Write an Etude, Become a Better Improviser

Writing EtudesThis guest post is from Randy Hunter of RandyHunterJazz.com.

There are a lot of steps on the road to becoming a top notch jazz improviser. You learn the technical aspects of playing your instrument, practice scales and patterns, study harmony and ear training; then you have to work at assembling your ideas in a creative and logical manner – on the spot! This may seem to be a somewhat overwhelming and daunting task. In my search for creative ways of practicing and teaching, I have discovered that one of the most effective ways of learning to assemble your musical ideas is through etude writing.

Enter the Etude

I’ve written and used etude books as instructional methods in my private lessons studio for many years. The use of the books alone provides a wealth of material for improving reading, stylistic interpretation, and phrasing skills. In this article, however, I’ll discuss the process of etude writing as a means of learning to incorporate the various harmonic, rhythmic, and technical aspects of your practice routine into your improvised solos.

Before continuing, it’s important to establish the definition of an etude. While a song or an improvised solo is designed to tell a musical story, an etude is more along the lines of a musical exercise designed to develop technique, rhythm, or any specific musical concept.

Laying the Foundation

The first step in writing an etude is to determine the chord structure and form of your composition. You may choose to create an original chord progression designed to target specific chordal movements, or you may choose to use the chord progression from a certain standard jazz tune. My suggestion for your first etude is the latter.

By selecting the chord changes from a standard you are currently targeting in the practice room, you will be able to get right to work on your etude. After all, you are creating a musical study as opposed to a song. A 32-bar set of changes with an AABA form, such as the chord changes to Duke Ellington’s “Take the A-Train,” makes an excellent musical canvass for constructing an etude.

Your Musical “Pallette”

Continue by assembling a musical palette consisting of two or three harmonic and rhythmic components that will be used in your etude. This list should include things that you are currently practicing such as rhythms you are working to master (maybe triplets are posing problems), harmonic concepts you are working to incorporate in your playing (maybe you are working on pentatonic scales), and specific embellishments or patterns. Either way, keep your list short. You can’t learn everything in one etude, and you want the etude you are writing to intensively target the concepts included.

Begin writing your etude by establishing an opening motif, or musical statement that you will develop, repeat, or repeat with variation throughout the etude. Keep it simple and musical; a one or two bar singable phrase is perfect for developing.

As you continue, be certain to include each component from your musical palette with regular consistency throughout your etude. For example, if your etude has a 32-bar AABA form and your palette contains triplets and pentatonic scales, be sure to use triplets and a pentatonic scale passage at least once in every 8-bar section.

Avoid run-on musical sentences and work to create phrases that make your etude sound as logical as possible. Remember, you are not necessarily trying to write a great solo, just a sensible, melodic etude that incorporates things you are working on in the practice room. If you’re not happy with the final product, toss it in the circular file and start again.

Taking it to the Next Level

As your etude writing skills develop, try using the same concepts to write etudes over different chord progressions. You may also work at writing a series of etudes on the same chord progression that include progressively more difficult concepts.

I have personally found that writing etudes is an excellent practice method for learning to assemble your musical ideas. By creating musical studies that incorporate rhythmic and harmonic components of your daily practice routine, you’ll learn to organize your ideas in a manner that is both creative and practical in advancing your aspirations to be an accomplished jazz improviser.

Study with Randy

Randy offers a series of online jazz lessons and beginning sax lessons in podcast format. He also offers personalized lessons by email, in addition to private lessons in his studios in the North Atlanta area. Visit his websites at www.randyhunterjazz.com and www.beginningsax.com, or drop him an email at randy@randyhunterjazz.com for more information.

If you are interested in additional instruction in etude writing, Randy has a free lesson called, “Etude to Improv” on the “Free Stuff” page of his website as well.