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Thread: Improvising Practice and tips

  1. #1
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    Aug 2010
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    Default Improvising Practice and tips

    I am a sophomore music major at umass lowell and i've been trying to make improvising feel more comfortable. I've spent time learning solos and memorizing licks but still find myself tripping over the changes. This results in a feeling of rigidity when soloing which keeps me from comfortably using licks or developing fluidity in my solos. So, hopefully this Thread can be used to trade practice ideas and tips.

  2. #2
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    May 2010
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    Learn every mode over every chord/scale....it has to be done. Also spend time learning one particular standard such as all the things you are and learn it in all 12 keys!

  3. #3
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    What's your instrument?

  4. #4
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    my instrument is guitar. usually i focus on arps instead of modes, but yea i've studied arps in all inversions as well chordal inversions and i use the modes as well. however, i dont regiment that sort of practice for every standard so i will start doing that. Also, 12 key practice is something i neglect so that is deff gonna start happening. Right now, i'm practicing staying a measure ahead so i can decide what to play before i hit the chord.

  5. #5
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    Hi Luke
    I think you need to start very simply. I am assuming you have been trying to learn to improvise by practicing notated licks and notated solos. This will not help you very much at this stage, because all you will try to do is insert them or play them from memory, which is not what improvisors do. If you think of how you have a conversation with someone, neither of you write down or prepare what you are going to say before you meet. You are spontaneous, you might make a few mistakes as you are speaking but you react to what is happening (what they are saying) and respond with your reply.

    In soloing, you are listening to what you are playing (also what the backing musicians are playing) and constructing a lovely solo over time, connecting bits, flowing things on from one to the other and making some kind of integrated sense of the notes and phrasing (like when you are speaking to someone using words.) It is kind of 'musical speech.'

    I would start with a few simple tunes. If you are coming to jazz, here are a few:
    Summertime
    Satin Doll
    Autumn leaves
    Blues changes (using simple chords)
    Footprints
    Maiden Voyage

    Choose a couple to work with.
    Play them at a slow tempo. You mentioned tripping over the changes. If it is a ballad tempo it is much easier. Remember you are in charge of the solo, there is no hurry, so when you do not know what note to play, give your solo a rest (kind of like a breath) and start up again when you have another idea. With a ballad you can play long notes and create gorgeous melodies that do not have to be fast. Good to work on tone of the notes with the ballads of course (you will know this from your classical guitar studies.)
    Remember that a note you are playing might just as well be part of the following chord change so it can stay there playing it letting it ring out until you sort out where it is going next, if it is not, then you only have to move up/down a fret or two and play the new note that will fit inside the new chord.
    Listen all the time to the musical phrasing licks you are doing as you are playing. This is your feedback. Each note is precious and leads to the next and the next. Take an idea (rhythmic or intervallic) and expand that idea for the next bit. You do not have to keep on coming up with new ideas or new licks each time. Think temporally and develop your solo temporally so each bit can relate to the next (of course every now and again you will want a new idea, but this is a way to start.... you already have the previous lick to relate the next to.)

    Put away your notation notes, notated licks and solos (sounds like you know how to get around your instrument.) You know scales so you know the kind of notes to use with a chord, but you would know that a solo is not scales nor arppegios. They only give you an idea of what notes to use as a starting point. So start on a note that the first chord suggests, let it breathe, then add another then another. Ballads remember. Each note has its own (sounding) identity as to where it is in the chord (chord-scale) that is being played by the rhythm section or inside the song. Your ear needs to get used to this and will very gradually start knowing what each note will sound like against (within) the chord. This is happening as you play slow ballads, as are many other things. You need to start slowly to build up your improvising skills - aural, finger positioning, listening, etc.

    Modal tunes are good to start with as the chords do not change too much and you can linger in the chord sounds and notes for longer without getting muddled as the chords change each bar. (The last two listed are modal.) And you can practice the licks YOU are coming up with against (within) the chords that are going by as the piece is happening (either backing play-alongs or in your head as you are counting through it.) Do not be afraid to stop and practice a little lick you came up with. Enjoy it, get it down under your fingers. With modal tunes it is easier to do this with if you are using play-along backings.

    You need to start slowly (and enjoy it). Listen to ballad playing of your favorite players. If you cannot solo slowly, you will not be able to do it faster.

    Let us know how you are progressing. Best wishes.

