My thoughts on how to begin improvising. In the beginning, it's not about how much you know.
What Is Improvisation?
Improvisation begins in your mind. It's what you hear in your head while listening to music that isn't contained in the music itself.
It doesn't need to be fast or contain a lot of different notes. In fact, most memorable solos are not necessarily difficult, but instead rely on melody and counterpoint; two of the most basic principles of music.
A few of the most memorable sax solos in pop music in the sixties involved repeating the same note for most of the solo. While that would make for an extremely boring solo if it went on for very long, it fit right in for these songs.
A great ad lib solo just "fits." You may feel as I do, in that ad lib solos of certain recorded songs just don't sound right when you hear someone play it differently.
What you hear in your head is going to be different than what someone else hears. And that's what makes improvisation so wonderful. You may want to emulate the sound and ideas of someone else, but don't leave it there. Incorporate those sounds and ideas into your own playing and make them your own. Add your own touch.
Where to Begin
Since improvisation starts in your head, vocalize what you are hearing. See how it sounds in conjunction with the music when you hear both together.
If you know how to write musical notation, write down what you are vocalizing. Then play what you've written down on the piano or other instrument. Make sure to correctly enter the rhythm of the notes as well.
Be listening to musical artists of all genres. A good ongoing practice is to start putting to paper the notes and rhythms some of your favorite artists are using. You will begin to notice each artist has a certain style, and you will begin to recognize some artists as soon as they have played a few notes.
Putting what you are hearing down on paper is called transcribing music. When beginning this, don't take on a complex solo. You may just get discouraged instead of being inspired if you take that approach. Instead, start with a single phrase that you particularly like. See if you can figure out what they were doing. How does it fit in with the music? Does it lead into the next phrase?
Once you have transcribed a solo, or certain phrases that appeal to you, learn them on your own instrument. Practice them so they become your own. What I mean by that is get to the point that you just play them without really thinking about each note you're playing, instead of it sounding like you are reading music and just playing someone else's idea.
Silence Is Golden
The tendency of many musicians when first learning to improvise (and sadly, some that are way beyond the beginning stages) is to throw as many notes as they can into their solo. After all, it's their time to shine, right? Not necessarily.
Although there is a time to "light it up," generally speaking, those situations are not the norm. I relate it to hearing "screaming" trumpets. Yes, playing super high is a skill that many never achieve, can be very impressive, and can have a wonderful affect on the listener. However, it isn't nearly as effective or impressive the fifth song into the set as it was for the first song when you're hearing it during every song.
Similarly, hearing someone throw in a lot of notes - scales, arpeggios, altered scales, etc. - may show off their technical skills and be very impressive for a while. It begins to get old if you are hearing it song after song. Many times it doesn't seem to really take you anywhere. When I was in high school and we heard a solo like that, we used to call it "wandering aimlessly."
The old Star Trek series started out by saying: "Space, the final frontier ..." If you listen to accomplished musicians, those who aren't feeling the need to impress anyone in order to keep their jobs, you'll find many of them use space, the notion of not playing anything, just as importantly as any note they might put in. Space can have a dramatic affect, create tension, or give the listener a brief moment to sigh with anticipation.
You don't need to be playing every second.
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