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Published on September 19th, 2012 | by Sam


The Missing Link in Learning to Improvise-Vocabulary

Part 1 of 3 Read Part 2 here

How were you first taught improvisation?  Many times teachers go straight for approaching improvisation (in jazz or blues or anything really) by starting with some scale work.  What scales ‘work’ over the chords.  What key is this in?  Then what scales work here.  And the players try using that method and come out sounding just a little…boring.  Or bored.

Scales Suck!

They just do.  Most people hate practicing them.  It’s tough to really describe what good they are outside of technical development.  There’s a lot of theory involved.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is value in them but it’s not all that practical.  It’s similar to how learning about the Boston Tea Party will help you later in life-it’s good for getting you to think differently, gets you into shape, and gives you some context.  But if you approach playing music from the perspective of scales first you’re not going to get very interesting results.

So what can I do?

I like to approach improvisation from a vocabulary perspective.  The idea is that you learn small pieces of music that you can form into a musical statement.  Let’s think about learning how to speak.

I have a daughter who is turning 4 this month (September 2012) so this stuff is really fresh for me!  First you start out just trying to formulate words by imitating everyone around you.  After trying at this for awhile you start to get a few.  Maybe mama, no, or dada, you know the essentials.  Then you learn more and more words as you grow, adding every day to your vocabulary.

Once you start trying to form sentences you still might get some words a slightly wrong but you’re still communicating.  You might even use some words in the wrong context altogether.  Over the years you finally get to a point where you’re communicating effectively-sometimes over many years.  The crazy thing is that during those first few years you probably only know the alphabet as a song if even that.   You probably aren’t thinking about the letters in the words or the grammar you’re using.

Hopefully in music it won’t take 4 years to even make sense!  But the idea is still the same.

  1. Instead of starting with phonics and the alphabet, start by trying to make words you hear from others (recordings).  You’ll probably get some of these ‘words’-or short musical phrases- wrong at first, but the important thing is to keep working at getting them right.
  2. Once you have a few of these together you should try to string them together to make a musical thought.  Still not paying attention yet to the scale or theory behind it.  It’s just raw music still at this point.   Again, you’ll make mistakes.  Using your vocabulary out of order or trying to force new ‘words’ into places they don’t belong yet.  It’s all the natural process of learning to speak the language.
  3. The next step is to really get into grammar or context of the music.  Think of grammar as where you’re placing the words and how you connect them.  The more music you get into the more you find where and when the licks work.  Right, it’s not just about knowing the vocabulary but how to use it!
  4. Eventually you’ll begin to speak the language of jazz, blues, whatever you’re going for.  You are putting things where they belong, using the right words, and maybe even bringing your own thing to the conversation.  Great!
  5. NOW is a great time to start trying to really infuse your personality and create something original.  You’ve probably already been adding your personality to the whole thing, but really focusing on originality and personality is really effective once you can speak a musical language effectively.

This concept isn’t new either-you’ve probably heard many times of players transcribing others.   Even painters copy the masters to get the ‘vocabulary’ of painting.  Authors, craftsmen, and coaches all do the same thing.  They study what has happened before and then internalized and assimilated it.  Finally they add to what’s already been done.

In part 2, we will look at how to find the ‘words’ to study.

One of the best things you can do to learn this vocabulary concept is to check out my book, Blues Language.  It is available now on Amazon as a paperback AND Kindle, so check those out and get this vocabulary thing in action!

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