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Hi,

As some of you may know, I returned to saxophone recently after not playing for quite a while. I have been working to get a good practice regime going. I have been practising my major, pentatonic, relative minor pentatonic and relative minor blues scales in each key.

I recently had a Jam at a friends house and enjoyed playing along to some of the songs he was playing, and on Sunday for the first time I played at Church, just 'improvising' along by ear using mainly the pentatonic scale for the particular key of the song.

When I was Jamming at my friends we played a bit of Jazz for about 10 mins where he played a chord progression and I Improvised along, which went really well.

This week at my lesson my teacher was talking about learning all the Chords of the scales so I could play over progressions using this knowledge.

I am really enjoying improving, but also feel like it is an almost impossible task to learn all that I need to, to improvise properly. I just read this article by Tim Price http://www.saxontheweb.net/Price/SaxophoneNecessities.html and as a working person who can only practice about an hour a day 5 days a week I feel a bit overwhelmed.

I am trying to how much I need to know to become a 'valid' player and can start to Improvise etc.

Thanks
James
 

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You haven't mentioned anything about ear training. Improvising isn't necessarily just playing notes that are appropriate in terms of the scale/chord. Probably the players you admire most are playing something more personal and often outside of the scale/chord. Weaving melodies and personal statements is where it's at, and it's not just something that "happens" after you have mastered a lot of scales. As much as possible you should try to "know" the note/sound you are playing before it comes out of your horn. You need to work on being one with your horn so that whatever is in your head can come out of the horn. There are two aspects to this. 1. You need to be able to sing a melodic line to the music you hear (doesn't matter how good your voice is, it's hearing the notes that matters). 2. You need to be able to play what you sing/hear. If you can do these two things then you can Pass Go and collect your credentials as an improviser.

All too often students who may have the innate ability to improvise get caught up in the technical aspects of just playing chordal tones that "fit". This is not the same as practicing scales, it's setting modes of how you interpret music and play/respond. It may be as good as it gets for people without a melodic sense, but can otherwise be a technical exercise that needs tempering with some ear training.
 

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I am really enjoying improving, but also feel like it is an almost impossible task to learn all that I need to, to improvise properly. I just read this article by Tim Price http://www.saxontheweb.net/Price/SaxophoneNecessities.html and as a working person who can only practice about an hour a day 5 days a week I feel a bit overwhelmed.

I am trying to how much I need to know to become a 'valid' player and can start to Improvise etc.

Thanks
James
Don't worry about doing it "properly." That's more a stylistic consideration that comes once you have the basics down. The basics-- learning the theory and the arpeggios, the scales, etc.-- can seem overwhelming if you want to be "done" tomorrow. Break it down into small bits, and realize that you will take a couple years to achieve a working knowledge of the basics so you can take the pressure of doing it all at once off you. Start with learning your major scales and get them clean. Then learn, for example, all major 7th arpeggios, then dominants, minors, etc. Then practice playing the arpeggios that start on each scale degree in your major scales. Do one thing at a time. While you're doing all this study of fundamental technique, you can also study the musical considerations... practice phrasing for a few weeks, practice harmonic analysis, ear training, transcription, etc. Break up your practice routine into sections with breaks in between so you can focus on each topic individually.

Mine looks like this:
Soak reed in mouth, warm up hands, practice key clicks.
Long tones.
Finger drills: major scales, the "Bergonzi chop buster" drill I found on SOTW, arpeggios.
Improv drills: play a short pattern around various progressions or chord qualities in 12 keys.
Reading drills: sightread solo transcriptions at a tempo that is too fast for me. Go back and sightread at slower tempos focusing on accuracy. Maybe work out of a sightreading book (Creative Reading Studies)
More improv drills: practice whatever tune I'm learning by singing the head and picking out the notes of each phrase on the horn after I've sung them. Practice slow improv at 50-90 bpm (trying to maintain phrasing and swing as if I were playing at normal tempo, just with more time to think). Practice at tempo, and then again as fast as possible.
Improv drills: practice very uptempo tunes slightly outside my comfort zone to work on fluency and dexterity.

For fun: just play some tunes, maybe even with Aebersold tracks. Up until this point, everything is with metronome.

I take breaks between all sections of my routine so I come at each one with a fresh mind and relaxed body.
 

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You haven't mentioned anything about ear training. Improvising isn't necessarily just playing notes that are appropriate in terms of the scale/chord. Probably the players you admire most are playing something more personal and often outside of the scale/chord. Weaving melodies and personal statements is where it's at, and it's not just something that "happens" after you have mastered a lot of scales. As much as possible you should try to "know" the note/sound you are playing before it comes out of your horn. You need to work on being one with your horn so that whatever is in your head can come out of the horn. There are two aspects to this. 1. You need to be able to sing a melodic line to the music you hear (doesn't matter how good your voice is, it's hearing the notes that matters). 2. You need to be able to play what you sing/hear. If you can do these two things then you can Pass Go and collect your credentials as an improviser.

