Sax on the Web Portal - New Article on Learning to Improvise

  • The #1 Thing You Need to Do To Become a Great Improviser

    I posted a new article on my blog today about the #1 thing you need to do to become a great improviser. It would seem like common sense but as you read the article you will see that I have seen tons of adult students who are really neglecting this one thing even though it is what they want most to improve in. Hope it gives some insight or direction for some. Steve

    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……

    If you want to get better at improvising you have to spend a good deal of your practice time improvising. I can honestly say that 90% of my practice everyday is spent improvising. I put on a play along, funk grooves, the radio or just play acapella and just use whatever concept I am working on while improvising. This morning, I was working on a chromatic pattern trying to get my technique smooth and after 10 minutes thought “Let me try this with some music and see how it sounds. Let’s see if I can get into the idea and out of it smoothly.” I put on a random funk groove in B minor and then spent the next 45 minutes jammin’ over that groove. What started out as a technical exercise was now being used in a musical setting. Not only that, but I was coming up with hundreds of different ways to use the pattern over that B minor groove. I was coming up with different rhythms, different combinations of the notes, different directions of the pattern, different intervallic combinations (instead of just chromatic I started trying to do it in whole tones, minor thirds, circle of 5ths, etc…….I felt great by the end!
    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!!!

    This article was originally published in forum thread: New Article on Learning to Improvise started by Nefertiti View original post
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. Keith Ridenhour's Avatar
      Keith Ridenhour -
      Neff, i agree a lot with your article. The only watch out is that if the student has intonation or time issues (can't play in tune or keep a steady beat) that will dog them the whole time they try to solo. So touch work on those then yes, improvise K
    1. Jeanette's Avatar
      Jeanette -
      A really pertinent article and I have found through starting to improvise to backing tracks that my timing is also getting better.

    1. CashSax's Avatar
      CashSax -
      Hello Neff..nice thoughts, I constantly work with new groups and different improv situations are inevitable.Took me many yrs to becomes comfortable in ALL keys and modes. Ripping scales is a great tool..improvise and groove with the metronome. Then hit a stage somewhere.
    1. -88-'s Avatar
      -88- -
      Thanks Steve. All so right....and as you promised, obvious. Humans are good at missing the obvious, so your article is very welcome. Thanks.

      BTW: your site at neff music is a treasured resource.

      Art Saves, Keep Playing.
    1. BlownSi05's Avatar
      BlownSi05 -
      Great read Steve! I have always explained to folks who ask me the question of "How do you just get up there and improvise and make it sound good?" with this response; "You just have to get out there and do it." I have been doing it for 20 years now, and it was a rough go at the start. But persistence and practice pays off.

