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The Language (Learning To Speak)
by Greg Lyons
The improvisers art is in the spontaneous creation of music based on an internalized language. The language in this case is commonly known as
jazz, which is simply a style based on the same language that Johann Sebastian Bach was using. Most of us will base our study of improvisation on
this language as it is contemporary and already quite broad in it's stylistic compass. This language gives us a foundation in rhythmic, melodic and
harmonic structure that allows us to forever expand, developing the template indefinitely according to our tastes.
How one develops that language is the subject matter of a fairly substantial industry these days. There is an enormous wealth of method books
available and this choice can sometimes confuse the issue.
While it is definitely worth checking every available avenue to explore, the same fundamental truths are still at the root of the matter: talent coupled with
hard work and passion will be the things that make you an effective improviser. The language must be learnt from nursery rhyme to thesis. The more
you confuse yourself with side-issues, the slower your progress in the main significant areas of development will be. There are no shortcuts, but a
good teacher can eliminate a lot of fluff from your workload.
You have to first address the issue of goals, both short-term and long-term. If your primary long-term goal is, for instance, simply to be able to sustain a
good standard of living from your earnings as a musician, you should develop an ability to play absolutely anything that might be required of you within
your working environment. If however you're one of those troubled souls (like myself) who feels they have something to say, and wish to be in demand
for your own creative expression, then your priority throughout is to maintain focus on your personal taste in performance and developing a fluency with
as much music as possible is more a question of expanding your own form of expression.
Then you have to plan your course and define short-term goals that will provide you with an immediate focus. One way that I like to focus the attention of
students at a basic level is to set a goal of being able to effectively take part in a jam session. This means we will be expected to be familiar with certain
repertoire and also to be able to engage the enthusiasm of our fellow musicians and the audience for our contribution.
This then gives us a set of priorities when it comes to working on our instrumental facility. I like to set these out clearly as it gives us a way of
apportioning our practise time.
1. SOUND - An absolute priority. Would we listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Beyonce or Cassandra Wilson if it weren't for that
magnificent, gut-wrenching tone? No. The musical statements we create can't possibly have any impact if we have a sound
like a squeaky door. We wouldn't enjoy playing much anyway, so it's doubtful whether we would stay with it long enough to
develop interesting musical statements. For all of us, it's a question of spending a good proportion of our time focused on just
2. EAR TRAINING - This really includes just about anything else that you work on. Everything has to be internalized. As
long as you need the notation of something, you haven't really learnt it yet. This is the largest area of study and is further
subdivided as follows:
Repertoire - The nitty-gritty for the young musician preparing for the jam session. This
involves first selecting a list of tunes that will be known by all jazz players. Then
selecting a tune to focus on, learning the melody, learning the chords, and once these
have been internalized, creating melodic lines that link the chords in the progression. As
you become more advanced, this should also be done in all keys, but initially you can
focus on just those keys it's likely to be called in.
Melodic Patterns - Take a favourite lick and learn it in all keys. Initially these should be
lines that melodically describe common cadences like the II-V-I, but eventually you will
start to use exotic scales and patterns to expand your palette. These lines should then
be worked into your repertoire practise - you can even write yourself a solo over the
form of a tune using some of the patterns in order to internalize the context in which they
can be used.
Transcription - A supplement to the previous 2. Basically anything you hear that you
want to play or understand, should be written down and learnt. We are learning an
existing form of communication, and while we don't want to be mere parrots, we have to
know how to use the language effectively before we can start to develop our own
"voice". By internalising some great jazz solo, we learn a massive amount of
information about melodic structure, melody-harmony relationships, phrasing,
dynamics, articulation, that is stored in our subconscious to be pulled out later to
enhance our own expression.
3. TECHNIQUE - Obvious really, but I try to limit the amount of "donkey-work" and consider that for an improviser, if it isn't
ear training: doesn't also expand our internalized vocabulary, it's fairly redundant. Beginners should be introduced gradually
to this kind of practise as the need for repertoire and vocabulary expansion is paramount. You should work on all exercises
to the point where you've really learnt it, then move on. I like to use the term saturation as this refers better to the feeling that
you're so familiar with something that you’re a bit mentally burned-out and need a change. For advanced players and those
really driven to improve, working on all intervals in all combinations will eventually give you a technical facility that will allow
you to expand your melodic vocabulary in inspiring and personal ways.