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In my experience this is something that many intermediate players keep struggling with, and especially the key aspect of: how to understand the progression of chords and really GET what is happening on the most fundamental level. So in this saxophone lesson I will dive into understanding and training this most amazing and illusive saxophone skill: Improvising over the chords / playing the changes / soloing over the harmonic progression. I will take my time and try to explain every important detail that can help you wrap your mind around both the HOW and the WHY of this amazing saxophone skill and we will finish with two amazing exercises that you an do over the next few days and apply to the song we are learning (Footprints by Wayne Shorter).


for more in-depth materials like this, check my advanced improvisation lessons
 

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For me, that was an extremely good explanation. An added bonus was your background information which gave context to what harmony is.
 

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I want to thank you for this video.... it explained the ideas for improv in a different way for me that helped me to better understand the way to imagine and think about it in regards to harmony. This has always been a difficult subject for me to understand and reason through in my mind.... and your insights helped me to see and think about it differently..... and perhaps will help me be more “intuitive” about how I try to focus on this as I try to grow better at it.
 

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A good "follow up" to the concepts introduced in this video is the Jamey Aebersold volume 54 "Maiden Voyage" popular with jazz educators. The tunes have easy "entry level" changes, and Aebersold provides the changes with the melody written out for all instruments. Also in the improv section for each song he spells out the scale/mode that accompanies the chord with the chord tones emphasized.

One thing that should be emphasized is that the scales that fit each chord are not the notes to play when improvising, but the "pallet of notes" to choose from to create your own melodic ideas. Simply running up and down the scale or portions of the scale will give an improvised solo a "mechanical and unimaginative" feel. Also, all notes of the scales are not "created equal". Thirds, sevenths, and ninths tend to give a lot of harmonic interest---especially with logical voice leading. Other scale tones work better as "passing tones".
 

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Well, the video illustrates one way to consider improvising, but it's not the only way. For those who have a smidgen of talent you can engage your creativity directly and skip the mechanical phase altogether. Music is about communication. If you have a tune you can hear or a variation on a tune you know, then it's a matter of bringing that forward. We all have a voice (even if we aren't good singers), and that's where we can use our sax to sing for us.

A simple practice is to sing a tune we know or variations of it. The harder part (and it can take a quite a while to master) is to make the sax our voice. Try to sing a line, then play it on the sax. Start with a simple line. Always sing and play within the rhythm and don't stop, even if you hit a wrong note. Just keep going and keep your rhythm. Ideally what makes for a good or great player is that they make music that is a personal statement and communicates with their audience. The more personal the better, and this can be recognized in every great player.

The method prescribed in the video is the musical equivalent of "paint by the numbers". It requires no creativity and doesn't ask you to conceive of a tune or any flow of notes that says anything to anybody. It's simply a formulae that asks you to read a chord designation and interpret that as notes to be played...without even knowing the sounds you're going to make! The notes will fit the structure, but will say nothing else. It's a system that presumes that the player has no talent so gives a mechanical solution and calls it improvisation. However is it really improvisation if you're just playing a bunch of notes without hearing or conceiving of what you're playing? Unfortunately there is a presumption that ultimately you'll become familiar enough with your instrument that you'll "somehow" suddenly be able to play what's in your head.

In the same way that we are what we eat, we are also what we practice and play. The result of playing changes in a mechanical method (as described in the video) seems to be someone who just plays strung togehter (cut and paste) riffs and arpeggios and attempts to become better and faster at that. If that's your goal, have at it. You'll find lots of company at open mike nights where it resembles a "fastest gun in the west" competition more than music that will entertain an audience.

The method in the video can work, but IMHO is a road to nowhere, and a waste if you have any talent. If you are using your eyes first (looking at a chord chart), then translating that into a series of possible notes, how are you thinking about a melodic or even an interesting line to play that will have meaning? The sax in that situation is the last consideration or the sounds will emerge. There is no direct connection between you and the sax. The alternative is to make a direct link between what you want to hear and the notes you play on the sax. You hear a note, you play the note automatically. The challenge is to make the sax your voice without reading, translating, or blocking your creativity. It will take a lot of work, but you will get there.

If that seems like it's too difficult, you can join the thousands of other players at the open mike night to work on how fast you can play...and say nothing.
 

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Well, the video illustrates one way to consider improvising, but it's not the only way. For those who have a smidgen of talent you can engage your creativity directly and skip the mechanical phase altogether. Music is about communication. If you have a tune you can hear or a variation on a tune you know, then it's a matter of bringing that forward. We all have a voice (even if we aren't good singers), and that's where we can use our sax to sing for us.

