. Play on the saxophone.

    We began again. When it was my turn, I (almost certainly) turned red again, but I blew. I couldn’t believe that the tones coming out of the sax fit with those coming from the piano. Notes became melodies. I was listening to the piano – but I also wasn’t. After what was, in retrospect, almost certainly not 12 bars, I pulled the sax away from my face and the next student began playing. I went home and I couldn’t sleep all night. I was hooked.

    We continued to do this exercise for the last 10 minutes of every lesson. I surreptitiously scribbled down the set of notes that Simon put on the board, and I played them over and over in our kitchen – teaching my fingers to find the keys automatically, teaching the neighbours to master their bloodlust urgently. I gained confidence, playing more boldly each week. Each time I got closer to sounding more like myself: Communicating something meaningful – without knowing what it was before it hit my ear.

    Since then I have learned more and more about improvisation. It is a long journey: I can now play over chord progressions without relying on a blues scale. I think about phrasing, I try to explore motifs and patterns while paying more attention to forming a coherent story, from the beginning of the solo to the end. I’m crap, of course, but that is not really the point. Improvisation, when it is done well, seems to require something similar to what sportspeople call ‘getting in the Zone’. Simultaneous and exclusive states of mind: Absolute focus on the chord changes and available tone material, together with a total absence of conscious thought. It has opened up a completely new kind of music for me – not just to appreciate, but to revere. This composition on the run, this singing without a song. It is a transcendental act that requires staggering union between mind, body, and music. It is astonishing. And yet everyone can do it – you just need somebody to show you how.

    About

    I am Matty Bannond, a writer of fiction and comment. My short stories are character-driven and place a strong focus on the rhythms and patterns of language. My comment posts reflect on people and experiences that have moved me, and attempt to explain why.

    I was born and grew up close to Manchester, UK. I currently live in Germany. I am 31 years old, and have a baby daughter. Besides writing, I am very interested in sustainability topics, as well as all kinds of sport. I play the tenor saxophone in a six-piece band.

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    Comments 7 Comments
    1. Charlie88's Avatar
      Charlie88 -
      Great article. This totally resonates with me Matty.
      The act of improvising a melody -however humble it may be, over simple blues changes for ex. is, in itself, life affirming for me. I've been playing tenor sax for just about 8 months (& been improvising for many years on guitar), so i spend a lot of time on rudementary stuff..reading, tone production, harmony..all the parts required to get it together on the tenor.
      i make time each session to just improvise. maybe on some changes, maybe not. just to make the sound. to feel alive with the notes coming out of the instrument.
      It's great to read how you have observed that improvisation is a transendental act. This has been my experience as well, even as a beginner. Beauty and mystery is available through improvisation. (ok, back to practicing now!)
    1. Matty Bannond's Avatar
      Matty Bannond -
      Hi! My page got lots of views that came from this site, which is very kind indeed. It really is great for me to get feedback from the sax community: As you can tell from my article, playing has made a big difference to my life and it's wonderful to share.

      For those who are interested, I have recently published a couple of other jazz-related texts:

      - One about jazz standards, and how the culture of the standard as a shared resource typifies why I love jazz music. You can find it here: https://mattybannond.wordpress.com/2...rody-hot-mess/

      - And another setting out a list of moments in jazz that I think meet the criteria for genius that Thelonious Monk (allegedly) stated once. It's here: https://mattybannond.wordpress.com/2...enius-in-jazz/

      Thanks again,
      Matty
    1. Ricardo Moraes's Avatar
      Ricardo Moraes -
      Man... what a great story you tell there. And what a style. This is the first article on improvisation that I read from top to bottom. It makes sense to me because it takes off all that rational effort to improvise according to the chord changes of the songs, like if that was some kind of strange math that only the initiated can master.

      My son's piano teacher does exactly what Simon did... and IT WORKS.

      Thanks for the reading at such a late time (it is 22 past 2 AM in Rio).
    1. Matty Bannond's Avatar
      Matty Bannond -
      Quote Originally Posted by Ricardo Moraes View Post
      Man... what a great story you tell there. And what a style. This is the first article on improvisation that I read from top to bottom. It makes sense to me because it takes off all that rational effort to improvise according to the chord changes of the songs, like if that was some kind of strange math that only the initiated can master.

      My son's piano teacher does exactly what Simon did... and IT WORKS.

      Thanks for the reading at such a late time (it is 22 past 2 AM in Rio).
      That is extremely kind of you Ricardo, thank you very much. Your reference to being like "math" really resonates with me. Since those lessons with Simon almost 3 years ago, I've bought loads of books and watched hundreds of Youtube videos on musical theory, but most of the moments when my solos have sounded best have been where all that stuff went out the window and I just opened up. That's probably what I was trying to address when I wrote about it being "transcendental": Romantic perhaps, but also life-affirming and FUN!

      Thank you for your kind words, it genuinely means a huge amount to me at this point in my career. Thanks. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stuff on my page (maybe not at 2am...). I'd be really grateful if you'd pass it on / share it with anyone you think might have an interest.

      Good luck to your son! He's lucky to have an early start with a great teacher!

      Thanks again,
      Matty
    1. shledin's Avatar
      shledin -
      You want to know what is absolutely crazy? I reluctantly went to my sax lessons yesterday (I haven't practiced at home in weeks), and it was a pretty good lesson. Than near the end, my teacher asked do you want to learn the blues scale : ). We went over the scale and chord progression. I went home and couldn't sleep last night. Now I am sitting at work the next day looking at you article instead of working, wishing I could go home and start playing around with that blues scale.... I am hooked.
    1. Matty Bannond's Avatar
      Matty Bannond -
      Quote Originally Posted by shledin View Post
      I am hooked.
      I love your comment! Feels great to share!
    1. Matty Bannond's Avatar
      Matty Bannond -
      Hello again, brother and sister saxophonists!

      I posted a new article this week! It's about how to choose the right instrument for a child, and includes my top three recommendations. You can find it here: http://mattybannond.com/comment/whic...y-child-learn/

      I'd be really interested to hear your opinions because this is a very emotional topic for me: Playing jazz transformed my life, but my initial experiences with the sax turned me away from music.

      One last point: You may notice that I've switched to a self-hosted URL. This is mostly because I want to learn how to create a site for when I set up as a freelancer next year (don't worry, I haven't got illusions of blogging grandeur!). For that reason, here are the new links to my jazz-related posts:

      Improvisation: http://mattybannond.com/comment/impr...ody-and-music/
      Jazz standards: http://mattybannond.com/comment/coll...rody-hot-mess/
      Genius in jazz: http://mattybannond.com/comment/genius-in-jazz/

      Thanks again for all the kindness you've shown me,
      Matty

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