A few weeks ago, I was talking to a colleague about a practice session that I had earlier in the day with another saxophone player.  In the session, we talked about what we had been practicing.  Both of us had been practicing some theory and math-heavy improvisational concepts.  The colleague asked if those sorts of ideas were what the improvisation course at the Manhattan School of Music had covered when I was there.  I said that yes, to a certain extent, the improvisation courses dealt with fairly calculated ways of constructing solos — using certain rules or formulas to generate solos that sounded like the jazz idiom.  Perhaps not true “improvisation” in the purest sense, but a great way to show a player how to achieve a certain sound.

The colleague mentioned that he wondered why there isn’t more focus on melodic improvisation in music education.  By this, I think he meant focusing on how to make our solos naturally melodic and improvisatory rather than focusing on specific rhythmic or harmonic devices that end up “forcing” a player to play certain things.  Maybe a good analogy would be the difference between writing a freeform story with no constraints as opposed to being given an outline of the plot and specific vocabulary words to use while writing an essay.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this since he brought this up.  The question I keep coming back to, is how does one teach melodic improvisation?  In classical education, melodic composition is often taught with “motivic development,” which encompasses a set of devices that can be used to alter a melody and develop it over time.  All the devices (augmentation, diminution, inversion, etc) are certainly applicable to soloing, but do they really teach the player to be any more melodic than the harmonic and rhythmic devices do?  After all, it’s still using a set of rules to achieve the result.

It seems like improvisation courses should be as comprehensive as possible, including information on harmonic and rhythmic formulas, melodic/motivic development, free playing, etc.  It’s the combination of all of these devices that creates a great solo in an experienced player.  Unfortunately, the reality is that it takes a huge amount of time to study and internalize all of these devices and be able to apply them in real-time during a solo.  A one year improvisation course can cover a lot of theoretical ground, but the time that it takes a player to be comfortable using the information will almost certainly be longer.


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