A simple practice is to sing a tune we know or variations of it. The harder part (and it can take a quite a while to master) is to make the sax our voice. Try to sing a line, then play it on the sax. Start with a simple line. Always sing and play within the rhythm and don't stop, even if you hit a wrong note. Just keep going and keep your rhythm. Ideally what makes for a good or great player is that they make music that is a personal statement and communicates with their audience. The more personal the better, and this can be recognized in every great player.

The method prescribed in the video is the musical equivalent of "paint by the numbers". It requires no creativity and doesn't ask you to conceive of a tune or any flow of notes that says anything to anybody. It's simply a formulae that asks you to read a chord designation and interpret that as notes to be played...without even knowing the sounds you're going to make! The notes will fit the structure, but will say nothing else. It's a system that presumes that the player has no talent so gives a mechanical solution and calls it improvisation. However is it really improvisation if you're just playing a bunch of notes without hearing or conceiving of what you're playing? Unfortunately there is a presumption that ultimately you'll become familiar enough with your instrument that you'll "somehow" suddenly be able to play what's in your head.

In the same way that we are what we eat, we are also what we practice and play. The result of playing changes in a mechanical method (as described in the video) seems to be someone who just plays strung togehter (cut and paste) riffs and arpeggios and attempts to become better and faster at that. If that's your goal, have at it. You'll find lots of company at open mike nights where it resembles a "fastest gun in the west" competition more than music that will entertain an audience.

The method in the video can work, but IMHO is a road to nowhere, and a waste if you have any talent. If you are using your eyes first (looking at a chord chart), then translating that into a series of possible notes, how are you thinking about a melodic or even an interesting line to play that will have meaning? The sax in that situation is the last consideration or the sounds will emerge. There is no direct connection between you and the sax. The alternative is to make a direct link between what you want to hear and the notes you play on the sax. You hear a note, you play the note automatically. The challenge is to make the sax your voice without reading, translating, or blocking your creativity. It will take a lot of work, but you will get there.

If that seems like it's too difficult, you can join the thousands of other players at the open mike night to work on how fast you can play...and say nothing.

Hmmm, I like your philosophy.. But does it sell books?
 

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totally agree with @whamptoncourt

if this was the key to improvise there would be no singers improvising, none of which concern themselves with these matters.

Sonny Rollins said that you can’t think and play at the same time


108377
 

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Hmmm, I like your philosophy.. But does it sell books?
Ha! Doesn't sell books, on line lessons, and worst of all doesn't promise to make everyone a great improviser. The "T" word (talent) isn't much liked in the world of music teaching. Funny how it's necessary in almost every other discipline. The "profession" pretends that everybody is talented but teaches them as though they aren't. Ironic, dishonest, or just dumb?
 

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I have seen people struggling for years stumbling behind the theory ( which they never understood) spending money with teachers and schools and in the end, when they were improvising, most of the times they simply followed the interior “ voice"
 
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To me, the video is a very good introduction to what “playing over chord changes” means and what it involves at the most basic level. For beginners and others who don’t know what that technique is, the video is valuable and concisely explains the reasoning in a methodical, progresssive manner which would take far longer if someone were to search forums and websites for an explanation.

I think this is good teaching. So many times I’ve seen instances where people give explanations for concepts, but don’t realize their explanation contains knowledge which the students don’t have yet. One of the signs of good teachers is that they realize what their students don’t know.

So, as an introduction it is good. What a person will need later when playing gigs or with a group can be developed after this basic understanding.
 

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I think there were some useful concepts in this video which probably could have been explained more succinctly, in a couple or three minutes instead of almost 27 minutes (yes, I did watch the whole thing). But that is not uncommon in these sorts of things.

For a beginner to improvisation, playing chord/scale tones over the changes in the manner indicated in the video is probably a useful exercise for many (including me). It is of course not, in and of itself, how one actually creates an improvisation, and to be fair I don't think it was being presented as such. Bergonzi's "Inside Improvisation," for example, initially presents exercises that are simply different arpeggio orderings over the changes, and as exercises for beginning improvisation I think they are useful as a starting point, to gain familiarity and facility with the concept and its execution. And as saxoclese points out, the Aebersold approach, especially on Maiden Voyage, is very useful for developing this as well (I am playing tunes from that Aebersold book, as well as others, using this method).

I did like the analogy to story (melody) and background (harmonic progression), but it might have been even better had he also pointed out that for any given story (melody) there can be different backgrounds (harmonies) that apply. That might be useful info for some folks still learning about harmony (like me).

