My 60-Second Eye-Opener
I was sitting in harmony class during my second semester at Berklee in Boston when the teacher was entertaining a conversation on improvisation. This was a time for me – and at least most of the other students in the class – when the concept of improvisation seemed mystifying.
I had been exposed to some jazz lessons back home, so I was exposed to scales, patterns, and other improvisation strategies. However, I was not at any point where it had come together for me. Also, I had familiarized myself with publications covering the topic of improvisation which also placed emphasis on chord arpeggios, scales, and patterns.
I Had My Doubts
So, by this time, I was pretty well convinced that it was going to take in-depth study and application of these technical concepts if I was going to become any kind of player worth talking about. Discipline was not my forte. It seemed like I had been “plopped” into this field of music for which I had some decent ability yet was lost in the dust with this whole improv thing that I felt I needed to get a better handle on.
This conversation between George (the teacher) and a couple of students was brief, maybe a minute long. But it had enough impact on me to change the direction of my walk along this magical road of improvisation.
I had seen George perform at the local Eliot Lounge with another teacher, performing bebop tunes. I’ll just say that his improvisational abilities were impressive enough to blow me away. That resulted in what he said in that brief conversation to carrying even more weight.
In his own words, he informed the class that he didn’t learn to improvise by practicing scales (while sweating chord-scale relationships), arpeggios, patterns, and the like. Instead, he had learned by learning the melody of a tune very well and then simply learned to play around it.
Somewhere along my journey, I had previously heard of that. But the way this guy explained it so very simply, along with the fact that he was an improvisational monster from my perspective, solidified it for me. Wow! Although I don’t want to sound cliche-ish, I truly felt like this huge weight was taken off my shoulders!
As I look back to that day in class, it just might have been the 60 seconds of my time at Berklee that held the most value for me. As time progressed, this approach to improvisation made more and more sense. In addition, when coaching my private students who aspire to improvise, it has literally been responsible for more confidence and efficiency when it comes to helping them.
Instant And Coherent Improvisations
None of what I am saying here is meant to be construed to mean that I don’t place value on improvisation at a deeper level, learning and applying chord-scale relationships, arpeggios, patterns, and other techniques. However, this simple approach to improvisation leads to INSTANT RESULTS. It really does.
Furthermore – and this is so very significant – by using this simple procedure of playing around the melody, your respect for that melody is maintained at a very high level. I’m not personally able to name any prominent improvisational giants who wouldn’t say that’s a good thing.
As one who has little or no improvisation experience, are you sensing a ray of hope or excitement?
You have reason to.
Along with any future current or future improvisational efforts you make, if you incorporate this approach on a regular basis, your improvisations will have coherency. That is a quality that is lacking on behalf of so many improvisers, even some who have years of experience.
The Melody Is Your Guide
So, how do you go about it? It’s really quite simple. Learn the melody of that tune so well. Then, little by little, play around that melody by approaching certain melody notes by half steps, whole steps, etc. The point here is that you want to learn to embellish the melody rather than eliminating it or overtaking it. With practice, this becomes such a natural experience for you that you’ll even have the confidence with leaving the melody and returning to it in a tasteful fashion. During the entire time, you remain gravitated to the melody, which makes for a coherent solo.
As I mentioned, my excitement for this approach began a long time ago. The two reasons for this:
- It’s simple – anyone can do it
- It’s tasteful – ultimately, your solos sound more professional
Would you like to explore this improvisational concept a little further? I created a video/guidebook combo that you can gain instant access to. The nice thing about this is that you don’t have a lot to watch or read. Watch the short video a few times, read through the brief guidebook, and let your imagination take you to places you haven’t yet visited!
Below is the first couple of minutes of the video session showing the concept being employed along with a few introductory words from me:
In this session, we’ll be using this short excerpt of Georgia On My Mind:
Just for this post, I thought I would also create a short impromptu video showing an example of how this easy improvisational strategy can be applied to another popular standard:
As you engage in this fun adventure, may I offer you a suggestion that, if followed, will lead you to a much more satisfactory experience? Here it is:
Learn to enjoy the process rather than being anxious for the perfect result.
Please read that again and really absorb its message. Trust me, if you are a beginning improviser, I can relate to your mindset… the passion… the desire to “get good” at this stuff… please remember this: you are getting involved in a creative field. Along with that, where creativity is to thrive, anxiety must not arrive.
Don’t be in a hurry to “be a master.” If you want to be an instant master at something, then master this attitude, go to your instrument with joy and enthusiasm while playing with these concepts, let your imagination run wild, and…
PLAY WITH PASSION!