in my final semester at TBC, i took a jazz history course taught by berklee faculty/trumpeter jeff stout. for our last class, he gave a lecture on how to learn or teach basic improvisation. i was really jazzed (yeah, yeah...pun intended, but seriously...) about his ideas and i thought they complimented my own ideas very well.

improvisation, jeff says, is the ability to hear something in your head and reproduce it instantaneously. in a sense, that's what composers do, as well; we tend to reproduce what we hear in our heads directly to paper instead of directly to an instrument. i've always thought of improv as super fast composition and composing as slow-mo improvisation. i've also always been better at the latter and worse at the former. so what does it take to get your ideas out of an instrument?
your instrument is a machine; it's a tool (jeff says). in order to improvise fluently, you have to know your machine, everything it can do, inside and out. we classical players usually learn all our major and minor scales (all forms, of course!), chromatic scales, and then if we're really diligent we learn whole tone scales and major, minor, diminished, major 7, dominant 7, minor 7, and full- and half-diminished arpeggios (arpeggii?). jazzers learn these too, but then they really go to town and start digging up all sorts of out-there scales and chords to learn. it would behoove EVERYBODY, regardless of stylistic training, to "really go to town" and learn as much as they can. even if you don't spend your musical life improvising, it does do wonders for your sight reading. but okay, so you can play all your scales and arpeggios up and down at lightning speed. now what?
now it's time to start making up patterns. classical players tend to get these out of books. well, the people who wrote those books got those patterns from somewhere, too: either from a piece they know, or from their own little heads. you can do the same! you'll remember them better, too, if you come up with the material yourself, but do feel free to borrow. these patterns should be "idiomless," that is the pattern itself does not have any inherent style. for example, a plain old scale played up and and down with even note values is a pattern that is found all over the place in all types of music. rhythm tends to define styles, so practice your patterns with even note values. once you know the patterns, they'll be easy to insert into different types of music; plug in the appropriate rhythms and you're off. you may argue that a blues scale is particular to a style of music, therefore it belongs to an idiom. true, but i'm not saying not to practice your blues scales (you'd be missing out on too much fun!); i'm saying not to practice them in a swing, bop, or funk style. keep it straight and even for your fingers' (or arms') sake; the rhythms will come easy when you can play the pattern at any speed and in any key.

it's jeff!

jeff says there are three basic types of patterns. scale patterns are diatonic and mostly by step, chromatic patterns are mostly by half-step, and arpeggios are built on chord tones. short patterns should be practiced as repeated patterns. as you get more savvy at making up patterns, you can move on to longer patterns that combine two or three of the basic pattern types. all patterns should be practiced in every key throughout the range of the instrument! if you have to write everything out at first, then you have to write everything out, but always push yourself to be able to transpose using your ears and your knowledge of theory (if you don't have any yet, you will after transposing hundreds of patterns into every key!), without having to write things out. jeff told us about dennis sandol, a jazz teacher in nyc (i think), who would make up flash cards with four-measure patterns on them; each week the student would get a new flash card to work on. nice suggestion!
we all know that learning patterns is not improvising, but those patterns are important because they'll be there for you when you are improvising. improvising needs to sound smooth and it won't if you feel like you're fishing all the time. learning lots of patterns is something that you go into for the long-haul. we also need to get some experience actually improvising. it may not be filled with tons of notes, like your typical bop line, but there are ways to get you listening and playing things that sound right. this is learning by ear. jeff has a three step plan for learning to improvise by ear.
step 1

pick a composition that is simple harmonically, memorize it in all keys. then alter the melody rhythmically.

jeff also says, know what key the song is in and know the form of the song. this may sound stupidly obvious to some, but remember that your improvisations should reflect these things. as far as harmonically simple tunes go, any blues tune is definitely one of the most satisfying things to jam on and always a great place to start. i have to say though, one of the best pieces of advice i picked up was from my pal and fellow umass alum, bassist jon robinson. when i said that i wanted to improvise more and should pick up some jamey aebersold cd's (always useful), jon said, what do you need cd's for? just turn on the radio and start playing along. rock and roll in most styles stick to very simple harmonic progressions. we all know about the three chord song (what amazes me is how many two chord songs there are! the sundays are masters at this...). this is just the type of material we are looking for: the melodies are simple, the harmonies are simple, which makes it all very simple to transpose into all keys. there are also twenty-trillion-billion-million folk songs out there, just waiting for you to use as an improvisational springboard. heck, even beethoven's "ode to joy" is rather simple harmonically (one secondary dominant, but i think we can handle this) and certainly simple melodically. go for it: learn it in all keys and move on to steps two and three. and for the classical stuffed shirts who think it's sacrilegious to improvise over beethoven, they can really just talk to the hand....

when you alter the melody rhythmically, you are beginning the process of improvising. you've got to change something on the spot, you've got to be creative. changing the rhythm stems from the tradition in the american songbook repertoire. gershwin, porter, berlin, carmichael...all those guys wrote down the melodies for their songs with a simple rhythm, but no one actually sings or plays them that way. no one, except for the exceptionally square. you have permission to explore and experiment (even from beethoven).

a note on memorizing: i find that i memorize faster vocally than instrumentally. if i can sing it from memory, then i can play it from memory that much faster. don't be afraid to walk around humming things all day (you probably do it already anyway...), and it's really okay if you don't have the world's most beautiful voice -- bob dylan sure didn't and he turned out okay...

step 2

arrive at a new melody, made up of half and whole notes

do this by trial and error. your ears will let you know when a note just doesn't quite fit (i've noticed that even 10 and 11 year old beginners have this ability, so don't worry that your ears don't work-- they do). the melody is a good source for notes, if you find that you are temporarily lacking in inspiration. pick a note out of the melody and hold it. as you move from note to note -- remember these are long note values -- try to keep it stepwise as often as possible. it will sound smoother, which will probably make you more comfortable. jagged melodies have a lot of tension in them, which may be what you're looking for, but i suspect most people beginning improv want to feel less tense about the whole ordeal, not more. why half and whole notes? because in a harmonically simple song, that's how fast the chords are changing. listen for how the one note you're playing sounds against the chord. jeff calls these half and whole note melodies "target notes," which other people often call "guide tones." whatever you call them keep them in mind, you'll be needing them in the next step. target notes will help you hear ahead of time what the next chord is, which will give your improvisation a sense of direction. one thing jeff didn't say to do, but i see no harm in, is to add rhythm to your whole and half note melodies. in other words, the pitches will still move at the same rate, that is slowly, one measure or maybe a half measure at a time, but make them funky, throw in some silences -- you'll have rhythms played on the same pitch. this is similar to my "one note jam" method, but the one note will change every measure (or half measure).

step 3

embellish and connect target notes

embellish and connect = use those patterns you've been working on so diligently! just make sure you land on those target notes; they keep everything together.

if you're having trouble keeping your place in the song or just improvising for the whole length of the song, jeff suggests that you break it up into two measures of melody, two measures of improv, two more measures of melody, two more measures of improv, and so on.