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I've decided to post the contents of an email I received from a friend of mine who is an outstanding Tenorman from NY, Bob Amram-with his permission of course.

I have plans to submit an article authored by Bob outlining his exhaustive practice routine; designed to expand one's ability and horizons in creative improvisation. I thought this would make a nice primer outlining Bob's philosophy and approach. You can check out a few of Bob's performances via MP3 at:Myspace Page

Michael,
In an earlier email regarding neutral phrase based practicing, I stated that one's style and the way one ultimately thinks through the horn are significantly defined by the various artists one chooses to embrace and the relative ratio of time spent listening to each artist. I can not think of any artist who evolved within a vacuum. Furthermore, I think that it is a natural phase in one's development to imitate. However, the importance of one's library in moving beyond imitation can not be overstated. Along with my Coufs, my most valuable possession is my library.

In all my years, I have never studied a transcribed solo, and in fact, I consider such studies to be counter productive in regards to improvisation. Jazz improvisation is basically an oral tradition. Improvisation is ultimately a complex relationship between one's ears, mind and horn, in the same way that extemporaneous speech integrates the ears, mind, and voice. Remember, when we are flowing verbally, we put our faith in our preconscious mind and we are trusting that our verbal output, free of prethought, will accurately represent our preconscious intent.. In short, we think through our emerging verbiage. If we try to previsualize our word choice or consciously apply rules of grammar, we take our concentration away from our output and break the thought process. It is critical to note that a child, raised within a grammatically correct environment, will speak correct grammatically, even though they will be oblivious to any rules of grammar. No doubt that reading transcriptions has great value in refining ones reading capabilities. However, I really believe that one should study one's influences by listening, not reading and intellectual analysis, for the latter introduces mental habits that are contrary to improvisational flow.

Theory and harmony are valuable, but should come after one develops improvisational flow. Note that in language development, a child first learns to speak and then much later, learns grammar. Too often, because of the natural insecurities in improvisation, the fledgling improviser learns rules of theory and harmony, and then attempts to actively employ these rules while "constructing" his solo. This interjects a disruptive element to the flow - with the mind flipping between attendance to one's emerging sound while attempting to structure their output in conformance to rules as they have been "learned". This is the exact opposite to nature of language acquisition.

I view listening as training my mind for improvisation and I view it as an integral part of my practice regimen. To this end, I always listen through headphones because the audio perspective is a much closer approximation of what I experience while playing, Comparatively, speakers present a reference point from the audience.

So how does critical listening facilitate stylistic development and improvisational flow?

Style development

Stylistic development should be a natural consequence of our exploration of the great soloists. Throughout my life, if I discovered work that moved or intigued me, I would pursue it by acquiring as much of that artist's output as I could possibly obtain, including their earlier works. My rationale was that if I listened to a few recordings I would imitate, but if I listened to a broad library I would come to understand their language, how it evolved. To that end I would further ascertain their influences and acquire those works.

Ultimately, when I was younger, I would be able to listen to a performance and then proceed to improvise in that language, I would be speaking Pres, Hawk, Bird, Rollins, Sims, Dex, Trane, etc., as opposed to playing memorized licks. I learned their logic structure and in that sense hearing their works of lesser quality was as valuable as their prime material. As an example, I could always tell when Sonny Stitt waa either tired or on auto because he would repeated resolve his phrases to the tonic or when Dex was in overdrive because his use of space between phrases would basically disappear and he would be literally jamming one phrase into the next.

I let my heart define who I listened to and have never let what was currently en vogue define my tastes. (I could never understand what was gained by camps of exclusivity). I believe in the biological axiom of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ie. the stages of development of the embryo replicates the stages of evolution of the species. (example:at a point in the development of the human embryo, it has gills). In regards to improvisation, this means that one should embrace the logic of earlier stages of jazz as one grows artistically. One beauty of jazz improvisation is that, as in other art forms, it has the potential for growth and change reflective of the growth and change throughout your entire life (note the changes in Getz throughout his life).

If one examines the lives of the great painters and symphonic composers, they all studied - with varying degrees of assimilation- the art that preceded them. They all went through stages that were basically imitative of their prime influences, which is natural. However, they all had a firm understanding of what had gone before, and that allowed them to grow beyond the imitative. It is certainly acceptable to start with what is current, as long as ones intellectual mindset allows exploration both forward and backward. What artists ultimately move you will be different from my influences - but within those differences lie a major component of individuality. Influences will ascend and recede in our listening, which also contributes to the changes in our style, and that should be embraced. The landscape of performing jazz has dwindled significantly from my youth. A rich jazz library helps to offset some of the negative consequences of that state and keep your mind fresh.

