I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that unless you a super-advanced and possibly professional improvising musician, you sometimes struggle to come up with new stuff to play in your solos.
Next, I’m going to go out a bit farther out on that limb and guess that many of you look to resources outside of yourself, such as the gobs and gobs of educational resources you can find both online and in countless method books to augment (pun intended) your current arsenal of improv vocabulary.
And that’s great!
But…what if I told you that you are probably already sitting on an untapped treasure trove of material for your solos?
Don’t believe me?
As yourself this simple question:
“Can I play everything I clearly hear in my head?”.
To answer that question for yourself beyond a shadow of a doubt, try the four following exercises.
As you practice these, please note that the key here is to START SLOW. You can always crank up the tempo later, but in the meantime, you have nobody to impress. The only thing that matters here is unlocking the melodic material that’s already inside of you.
Exercise #1 – Play Back Your “Scat” Solos
- Locate or download an audio recording app on your smartphone (there are a ton of free recording apps if you don’t already have one installed), or any recording device for that matter. Sound quality is of no importance here.
- On a separate device, put on any LOW-TEMPO jazz play-along track, be it Aebersold, iRealPro, a backing track you find on YouTube, or whatever.
- Now, record yourself singing a short solo over the track with as much clarity as possible. This means you’ll want to go slow enough to where the pitch of every single note you’re singing comes out intentionally and crystal-clear, as though it were coming out of a musical instrument. Avoid vague melodic shapes or fast flurries of notes where you aren’t completely aware of the pitches that you’re singing.
- Play the recording of yourself singing and going phrase-by-phrase (or 2-8 bars at a time, hitting pause or stop between each phrase), and notice, on your first attempt, how accurately you can play back everything you hear yourself singing on the recording. Depending on how long of a solo you sang, you may just want to do this with just a few phrases, as it can become a pretty long process to try and play back the entire sung solo.
At any rate, if you were able to immediately and accurately play back the slow-note solo you sang, then big kudos to you – you’re well on your way!
But if you’re finding yourself struggling with this exercise, then that’s OK – it just means you have a bunch of untapped melodic material for your solos that is yours for the taking. Now it’s just a matter of repeating this exercise until you can tap into that good stuff.
The next step would be to see if you can make a similar recording of yourself singing, but at a faster tempo and try playing that back. Of course, most of us aren’t Ella Fitzgerald or Bobby McFerrin, so there will be a limit to how fast we can sing, but see how high you can crank up the tempo and still play back the notes you’re singing on the recording.
Exercise #2 – Call and Response With Yourself
- Find a slow play-along/backing track where you’re sitting in just one key, like an extended modal tune or a repeating ii-V vamp, although you could also just do this with a metronome.
- Clearly (which probably means slowly) sing a melodic phrase over the track or metronome.
- Now, try to immediately play back what you sang in real time.
How did that go? If you were able to repeat everything you sang in real time, then that’s pretty awesome!
As in exercise #1, see how much you can crank up the BPM’s until that point where you’re no longer able to sing a solo with accuracy and clarity. Unless you’re nailing this exercise, once again, you’re probably sitting on an untapped trove of “jazz gold”.
Exercise #3 – “Compete” With Yourself
- Once again, grab a track to play over, although, as in the previous exercises, you can always just use a metronome if you are super-familiar with the changes you’re playing over.
- Start by clearly singing an improvised phrase of anywhere between 2 and 8 bars (although sticking with an exact number of measures isn’t mission-critical).
- Next, with your horn, respond to what you just sang by playing a different improvised phrase, as though you were trading off, or maybe even “battling” with another horn player.
If your horn is getting its butt kicked by your voice (in other words, you’re digging what you’re singing more than what you’re playing), then you’ve got some potentially great improv material that needs liberating.
As always, you can keep cranking up the tempo until you hit a wall with your singing chops.
Exercise #4 – “Finish Your Own Sentences”
- Grab a slow play-along track or fire up the metronome with the BPM set low and slow.
- Start singing a solo, again, with as much clarity as possible.
- At any given point in your vocal solo and in real-time, put the horn in your mouth and “take over” the solo by finishing on your instrument whatever you were likely to sing.
If you’re finding that the transition from singing to playing doesn’t feel smooth, natural, and intentional, then you’ve got some (super-rewarding!) work ahead of you.
The “(Temporarily)” Caveat
Although the title of this article asks you to “put aside all improv videos and books” – I should add that these exercises can offer weeks, months, or possibly even years of practice room material, so I wouldn’t suggest that you put aside all other materials until you fully conquer these exercises. Unless you master these within a matter of days or a few weeks, of course you’ll want to go back and forth between these exercises and other practice fodder, like books, videos, courses, and any other external resources available just to keep your practice sessions fresh and inspired.
So that’s it for now, just remember, this is all about stretching yourself. As mentioned earlier, you have nobody to impress in the practice room, so go slow and don’t be afraid to seriously stumble at first.
Like any other challenging practice room activity, with even a minimal amount of focused effort, you’ll start seeing results way before you’ve anywhere-near mastered the challenge at hand!