All too often students who may have the innate ability to improvise get caught up in the technical aspects of just playing chordal tones that "fit". This is not the same as practicing scales, it's setting modes of how you interpret music and play/respond. It may be as good as it gets for people without a melodic sense, but can otherwise be a technical exercise that needs tempering with some ear training.
Well said Wade. Good improvising happens when you know what you want to say and can then execute it. It's not about scales - it's about the message. (Whatever that might be). I'd like to think I can convey emotion with a solo - Anything from anger to joy and everything in between. The goal (at least mine) is to communicate a mood or theme. It may be a silly or frivilous one, but I still want to say something rather than just play notes. Of course, sometimes I crash and burn or find I have nothing to say so it helps to have some tried and true licks to fall back on.....
 

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Without giving an "overload" of information which although valid can be a bit overwhelming for someone at the beginning stages like yourself, I am going to suggest volume 54 of the Aebersold Series Called Maiden Voyage. Playing along with this CD and reading the melodies and chord changes and learning which scales go with each chord is a great introduction to jazz improvisation. It is very accessible and a fun way to learn the basics. What's more many of the tunes have been recorded by many of the great jazz artists, so you can study what they do over the same changes.

One more thought. Smart Music is an excellent value in that you get the soundtracks of the many of the more popular Aebersold jazz play-a-long series (books not included). The real advantage is that you can set the tempos, and even the keys. You can play along with the accompaniment and record yourself. The cost has come down to only $36 per year. The microphone costs about $20, but you only have to buy that once.
 

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Improvisation:
1: to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously
2: to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3: to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand

Improvisation does not have to be a carefully constructed sequencing of sounds.
Improvisation can be total nonsense meaning, in that nonsense it may have a specific meaning
to who is trying to relay the sound in an organic way for whatever reason that may only make sense to the improviser...(Being accepted in that endeavor is for another discussion) Totally indeterminate sounds on a whim are not without merit. Not a crowd favorite but it does have it's place because of it's spontaneity as well as it's counterpoint to organized sound.

It may sound like the individual is just playing cold notes but those notes in whatever random way they're displayed does have a function. Improvisation, in order to be authentic improvisation, does not have to be adorable in what people expect improvisation to be. Let's not pigeonhole what the word improvisation means.

Also, we do not necessarily have to be able to sing whatever it is we choose to play. The dexterity of a brain to fingers transition is much more apt than a brain to vocal chords transistion. On a basic level it can be helpful in trying to figure things out but the more involved you become, depending on your singing ability, the more you may want to discard this technique. Just my opinion, which naturally is what my post implies....A personal perspective from one out of 6 billion perspectives.

Communicating in a dissonant way is merely an abstract version of the individual who is performing it. Abstract is more difficult to figure out than something that is easily more practical to discern. Nevertheless, it's still improvisation.

To the OP...Sorry man, I hope I'm not confusing ya! You say you have a teacher? He should be steering you on the right course, hopefully. But if you veer off the supposed path find out what that path may possibly lead you to. You have instincts...Learn to trust them! Instincts may be your best friend in all your studies. Once they become trusted they'll never let you down...
 

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Besides what everyone else is suggesting, listening to a lot of great players sure helps. Playing tunes with only a few chords (maiden voyage, blue bossa, all blues) and slow to moderate tempo blues is helpful as far as working out melody, feel, etc. As important as ear training is, rhythm, articulation, tone, and other expressive qualities are so important.

Knowing chords and harmony may be helpful, but there's a lot of guys who learned to play by ear and just working things out. "Theory following practice", as Bunky Green put it.

Shawn
 

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There may be a lot of guys who learned to play by ear and just working things out, but learning chords and harmony is much faster, more complete and more efficient. I know, because I started with the first method before anyone taught me the second. And there's nothing about learning harmony that prevents you from learning how to work things out or play by ear, whereas willfully ignoring the body of knowledge that is available to you is not only stupid but necessarily rejects that which will make you better. There are no shortcuts except to learn to play... start with the scales, continue to arpeggios and then worry about the rest. You can't dribble a soccer ball well if you don't know how to run.

Not taking issue with your post, Shawn, just clarifying that it's important to do BOTH in case the OP doesn't get it from your post.
 

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I was just trying to simplify, but totally agree it's best to use anything and everything that's available to you.

