I’m seeing a trend in adult students that I have taught over the last 10 years and wanted to write about it. The #1 thing that most students young and old want to improve is their ability to improvise well. Many times, I ask the students what their practice routine is like and I get answers similar to this:
Student-“Well, I only have an hour a day to practice so I usually spend about 10-15 minutes on long tones. Then I continue to warm up by running through some assorted scales. Then I do some reading from a jazz etude book. Then I work on some technical passages with a metronome to increase my speed or read from a transcription. Lately, I have also been spending time on the overtone series and altissimo practice also. Then if I have any time left I will play a tune with an Aebersold track…………”
Me-“So in an average day, how much time do you spend actually improvising on the saxophone?”
Student-“Ummmmm……. I never thought about that before………Honestly, not much. If any, maybe 5 minutes at the most……….”
It’s no exaggeration when I say 90% of my adult students give an answer similar to the answers above. Do you see what the issue is here? The #1 thing students want to be good at is improvisation but the one thing they spend the least amount of time doing…….improvising!
Now, when I talk more about this with the student, I find that I get many similar responses:
- Well, I have too much to practice and can’t fit it all in…..
- I feel that I’m really bad at it so when I do it I get frustrated……..
- I find it really hard! I can’t seem to come up with any ideas……….
- I feel like it’s fun and all that but I’m not really practicing but just goofin’ around. I need to stick to an organized practice routine or I won’t get any better……
Why did I feel great? Well think about it, instead of just practicing my chromatic pattern up and down the horn with a metronome I was flexing all my musical muscles while playing it to that groove. I was working on:
- My time. Locking my lines into the groove of the song.
- Different rhythmic ideas-Offbeats,8th notes,triplets,16th notes,odd meters over the time
- My expression-making the ideas sound as good as I could. Playing ideas over and over figuring out the best way to bend the notes, articulate the notes,etc…….
- My ear-making sure I was in tune, listening to how the lines wanted to resolve. Trying different resolutions. Trying different tensions and recognizing the dissonance and where the notes wanted to go.
- The full range of the horn-While improvising I went up into the altissimo and down in to the low notes of the horn
- My sound-thinking about my sound, does it sound good, can I make it sound better, is it a full fat sound that fills the room, etc…..
- And lastly and most importantly CREATIVITY-the whole 45 minutes I’m flexing my creative muscles and seeing what I can do with the concepts and ideas.
All these things are pulled into the equation when you are practicing improvisation.
So, although it might sound like a straight forward common sense idea, I have found that the majority of students out there are not dedicating the time they should to actually improvising. I think there can me many reason why and you have to do some contemplating yourself to figure out your reason or reasons. One possibility is that many of these students find that practicing patterns from a book, or etudes, or classical studies, or charts, or scales is easy or shall I say “less taxing”. Many of them are good at these things and many times while doing something we are good at we “feel” good about ourselves. So human nature will tend to pull us towards those things that might make us feel good…….
I understand the feelings of “this is hard”, “I’m not creative”, “I don’t know what to play”, “Everything I play sounds awful” ,”I stink”. We have all had those thoughts and feelings. People (who don’t play music) always tell me “You are so talented and gifted! I wish I could have your ability to make stuff up on the spot like you do” but the truth is that I wasn’t born with this talent. I remember years and years of frustration where I couldn’t come up with stuff to play. How did I overcome those thoughts and feelings. I improvised! I spent hours everyday playing with records. Sometimes trying to copy the person on the record, other times just going nuts and trying my own ideas. The process went something like this:
- Year 1-1 of every 20 ideas I came up with was ok 19 were lame!
- Year 2-1 of every 10 ideas was ok 9 were lame!
- Year 3-1 of every 10 ideas was ok and one was pretty darn good I thought 8 were lame!
- Year 4-2 of every 10 ideas I tried were ok 2 were pretty darn good 6 were lame!
- Year 5-3 of every 10 ideas I tried were good one was amazing in my mind 1 was pretty good 5 were lame!
- Year 6-4 idea of 10 were pretty good 2 were really good 4 were lame!
and so on, you see where I am going with this. The abilty to improvise is built through repetition, experimentation and just doing it as Nike says……..
I was talking to a Skype student about my blog article the other day called “Why is learning Jazz Patterns Foreign to Me?” and the adult student was saying that although my analogy with music to a spoken language makes sense, speaking is so much easier than playing music and improvising. Why is that? Simple, think about it, you have been improvising with words day in and day out since you were 2 years old! Every day you would wake up and start improvising using the words you knew? Nothing was scripted, nothing was being read off of a page. You were winging it in every situation you encountered. As you went through life you made communication mistakes. You said things wrong. You weren’t clear in what you were trying to say. People misunderstood you or didn’t understand you at all. Most of the time we would just laugh those moments off and then try again to communicate. Usually, we would find a way of succeeding and getting our message across even if clumsily. Through all of this process we were learning, practicing and becoming better communicators. That is why speaking is so much easier for most of us.
One of the biggest obstacles to improvisation and creativity is negative self talk. Ideally, it would be best to have a learning environment where you can make mistakes and then try again. Laugh at yourself and try again. No judgements, no taunting, no put downs about your abilities or jokes about your mistakes. You just try again. It’s a pretty sad parent or person that puts down a child who is learning to communicate and having trouble but unfortunately many of us do that to ourselves when practicing improvisation. We play something that sounds bad and our minds become that kid on the bus who is making fun of another kid who has trouble talking. We start telling ourselves:
- You can’t do this…..
- You stink at this…….
- You’ll never be good at this……
- This is a waste of time……
- You’re not a creative person…….
- You should just give up…….
- Forget this……..You should practice from that book over there. You’re good at that……..
One of the best breakthroughs in my life was recognizing this bad self talk going on in my head. This negativity is the enemy of creativity. It will stifle it and if left to run rampant in your mind will put out your creative flame totally. I have had adult students who have carried these negative thoughts throughout their life and now as they start the saxophone these thoughts are blocking their attempts at creativity from the very beginning. (The great thing about children is that most of them don’t have these negative thoughts yet ……although some surprisingly do…….) Learn to recognize this pattern and you can start to stop it right when it starts…….But that is a topic for another article. Back to the topic!
The point of all this is that if you want to become a better improviser…………improvise! Have fun!!!