But on the whole I found it lacking much substance, or at least the substance that I am most seeking. I am still learning to improvise, and find myself using two different approaches: following my inner voice (as milandro mentions) and trying to play chord/scale tones over the changes. The expression of my inner voice often seems limited, so I am trying to learn to play over the changes in a way that is not simply creating various arpeggio voicings but actually creating something that is melodically and rhythmically interesting.

I agree with the Sonny Rollins quote that you can't be thinking and playing at the same time, and I find myself thinking too much when trying to play chord tones, but I hope that through repetition it just may eventually move from thinking to feeling, and just playing. Not there yet.

Ideally, I'd like to get comfortable and familiar enough with playing chord/scale tones to play solos that integrate them into my inner voice without thinking about them. Right now my inner voice likes to stick to certain stock scales and licks and such, without much variety or development. Hoping that by keeping on practicing playing chord tones I will be able to expand my vocabulary, both melodically and (perhaps even more important) rhythmically, in a way that doesn't involve excessive thinking. What I'd really like to see is a lesson specifically addressing how best one might approach integrating the chord/scale tones into one's inner voice in this fashion. This need to be thinking is really obstructive, especially since by the time I get comfortable with the chord tones, the damn song moves on to the next chord <sigh>.

Of course, I suppose one answer is the usual: get in the shed and practice. As with Eliza Doolittle repeating over and over the phrase about the rain in Spain, there may eventually be a Eureka moment when I can say "By George, I think I've got it!" Hopefully that day will eventually arise.
 
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Once again: you are what you practice and play. Will it become easier as it becomes ingrained? Yes, and you'll keep on that track which doesn't "somehow" lead to playing anything else.

Another word thrown about is "vocabulary", which (like playing the changes) generally means playing in a single style from 60 + years ago. May as well bust a few more: copying the masters? Well if you've never developed the ability to think or play musically then may as well just copy and practice becoming a "tribute player".

For those beginners who think I'm just a grumpy old guy who doesn't understand...here's your challenge: go to a jazz open mike night. Look and listen to what's being played and how it's being played. You'll hear a difference in the amount practice and ability, but few/no differences in technique or "vocabulary". The music has little/no meaning to 98+% of the public, which may be OK if it's what you love, but then you're not ever going to be an entertainer. There is nothing there that is entertaining to a general audience, just people trying to show off their hard practiced/won ability to play in a style that doesn't appeal or communicate to the general public. Very sad.

The sax is an instrument that can be played in a huge number of ways. It's one of the closest instruments to the human voice so has the ability to express emotions, cry, laugh, and sing. Try that on a piano! Being stuck in trying to play mechanically, where you can't even hear the note you're trying to play is starting off in the wrong direction...if you have talent. There's the "T" word again! If you can't sing or conceive of music in your head, then go ahead and make music a mechanical exercise. Hopefully it will be a fun exercise.

This isn't about trying to bust anyone's chops if they want to just play in that one style and have music an avocation. It's about anyone WITH TALENT finding a way to express it. In all the other arts you similarly need to learn how to use the tools of your medium. A painter needs to learn to draw, mix paint, use brushes, apply paint, etc. What would you think about a painting instructor giving the students a paint by the numbers kit? How is this OK in music instruction? Beginning artists are encouraged to either interpret what they see, or imagine an image. It's about being creative and not just copying. You are responsible for your choice of image, line, color. To be fair there are painters who copy the work of others...they are usually called fakes or imposters. In music we call them tribute players.

Creativity probably can't be taught, but it can be encouraged. Unfortunately creativity can be dulled or obliterated by pedagogical systems which lead away from self expression and encourage mechanical solutions and copying a single style from a dim past. It's OK to learn art history or music history, you just don't want to be stuck there as an art practitioner.
 

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So, when a beginner is learning what a major scale is, learning to play the notes in all keys, that’s mechanical, too. That’s “painting by numbers”, isn’t it? I’m sure lots of beginners would love to skip all that and just want to “blow all the notes that sound good”.

Obviously, learning the scales is just providing the basics, building a foundation. Same idea behind the video, I think. If there was anything mechanical or formulaic with the implication to “do this every time without thinking”, I guess I missed it.
 

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So, when a beginner is learning what a major scale is, learning to play the notes in all keys, that’s mechanical, too. That’s “painting by numbers”, isn’t it? I’m sure lots of beginners would love to skip all that and just want to “blow all the notes that sound good”.