Good comments Dan about spending time working on scales and arpeggios. There's a lot of different ways to do that, but having sound technique makes it easier for the music to come out...and those things along with long tones really help develop sound, which is a hugely important part of each player's dna.

Shawn
 

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A "valid player"... not sure what that is supposed to mean. That is subjective right? I run into guys that are very average players. Some have been playing a long time and reached a place where they are in average bands, playing average gigs with average fan followings who tell them that they are great players. They are "pro" players because they are working and generally recognized to be musicians because they have a horn and make make faces playing the four note licks they know over three chord tunes. I know they feel like valid players.

I wouldn't buy a ticket and stand in line to see them play however... but they are grooving. They are where they want to be. They are happy people. That is enough for them.

Then there are other people who are never satisfied and want to do what ever work is needed for them to feel valid. Maybe they are like me... cursed. Cursed by having been exposed to masters of the music at an early age. I'm talking about live, down in front, week after week mind bending stuff... where you come out of the club or concert saying... either I better quit or get serious about shedding the horn.

Dexter, Rahsaan, Sonny Fortune, Grover, Sonny Rollins, Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, Ornette, Yuseff, Liebman, Brecker, Bob Berg, Bob Minzer, Lovano, Dave Ellis, John Handy, Craig Handy, Stanley Turrentine, Joshua Redman, Phil Woods, Kenny Garrett, Richey Cole, Mark Russo, Azar Lawrence, Vince Denham, Donny McCaslin, Lenny Picket, Tom Politzer... and all the other cats from MCoy and Elvin to Miles and Freddie Hubbard... I have little video clips burned into my brain of each of these artists and then some.

That's the stuff I aspire to. I won't feel valid unless I'm playing on that level. I got ruined. Or maybe I'm really, really lucky to have been able to see and hear the energy of so many great artists from Hendrix, Janis, Clapton to Louis Armstrong, BB King, Oscar with Joe Pass and the Ellington band with Ella. It's like I ate fruit from the tree of knowledge and now I don't want to be average and I won't go back to ignorance being bliss.

I have a problem with the statement; "Weaving melodies and personal statements is where it's at, and it's not just something that "happens" after you have mastered a lot of scales." While I whole heartedly agree that weaving melodies and personal statements is where it's at... the conclusion that it is NOT something that "happens" after you have mastered a lot of scales doesn't work for me.

In my experience, no matter how much I practice and play, I'm not going to master scales and chords, simply because it is endless. For me though, it has been a path towards good musicianship and ear training. Shedding a bunch of scales and chords HAS opened my ears up and built my head chops and physical chops. I mean get real. All there is are scales and chords. Where do melodies come from? It might not have been, poof... I shedded scales and now I burn, but over time is has happened.

I guess I share the OPs frustration. In that, as a working person only about to play three hours a day seven days a week, I feel overwhelmed trying to organize my time so that I feel like I'm progressing. I was a working musician until I was thirty and I let that feeling of being overwhelmed get to me and I lost the desire to play altogether. I quit for fifteen years. Sixteen years ago I started to play again, but with a different mind set and goals.

I had to teach myself how to play all over again. The first weeks and months I could only play a few minutes a day before my chops blew out. It was hard to swallow that there were kids in high school that could blow me clean away. But, every day I learned one little thing and at the end of a week I had learned seven little things, and in a month, a year until sixteen years later, I'm a better player today than I was yesterday, last week, last year.

Do I feel "Valid"? Yeah, mostly. Some days are more valid than others, but it's not about ego stroke for me. I don't care if anybody ever hears me play. Maybe the word valid is not a good one, it doesn't say enough or has too limited a connotation.

I think my goal is to be a better communicator and have something to communicate in the first place. All the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. People tell me all the time that I sound great. I hate hearing that because I feel like they are being patronizing. I know they are trying to be appreciative and maybe they do think I sound good... compared to whatever they judge to be "good". I play for me, not other people. I play because I know what is possible and that I can do it too. There are two things I have to do: Think about it and then do it. I don't see shedding endless scales and chords as a chore. It's like collecting tools for a huge tool box so that I have the capability to play the things I hear.

I suppose one has to assess their commitment to playing the music and the horn. There are no short cuts and no substitutes for having the horn in your hands. The best players, play all the time. There is no magic wand. I don't have one and neither do any of you or you wouldn't be here. (well, there are short cuts, but not for beginners... just like you need to understand long division before you can do short division)

"To improvise properly". That is pretty weak too. Pretty subjective, but if you have low expectations you will feel valid much easier. If you have loftier goals, then maybe it's like shooting at a moving target, difficult but not impossible. I don't know, do we all live with a sense of being overwhelmed? Is it like a chronic back ache where the pain is always there, but you just go on doing what you got to do day to day?