Training your mind:

My goal in listening is never the pursuit of pleasure, though, paradoxically, I experience immense pleasure from listening. Rather, I view listening as training my mind, honing the skills that I view as essential in improvisation.

Ultimately for me, improvisation is defined by the art of creating phrases -the art of the phrase. One of my goals is to come to hear each phrase clearly defined as a separate entity and to do so without analysis of or reflection on that phrase, nor anticipation of the next. I trust that my mind is assimilating the defining aspects of length, direction, range, intervals, tonal characteristics, breath and attack,. melodicism, harmony, rhythm as well as its logical development from both the theme and previous phrases.

I use listening to train my mind to not maintain some form of parallel thought process. I believe that any such parallel thinking takes the mental focus away from your emerging phrase. It is only after listening that I delve into conscious analysis, but not during. I believe that whatever mental habits we employ in the listening experience tend to strongly carry over to the improvisation experience. To clarify experientially, try listening to a recorded book by a quality writer and a skilled reader. I guarantee that your verbal flow will improve and that you will find that your ability to speak in clearly defined phrases will improve. Yet, I doubt that you are actively analyzing during the presentation. We tend to accept this explicitly in verbal behavior but often feel compelled to violate this when learning to improvise.

I believe that in focused listening you train your mind to hear the individual notes in rapid passages. The ability to hear music in detail is an acquired skill and focused listening is critical to hearing in detail. I doubt that novice listeners hear the internal detail of Trane's more demanding passages. If you can not hear quickly, how can one play quickly? By the way, I think that the same is true for more unconventional harmony. I think that the common intial reaction to atonality is to be put off by the dissonance. However, listen enough to Anton Webern or Alban Berg and that dissonance becomes consonant, logical, melodic. Reach that point and the improviser has assimilated the non-conventional into their preconscious musical logic.

I strive in focused listening to build the capacity of hearing everything, but focusing on nothing.. This is precisely the state of mind that I strive for in improvisation. The longer that I can maintain that state, without breaks in concentration, the better I can sustain a solo. The more clearly I can hear the individual instruments in the rhythm section, while hearing my horn, the more they will influence my output and the fresher will be ideas, assuming a quality rhythm section. Focused listening help to train this skill. Incidentally, I always find accompanied bass solos to be useful, mainly because it affords an opportunity to focus on the light comping of the piano/guitar. Also, I make it a practice to bring focused listening to classical listening, which I view as the musical equivalent to lifting heavy weights in my physical workouts. Basically, if I can achieve the mental state of hearing everything but focusing on nothing for a complete Prokofiev symphony, it will make it easier to establish that state with a jazz quartet.

As I stated initially, I strongly believed that focused listening is an important, if not critical componant to one's daily practice regimen.

Later

Bob
 

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Thanks for posting this, it was a fascinating and very well written and argued essay from someone who quite obviously knows what he was talking about. I enjoyed every word of it, please do post more!

Your friend makes the point:

I believe in the biological axiom of ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, ie. the stages of development of the embryo replicates the stages of evolution of the species. (example:at a point in the development of the human embryo, it has gills). In regards to improvisation, this means that one should embrace the logic of earlier stages of jazz as one grows artistically. One beauty of jazz improvisation is that, as in other art forms, it has the potential for growth and change reflective of the growth and change throughout your entire life (note the changes in Getz throughout his life).
I think this is a very interesting point, but one difference that he doesn't mention is that every developing foetus aspires to the same genetic end game in it's development, ie becoming a fully developed human. This is not necessarily the case for sax players, ie we can choose what type of "animal" we wish to develop into and we therefore do not need to repeat the same "evolutionary path" as any other player or as jazz itself has taken. We are therefore free to select our own evolutionary future by choosing what we actively listen to and spend time playing as we develop into maturity as a player. The danger of this of course is that the further we stray from the well trodden path, the less we are able to "stand on the shoulders of giants", so in reality I think we have a lot more flexibility than a predefined path to a predictable outcome, but that at the same time studying and learning from previous great musicians must enhance and refine what we ourselves become. The difference being that we now have such a variety of influences both inside and outside jazz that we can decide to make our "evolutionary influencers". I hope this makes sense (I know what I mean :) )
 

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Excellent! Thank you for sharing.
 

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I really like that man's ideas. They somehow gave me the way of thinking about practising that re-motivated me to practise a lot.

Thanks a lot!
 

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I think exactly the same way about improvising, mostly because I struggled with the 'rules' at first and the rules made me afraid to make a mistake, so I basically decided @#%* the rules, and started just playing on tunes, I could hear what was happening, I just couldn't label it.

However, I do transcribe, I just do it more for training my ears, I never write the solo's out. I just learn them from memory.
 