  6. #6
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    I forgot to say, once you get familiar with jazz chords, they can give you an 'in' to improvising.
    If you take Dm in a song, a jazz improvisor will see that as a basic chord. As a guitarist you would comp. a specific chord which might be Dm9, Dm11, Dm7 or whatever. These chords you learn (hopefully they are the movable ones, since they are much more useful in jazz as you can just move them up or down for different keys) instantly give you some of the notes you can play for soloing and you know they will be ok since they derive from the chord. If you are using a pick, just sweep down them (but do not make this a habit for all your soloing as you will sound very boring) or with fingers just pluck out a few in different ways. For instance, if you have learnt a Dm9 and Dm11 you can change shapes/positions to get the other and pluck a few of those notes, then swap to the other and outline some notes there, then maybe comp the chord as a musical comment to your previous notes. All the while the song is at the Dm (basic) during this.
    If you have not got one, a jazz guitar chord book would be useful. But be careful, some of them are like a dictionary (listing every single possibility.) While something like this is useful, a poet or writer does not memorize the dictionary in order to do their creative work. What you need is to take a few chord progressions and configure them in different ways within what you know… different specific chords leading to the next chord and so on. Look at the formations and shapes and the notes you are holding down and use those as a basis for starting to solo. You might not need to use the actual shape when soloing the single notes either (depends.) Just that you have it in your mind onto the fretboard so you know where that chord lives, so you can finger to those frets for the solo.

    This is not the only way, but might help you?
    Ask more questions! There are lots of us here to help.

    Have fun.

  7. #7
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    Aug 2010
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    thanks for taking the time to give advice dflat. i practice my standards at ballad tempo and i create my own licks and ideas, as well as learning other's. usually i run them through circle of fifths to learn them. i agree completely with the concepts of soloing you talked about but that is exactly my problem because to create a flowing solo "tripping" over the changes shouldnt be a problem. over the last year i've familiarized myself with the inversions of 7th chords up to half diminished (while gaining a familiarity with 9 13 and alt chords) and continue to study substitions. i feel that my main problem is simply becoming familiar enough all the concepts and licks to use them freely while improvising or comping. for as children learning to speak, we all had to commit the basic rules of the english language to memory until it was second nature. i feel it is the same way in jazz. thus, why i am trying to regiment the best ways to practice improv.

  8. #8
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    There are a number of things that make up improvising. One is the theory, another listening to tracks, another practicing licks, another intelligently approaching your soloing, seeking out ideas and integrating theory with practice. This is all you are doing.

    You want to work on Aural now - alluded to in my previous posts. Here is an idea. Take just a couple of changes - ones you sometimes trip over, or perhaps make it into a progression that can cycle around itself - something typical from the jazz standards, something simple where you are comfortable with the chords and scales and jazz voicings. Run a slow tempo and practice with your eyes closed. And listen. You can change the tempo and feel if you like. Keep it simple.

    I think you have spent too much time in your head with theory and knowledge - thinking this will produce solos. It is actually quite a way from how they occur. You just need to DO. Of course it takes a while, but you have to keep on Doing.

    The first progression I used was Dm - G7. Simply repeating that over and over again and coming up with licks…. and more and more. If you are comfortable with this, then change the changes. But DO the soloing. Amend the progression to what you stumble on. Make 4 bar cycles. If you want to record yourself just playing some simple comping to solo against. You know. Now just practice. And if you like a lick you come up with, stop and practice that idea so it comes naturally… then continue. Do not try to recall licks you have studied. This is recall, not improvisation. I never recite poetry when I am having a casual conversation with anyone. It is not about memorization. You need to develop an aural skill, which comes from just doing it, and being very patient.

    You mention children learning to speak. Remember they knew no grammar rules, no transitive verbs, no spelling. They just gave it a go word by word, then put a few together, then more. Then sentences. The understanding of linguistics comes much later.

    Be easy on yourself. It is meant to be fun so make it so. Take your guitar, sit under a tree, just close your eyes and doodle - for hours, without a thought to theory, circle of fifths, modes, alt changes. Just doodle. Work on the aural, the sound, the connections of those sounds to others (notes to others.)
    Be patient.

  9. #9
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    Oct 2009
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    You mIght want to check out the JBGI. Very effective method for guitar taught by Jimmy Bruno.

  10. #10

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    Speaking of all the modes, could someone list them all to me? In any key I don't care I'll transpose for all of them anyway. Keeps me busy. I've only ever heard of mixolydian and Dorian and I'm still pretty shaky as to what those are.

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