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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

The best way to approach developing improvisational skills is to think of it in two equally (but inseparable) strategies. Pattern based, where the music thought, motif, phrase is already stated or created, and Theory based, where rule or better "convention" dictates what notes are fertile for generating music.

In Theory...

I watched an old friend of mine talking to our High School math teacher at our 25th year class reunion. I listened intently when Dirk cornered the man and explained that after 25 years, he recalled that when you take the long side of a right triangle, the sum of the other two sides squared would equal the square of that side. It was expressed in math with the equation symbolically A2 plus B2 = C2 ...

"Excellent!" quipped Mr. McKinley. "After all these years of hard work teaching, it's quite rewarding to know that what I was teaching, that which you struggled with so antagonistically, proved ultimately useful in shaping young lives."

"Well, no," returned Dirk. "I just thought it was important to tell you that I remembered the equation. But in all of 25 years, I've never actually used it."

Disheartening, to say the least, is the idea of wasting hours of time learning the theoretical structure in the academic "laboratory," and never actually using them in the real world, music theory not exempt. An approach I use as my charter is to always apply the application alongside the "rule." As in any music, context trumps principle.

Patterned After Greatness...

A guitarist friend observed how another six-stringer was exhibiting his playing prowess prior to jazz band rehearsal. The most amazing riff was coming out of his amp as others stopped what they were doing to listen. My friend was chuckling and confided in me, "Mike has two only two licks... You're about to hear the second one."

He was right; throughout the rest of the rehearsal, it became obvious the young man only had two patterns in his repertoire. Lush, complex, but confining after being stated for the 20th time each time he was offered a chance to solo. A little music theory would have really enhanced his creativity, but at least he had a starting point. He just needed to take the next step.

Theory Based (Conventions):

Fewer notes which exploit musical meaning through tension/resolution
Quicker access to "appropriate" melodic material
Elimination of not only wrong notes, but modal meandering

Sterile and clinical, not prone to creativity by itself
Cerebral, artistically dispassionate
Less prone to the intrinsic beauty of "chance"

Pattern Based (Riffs):

Immediate and accessible melodic material
Readily tactile and easily transported to other keys
Musically complete "thought" in short context

Limiting when not "metamorphasized"
Stagnant and recognizable when repeated often
Dangerously "comfortable"

Ideally, learning music theory opens a breeding ground of melodic creation. The problem is a student can get trapped into playing scale, scale, and scale, or mode, mode, and mode. Even an occasional arpeggio can be tiresome without the higher principles of contrary motion or phrasing. But, it's a start, and unless you know the guide tones of the chord, the notes of the scale, the notes around them and the "gravitational pull," all you are capable of generating is the musical equivalent of babble.

Knowing "riffs" or "licks" is actually a good starting point and lends itself as a terrific send off for further melodic and harmonic development. The idea is to stretch these phrases by applying principle to content—taking the pattern to the next level.

I suggest learning as many scales and arpeggios as you can. Learn them in your brain and fingers so that the notes within them can be tagged and identified at the speed of light. The next step is to take patterns you like, "steal" them from your favorite players, and "push the principle." Certainly transpose them to other keys, but why stop there? The next step is to vary them rhythmically, take notes out, add notes, throw in an altering chord, but apply sound music theory along the way.

Sound too cerebral? Many argue that music is just "created." It comes from nowhere. I argue that the great musicians only make it seem like it's from nowhere. The beauty is we can never know what "analytical" processes go on in an artist's brain, all we have is the aural result. We can, however, guess and along the way, come up with some unique and individual concepts of our own.

Let's take a sample pattern or riff and do some exploring. This is a nice little ‘ii V7' riff in the key of F Major.

Now it's easily moved into the same song, different chord environment, but easily repeatable in rhythmic and melodic content:

Note we haven't left the key, and we are still able to maintain at least a resemblance to the Base Pattern. Now we are just "improvising" on the tonic chord. We've added a "freshness" simply by changing the harmonic environment.

Next we can totally transpose into a new key center by moving everything up a whole step. This is not uncommon in Western (European) music, especially in jazz.

Let's think "rhythm" and alter the base pattern slightly with a little rhythmic embellishment:

We have changed very little melodically, and deliver a consistency in our "composition."

We don't necessarily have to make it more complex, we can also simplify. Here we remove the chaff relying on the more nutritious chord tones. You don't always have to ADD notes! (This is where the benefit of music theory DOES have its place...)

Another trick would be taking rhythmic ideas within a riff and swapping them. Melodic content stays close, and though we haven't made it any more complex, we give the impression of something new:

We can have just as much fun by taking one appealing rhythmic motif, and repeating it through both measures:

And, of course, just as much fun grabbing yet another fun melodic motif. Again, it won't have to be complicated to you, but your audience will consider you quite clever!

Note that you don't abandon music theory. The underlying sound, academic principles remain; we have emphasis on the appropriate chord tones, some gentle tension/resolution motion, yet we haven't completely exhausted the endless possibilities on just two measures.

Improvisation does not have to be intimidating! It merely requires a good starting point, and the tiniest bit of creativity. Combine the two approaches, Pattern Based and Theory Based, and you can come up much quicker with your own beautiful solos.

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