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For a while, I've considered myself a sub-par saxophonist because I have trouble following (and therefore playing) transcribed solos. I don't, however, have trouble coming up with something to play when I listen to a song I want to improvise over. I suppose there's 2 camps of improvisation:

Imitate -> Innovate for those who learn well through transcriptions... able to build off of learning many different existing improvisations.

Integrate -> Innovate for those who learn well through listening to material as a whole, and take the ideas, rather than the specific notes, and incorporate them into their music.

I feel like I fall into the second camp, myself. I'm encouraged, because I thought I just wasn't good enough to play the transcribed solos, but now I know I just pick things up differently than those who advocate them. :cool:
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
I'm glad you enjoyed it too! You should check out his Myspace page, as he has put up some excellent additions to his MP3 improvisations that are definitely worth a listen.
 

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This is a great article, very well written and insightful. I love this quote: "I could never understand what was gained by camps of exclusivity."

This article might persuade some students to avoid transcribing solos or licks; I think this would be a mistake. While listening is incredibly important and is a lifelong study effort, there is great value in transcribing.

If you ignore theory, you lessen your ability to recognize what you are listening to. Or at the least you make it harder for yourself to identify what you hear. How do you know how to play that Sonny Stitt diminished lick if you don't know your diminished scales? How do you learn to play that series of ascending Coltrane patterns if you don't take the time to figure it out?

There is great value in studying the masters both aurally and in written form. While speech flows and excellent orators can do present wonderful verbal improvisations, you can safely assume that this person was a voracious reader. And isn't reading the written word the same as reading written music, whether it be a symphony part or a solo transcription?

Again, this is a great article. I'd love to attend a q&a session with him.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
cann0nba11 said:
How do you know how to play that Sonny Stitt diminished lick if you don't know your diminished scales?
I agree, transcribing the greats has personally helped me immensely. However I should mention that Bob played for a time with Sonny Stitt, held his own, and yet did NOT in fact bother to transcribe his, or anyone else's solos.

Just a bit of devil's advocate thown into the conversation.;)
 

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An informative post. Much respect to Mr. Anram. Although I do believe in transcribing, I also regulary practice what Bob calls "critical" or "focused" listening. I just started a thread http://forum.saxontheweb.net/showthread.php?t=71675 in which I described it as "persona meditation". I admit its a much more cumbersome description. Thanks for posting this SAXISMYAXE.
 

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I can definitely relate to that. I'm always listening to Coltrane, trying to understand how he played the way he did on songs, especially songs like Pursuance, Resolution, Focus on Sanity, Favorite Things live, just to name a few. Right now in my life as a saxophonist, the way he puts songs, those songs I listed especially, I'm just really confused and difficult to follow in my head. I figure if you got each key and chord variations ingrained in the membrane, it would be easily understandable to be able to whip out Improvisation in such a way.

Even though you said it's normal for people to want to imitate at first, it embarasses me to say to because I've heard from many musicians that I have a "good tone" and it seems like I should be able to have the self-inspired skills that it seems that people like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Charlie Parker had developed it all on their own. Solos and licks..I don't want to sound just like other people, but myself. Not saying that in a selfish way, but I just feel like a copy-cat..

After 10 years, I know I will be telling a different story, I want to keep getting better a better, unfortunately I'm getting impatient about it..but time will take its course. :)
 

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This e-mail really comes back to Bird's famous saying "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn."
I was born in the 90's, but I have become nearly obsessed with the idea of Jazz music. Sadly for me, I was not alive in the thirties to hear all of the world's great saxophonists crammed into an undersized K.C. Club; so it is harder to make that connection "between one';s ears, mind and horn".
 

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Not much of the insight, just sharing a little.

Through my life back in Russia and in US I observed the ways and methods different musicians used to develop their personal (or, sometimes, derivative) improvising styles.

I started playing in former Soviet Union back in 50's, when there was absolutely no jazz instruction and everything had to be tried and discovered on your own. So I and many others started with listening, then imitating, transcribing solos, learning the "licks", etc.

Bob's article is extremely good, but this is his personal method that probably many follow (even if they didn't read the article before). Regarding his opinion on transcribed solos, I bought some transcribed solos only when I moved to the States in 1983, when I was already 47. I have found that I got a lot about the form of the solos from listening and looking at the solo at the same time, but not for application of specific patterns. I think that actually transcribing the solo, as opposed to get it already transcribed, is many times more useful and educational.

Dave Liebman wrote somewhere that his advice to aspiring musicians is to take a solo you like and keep studying it until you can play it exactly like the original. I can't disagree more. I don't think that being a copy-cat is very creative, it easily could kill ones creativity.

I also believe that analyzing music always helped me, but that could be because I have a master's degree in physics. For me analyzing and suddenly understanding the structures within the solo is one of the greatest joys of music.
 
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