Obviously, learning the scales is just providing the basics, building a foundation. Same idea behind the video, I think. If there was anything mechanical or formulaic with the implication to “do this every time without thinking”, I guess I missed it.
This video is specifically about improvising. As said in every art form including music you need to get down the basics, so there is no argument about the necessity of learning notes, scales, etc. Quite simply IMHO improvisation is about an individual composing in real time. How is playing notes you don't conceive of and can't hear improvising? Developing what's usually referred to as "finger memory" is about practicing and recognizing chord notation so that your fingers go automatically to those riffs and arpeggios that fit. Unfortunately it's not about hearing an alternative melody, telling a story, or dong anything other than (usually) trying to play a flurry of notes that fit within that chord structure. The video promotes that very familiar system that leads to being able to play a cut and paste "improvisation"...eventually at speed. Unfortunately it doesn't lead most players to their inner voice or make the connection between hearing something in your head and being able to play it. Some eventually can. The question is why not practice this skill from the outset if that is where you want to go?

Maybe you Arundo Donax don't want to go there, and that's more than OK. The opinion I've presented and others seem to appreciate is that there are potentially other ways to improvise and different goals one can have. If I've stepped on your toes in saying this I'm sorry.

There is also a misconception that Improvisation strictly = jazz from the 1950s/60s ... and the narrow style often referred to as "vocabulary". Improvisation is much more than that and played in many styles and cultures. A familiar example would be in a rock/pop band situation where you're part of a small group that plays their own material/songs. Most of the time it's the singer, guitarist or keyboard player who comes up with an idea. The other members of the band are expected to come up with their own parts. As a sax player, if you're expecting a written part you won't be very popular. If you're looking for a chord chart and are just going to diddle as a jazz soloist continually over the changes then you will certainly be asked to leave. It's far more important to hear harmonies, counterpoint, countermelodies and fit within what the music is about. This takes hearing, understanding, anticipating, and being able to play specific notes and patterns that fit. Playing the changes to show off your finger memory isn't wanted or needed. Appropriate lines that fit, have purpose and add to the music are required. A good player who is one with their instrument can do this as an improvisation on the spot and be of much use. The best studio musicians can usually read really well, but more importantly they have a broad base of styles, and big mental library to draw on and can play appropriately. The goal is to hear the music you want to play and develop the ability to do that. "Playing the changes" as a formulae for improvisation is the antithesis of where a talented player should want to wind up.
 

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This video is specifically about improvising.

The video promotes that very familiar system that leads to being able to play a cut and paste "improvisation"...eventually at speed. Unfortunately it doesn't lead most players to their inner voice or make the connection between hearing something in your head and being able to play it.

There is also a misconception that Improvisation strictly = jazz from the 1950s/60s ... and the narrow style often referred to as "vocabulary". Improvisation is much more than that and played in many styles and cultures. A familiar example would be in a rock/pop band situation where you're part of a small group that plays their own material/songs. Most of the time it's the singer, guitarist or keyboard player who comes up with an idea. The other members of the band are expected to come up with their own parts. As a sax player, if you're expecting a written part you won't be very popular. If you're looking for a chord chart and are just going to diddle as a jazz soloist continually over the changes then you will certainly be asked to leave. It's far more important to hear harmonies, counterpoint, countermelodies and fit within what the music is about. This takes hearing, understanding, anticipating, and being able to play specific notes and patterns that fit.
@whamptoncourt No problem — I understand what you (among others) are saying and it coincides with what I’ve heard over the years. For me, improvisation is a talent or skill that I’ve only recently been able to do with some success. It took a long while before it really “clicked”.

Anyway, despite the title and video’s description, listening to his introductory comments in the first two minutes of the video it seems clear to me that the rest of the video is intended as an introduction for beginners about what harmony is, how it came to be, what chords are, and what it means to play over the changes. It did not strike me as a lesson in improvisation, but more of explaining the basics.
 

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@whamptoncourt No problem — I understand what you (among others) are saying and it coincides with what I’ve heard over the years. For me, improvisation is a talent or skill that I’ve only recently been able to do with some success. It took a long while before it really “clicked”.

Anyway, despite the title and video’s description, listening to his introductory comments in the first two minutes of the video it seems clear to me that the rest of the video is intended as an introduction for beginners about what harmony is, how it came to be, what chords are, and what it means to play over the changes. It did not strike me as a lesson in improvisation, but more of explaining the basics.
I actually watched the entire video as I was interested to see where he was going and if it was merely an introduction and basics (as you say) or following through with the promised information of how to improvise over chords. The first part does cover basics that have little to do with improvisation. However he does go on to specifically promote playing chord tones and arpeggios as the core principal and demonstrates this very specifically. There is nothing said about the goal of alternate melodies, or anything else that hints at creativity or owning the music one would play.