      I will say that even doing this for 20 years now, I still learn something new every gig, every practice session. That said, we are always our own worst critic. Many times even now I have to catch myself from being overly self-critical. I have had instances where I have great ideas but I hold them in because I am doubting my dexterity that day, or I am doubting my chops to stretch the horn into the upper range. I think it diminishes with time of course, but I think it is something of which even seasoned pros need always be conscious.
    1. Charles652011's Avatar
      Charles652011 -
      If one were to wait until he knew every scale and chord pattern at extremely high speeds before attempting to improvise, none of us would be alive to enjoy his product. I am reminded of the Jamaican string and vocal artist who does very well exploring the possibilities of strumming on only one string.
    1. Harri Rautiainen's Avatar
      Harri Rautiainen -
      Quote Originally Posted by BlownSi05 View Post
      Great read Steve!
      That said, we are always our own worst critic.
      So true, BlownSi05
    1. Vman66's Avatar
      Vman66 -
      Good article! I've been involved in music since I was in 3rd grade. I played trombone through high school and started playing guitar when I was 18 and keys in my early 20's. Self taught on both. I've always played in cover bands for the past 25 years so I never really did much improvisation. I always wanted to, but always gave up for many of the reasons you mentioned. I just turned 50 recently and finally decided to start playing sax because I've always wanted to. I've been playing since November and in the short amount of time, I've developed a pretty good vibrato and I bend notes rather effortlessly. When I started I did the same thing I did with guitar and keys and challenged myself by copying easier solos (True by Spandau Ballet, I Want a New Drug by Huey Lewus, Sade, etc.). But this time around I decided to take lessons. I just had my second lesson last week and have my third this morning. I explained to my instructor that my primary goal is to be able to improvise and just get together with a bunch of guys and start jamming. Last week he gave me Aebersold's Slow Blues in Bb to work with on my improvisation. I have to say, in solo my years of being a musician, this is the most fun I have ever had. I can't stop playing. I have never been this musically creative in my life. Improvising on sax is so much easier for me compared to guitar. I think the reason for it is because it's easier to translate what's in my head to my fingers. It's more expressive, like singing almost. And man does it get my endorphins going. I am absolutely hooked. In the pass week I've probably played that track more than 50 times and every time I play it I come up with different licks that I hear in my head. And if I don't get it the first time, I'll just keep playing it over till I get it. Remembering the tasty ones is the hard part! Another reason I think it's easier for me than guitar is because the layout of a sax is so much more straight forward than a guitar. For the most part, the notes are the same fingerings in both octaves where with guitar they're all over the neck. Every day I can feel myself getting better and faster with smoother finger work just by playing that track over and over. I'm glad I work close to where I live because I come home at lunch and play a little and I can't wait to get home and start jammin'. I am hooked! Anyway, just thought I'd share my experience with improvisation. Better late than never
    1. SaxKidd's Avatar
      SaxKidd -
      Yes, what a great post, Neff! I love the analogy between learning to improvise and learning to speak. As a student of both improvisation and foreign languages I found this very relevant and unmistakably true. The only way to learn to speak a language, be it your native tongue or a foreign one, is to listen, copy, practice speaking, make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and keep on moving forward. It's the same way with improvisation. Jazz is a language. If you never practice speaking it, you'll never improve your skills!

      I also believe it's very important to enjoy where you are now as a musician. Listen for the things you do well now and build upon those skills. Perfect them and make them part of your unique sound. But most of all, have fun with the abilities you have right now. There will always be room for improvement (lots and lots of room ), but if you never enjoy where you're at now, then what's the point, right? We all love playing the sax, so stay positive and just enjoy yourself. Listening back to old recordings of yourself can be very enlightening and show how far you've come. Positive thoughts about your playing are bound to follow!
    1. BsaxC1's Avatar
      BsaxC1 -
      The biggest thing I got from this is spending hours practicing with records. Okay I've been playing for over 45 yrs and am still an adult student. I play professionally (local gigs) and for free ( sitting in on jam sessions around town). Having a good ear helps me and learning Grover Washington licks or any sax player or other instrument solo lick for lick helped. I don't really worry about technical licks I love melodic something that the audience can sing to themselves. You know like taking Mary had a little lamb them improvising off that. I approach playing as if I was singing as I like to take a Chaka Khan like and introduce it into a solo. i also record myself and practice on my own mistakes and my keyboard player says I only have about 10 or 20 licks but I twist them around and get 100 licks out of that. Sometimes the drummer with spark me with a lick. Listening don't over lick leave some space let the music breath. Rhythmic patterns and trick licks also helps. These are the things I tell my other horn player in our section to do as it's what I do. I like to approach by playing a song inside of a song. Make a story have a beggining, middle and end. And less is sometimes better. You don't have to put 20 notes in a measure. Play the right notes. Listen to other solos not just sax solos. If John Coltrane can say he was still learning my 45+ years is nothing. I'm still learning to. That's why I click on this thread in the first place to see if this ole dawg can learn some new tricks. So yes Neff I will add more Chromatic stuff to my arsenal. - thanks

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