If you have ever studied improvisation with a serious teacher, it is pretty likely that at some point or other you were assigned to work on a transcribed
Whether doing a transcription yourself or working from someone else’s transcription, it sometimes seems to take a very long time before the new vocabulary becomes a part of your own solos in some form or other. In some cases, the new content never becomes natural, which can be frustrating to say the least. Obviously, one of the goals is to master the material so that it informs your improvisation, but to get there, several important pieces need to be
Hear it First
While improvisation is definitely helped by a knowledge of theory, it is ultimately guided by the ear, which means that the better you hear musical content the more likely it is to become a part of your playing. One recommendation you often hear is to learn to sing a solo along with the recording before transcribing it, and this does make transcribing much easier. That being said, singing along with the recording is only a first step.
The real test of having something in your ear is being able to sing it without any cues, which means singing it without the recording and without listening to it or playing it on your instrument first.
Approaching a long or complex solo this way would be laborious, but learning to independently sing a single lick or riff is very doable and will pay off
quickly. In working toward this, you should feel free to sing the material in a comfortable key and register which makes it easier to sing.
Because this activity is about learning and memorizing sound, this is not a once and done type of practice. You need to review the material you are learning over a period time. The more natural and error-free the singing becomes, the better you have learned the sound of that content and the more likely your inner ear will put it to use in improvisation.
The above mainly deals with learning melodic content, but an integral part to digesting the material is learning to hear the accompanying harmony as well. A simple way of approaching this is to sing the roots of the chords while listening to the recording or playing the melodic material on the piano.
Another option would be to enter the melodic content into music notation software and sing the roots while it plays. Singing basic harmonies based on other chord tones is also helpful. Essentially, making yourself responsible for singing the harmony along with the melodic material is one of the fundamental ways of processing this other important aspect of the music.
Nuts and Bolts
Understanding how each note functions in a given lick is very helpful in learning to use, adapt, and improvise with the vocabulary. Memorizing the lick
by its scale degrees, assigning the numbers one through seven to each note of the key, can help you work towards this. For example, by thinking in
scale degrees, you can more easily pick out underlying musical patterns or shapes and then use those in improvising your own version of the material.
A common exercise for working with a transcribed lick is to practice it in every key. Using scale degrees makes this process faster as you do not have
to continually reference back to the original key. Instead you can just think through the scale degrees at tough spots where your ears and fingers
fail you. Similarly, thinking in scale degrees also allows you to easily compare licks in different keys. This is the kind of flexibility needed to
easily improvise with new vocabulary in various keys.
Break it Down
One of the challenges of learning new vocabulary is that it is difficult to make a long phrase fit verbatim into a solo. In fact, studying the solos of
great improvisers suggests that our brains and ears do quite the opposite when improvising. Often, improviser’s lines can be chopped up into smaller
pieces that you see used in their playing again and again in different variations and combinations.
This suggests that instead of trying to incorporate complete phrases into improvisation, you should break licks down into smaller components. In some extreme examples, just two or three consecutive notes can be a basic idea. You will find that you often need more than that to complete an idea, but determine what the smallest satisfying amount of consecutive material is and work with that. Not only will you be able to learn it more quickly, but it will also be streamlined for improvising.
As soon as you begin to get comfortable with the material, start making it your own. Experiment with changing the lick or motive, and try to find other
musical possibilities you enjoy. This essentially equates to improvising in slow motion. There are lots of ways to approach this:
- Begin with the kernel of what you have practiced and continue it differently.
- Add embellishments or try to arrive to the most important notes in different ways.
- Reduce an idea to only its most important notes, and use that as a starting point.
- Focus on rhythm. Shorten or lengthen the rhythms or add your own syncopations.
- Alter notes as needed so that they suggest substitute harmonies.
Great improvisers work with their own vocabulary in similar ways every time they play. Doing this with new vocabulary helps process it and hones improvisational skills at the same time.
This kind of improvisational practice combined with singing, analysis, and streamlining will help you expand your musical vocabulary much more quickly then just transcribing or playing licks through all twelve keys.
All of these suggested activities represent important parts in the process of improvisation. Giving each of them their own consideration will go a long
way towards quickly expanding your vocabulary and making you a better improviser overall. Happy practicing!
About the author:
Ben Britton is the author of the “Complete Approach” series, in-depth studies on sound and overtones, and a blog, Everything Saxophone. His books have been endorsed by the likes of Dave Liebman and Ben Wendel. He is also a composer and performer and has played at major venues throughout the U.S. www.everythingsaxophone.blogspot.com.