To be fair, it is a mechanical means for new players to fill in the expected solo space, but certainly not IMHO the most desirable or a step towards achieving true improvisation. Creativity is very difficult to teach, so pedagogues unfortunately feel the need to try to formulate rules, models and mechanical means. Works for physics, engineering, law, business etc....but unfortunately not very well in the arts.

We have the very difficult job of making our thoughts, musically or artistically become reality. It takes a lot of work to first hear, then create those sounds that you share with others and give them pleasure/entertainment. Likewise it takes enormous work to visualize a painting and then accomplish that task. There are no "one size fits all" methods to developing an individual's creativity. But it's certainly possible to avoid creativity and just practice copying what's already been done (paint by the numbers). A good teacher can certainly help with the basics and learning how to use the tools. As in this video, the instructor can then ask the student to just use a formulae or copy what others have done and ignore their potential. A great teacher will encourage them to tap into their own creativity. I sincerely hope that the latter becomes more common in the near future.

As a footnote I wouldn't release a video where I was making so many mistakes. At one juncture he's demonstrating by singing and puts himself in totally the wrong key...by a huge margin...not just slightly out of tune. This says to me his internal hearing of music isn't at all developed...no wonder he's an advocate of mechanical eye to hand playing. He's hardly very sensitive in smacking his keyboard around and missing notes either. If I was looking for a teacher and this is an exhibition of his abilities, I'd be looking elsewhere.
 

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someone still has to explain me how, singers with no knowledge of the theory or in most cases completely unable even to mention the note they are singing, let alone making sense of any chord progressions, are able to improvise.

relative ear is the key to know where you are and where you need to be but to know what you want to say is very important too.

We all have interiorized a number of musical pathways and nobody really needs to tell you where to go if singing basic stuff, you know it, the same ability displayed here (in something simple) develops for more intense things.

if you watch all the video, please pay special attention to Bob McFerrin





and if you have the patience (this is the whole thing)




and to give more food to any remaining thought ( nurture over nature)

 
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Well, the video illustrates one way to consider improvising, but it's not the only way. For those who have a smidgen of talent you can engage your creativity directly and skip the mechanical phase altogether. Music is about communication. If you have a tune you can hear or a variation on a tune you know, then it's a matter of bringing that forward. We all have a voice (even if we aren't good singers), and that's where we can use our sax to sing for us.

A simple practice is to sing a tune we know or variations of it. The harder part (and it can take a quite a while to master) is to make the sax our voice. Try to sing a line, then play it on the sax. Start with a simple line. Always sing and play within the rhythm and don't stop, even if you hit a wrong note. Just keep going and keep your rhythm. Ideally what makes for a good or great player is that they make music that is a personal statement and communicates with their audience. The more personal the better, and this can be recognized in every great player.

The method prescribed in the video is the musical equivalent of "paint by the numbers". It requires no creativity and doesn't ask you to conceive of a tune or any flow of notes that says anything to anybody. It's simply a formulae that asks you to read a chord designation and interpret that as notes to be played...without even knowing the sounds you're going to make! The notes will fit the structure, but will say nothing else. It's a system that presumes that the player has no talent so gives a mechanical solution and calls it improvisation. However is it really improvisation if you're just playing a bunch of notes without hearing or conceiving of what you're playing? Unfortunately there is a presumption that ultimately you'll become familiar enough with your instrument that you'll "somehow" suddenly be able to play what's in your head.

In the same way that we are what we eat, we are also what we practice and play. The result of playing changes in a mechanical method (as described in the video) seems to be someone who just plays strung togehter (cut and paste) riffs and arpeggios and attempts to become better and faster at that. If that's your goal, have at it. You'll find lots of company at open mike nights where it resembles a "fastest gun in the west" competition more than music that will entertain an audience.

The method in the video can work, but IMHO is a road to nowhere, and a waste if you have any talent. If you are using your eyes first (looking at a chord chart), then translating that into a series of possible notes, how are you thinking about a melodic or even an interesting line to play that will have meaning? The sax in that situation is the last consideration or the sounds will emerge. There is no direct connection between you and the sax. The alternative is to make a direct link between what you want to hear and the notes you play on the sax. You hear a note, you play the note automatically. The challenge is to make the sax your voice without reading, translating, or blocking your creativity. It will take a lot of work, but you will get there.

If that seems like it's too difficult, you can join the thousands of other players at the open mike night to work on how fast you can play...and say nothing.
I'd look at it as at least a place to start. At least you would be finding which notes sound okay and which to avoid. Until you have learned which notes sound good and which sound awful how can you even start to be creative. This is from a guy who has never figured out how to play jazz improv. I know when I try it's not right. I'm throwing in notes that don't belong there. Until I got over that hump, and I never will, trying to sound fresh and creative is out of the question.
 
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