If someone reading this doesn't agree with me, then by all means don't shedd abstract scales and chords. There are a million ways to train your ear and a billion people playing the music who all have a different take on what is hip. Who am I... I'm a nobody.

Listen to some clips of players like Dan Perez, Tim, David Valdez, Matt Otto for instance. I think those guys can play the horn and I would be inclined to listen to any guidance they offer.

jaz9090, two cents here... because you are just getting started again here... it would be a perfect time to read Kenny Werner's book Effortless Mastery. You can get it out of the library probably. Good luck man in your endeavors.
 

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Listen to some clips of players like Dan Perez, Tim, David Valdez, Matt Otto for instance. I think those guys can play the horn and I would be inclined to listen to any guidance they offer.
JESUS... the company some people put me in... LOL. And you practice more than I do these days, too. SMH
 

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In my experience, no matter how much I practice and play, I'm not going to master scales and chords, simply because it is endless. For me though, it has been a path towards good musicianship and ear training. Shedding a bunch of scales and chords HAS opened my ears up and built my head chops and physical chops. I mean get real. All there is are scales and chords. Where do melodies come from? It might not have been, poof... I shedded scales and now I burn, but over time is has happened.
This rings true to me also. I had no ear, I had not idea about how to even begin improvising. I shedded a few scales over a couple of years or so and now I can transcribe simple solos by ear and play in average 3 chord bands. I couldn't have done that without doing those scales

The "feel the music" or "play what you hear in your head" school of thought would just never have given me the same result, maybe for others but not for me. I'd still be playing from charts in my study and getting nowhere, just like when I played the first time in my 20's.

My teacher gave me this gift and I'm forever thankful for it.
 

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Very interesting how some readers/responders take the idea of ear training and trying to be one with your instrument as an either/or proposition. Everybody needs to practice scales, study and understand music and get their vocabulary happening. As said above one needs to temper what can otherwise be strictly technical learning with ear training. Unless I read Dan's advice wrong he advocates ear training as well. Hopefully those unfortunate enough to have been strictly drilled in a formulistic way of improvising can and will overcome a lack of ear training as sax punter claims to have.

Learning to improvise, if taken as a strictly mechanical exercise, forms patterns and habits. These need to eventually be augmented or broken if one is going to be able to communicate something beyond a mechanical solo. What is the harm in learning to be one with your instrument and developing ear skills while learning technical skils? These are not mutually exclusive. This forum is supposedly about giving hints to others about how to achieve their goals. If one has strictly technical goals and/or no musical talent then by all means you should concentrate on developing the best technical skils you can, as that's possibly all you'll wind up with.
 

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Unless I read Dan's advice wrong he advocates ear training as well.
Of course. It's crucial. (And in case you didn't know, required in all college music programs... :D)

Practicing scales and arpeggios trains your ear almost as much as dedicated ear training practice does, though. In some ways it's better. In some, it lacks.
 

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This rings true to me also. I had no ear, I had not idea about how to even begin improvising. I shedded a few scales over a couple of years or so and now I can transcribe simple solos by ear and play in average 3 chord bands. I couldn't have done that without doing those scales

The "feel the music" or "play what you hear in your head" school of thought would just never have given me the same result, maybe for others but not for me. I'd still be playing from charts in my study and getting nowhere, just like when I played the first time in my 20's.

My teacher gave me this gift and I'm forever thankful for it.
That's because you assume that it doesn't take as much practice. If you truly want to play what's in your head you got to learn how to sing. I'm practice how to play by ear everyday(In addition to scales and stuff) by playing all kind of songs(kids songs, jazz standards etc) by ear from memory(without the music as a reference).

If you want to be able to improvise by ear you should sing whole solo's, sing your scales/chords/licks. This isn't easier then playing from memory this is much harder.

The only time I really feel like i'm playing music is when i let my ear guide me instead of my fingers.
 

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That's because you assume that it doesn't take as much practice. If you truly want to play what's in your head you got to learn how to sing. I'm practice how to play by ear everyday(In addition to scales and stuff) by playing all kind of songs(kids songs, jazz standards etc) by ear from memory(without the music as a reference).

If you want to be able to improvise by ear you should sing whole solo's, sing your scales/chords/licks. This isn't easier then playing from memory this is much harder.

The only time I really feel like i'm playing music is when i let my ear guide me instead of my fingers.
I haven't assumed anything and I'm not advocating any side of the fence as far this topic goes. For the benefit of the op I was sharing what worked for me. I'm a poor improvisor, but I can put together an average solo now where previously i had no chance. The scales gave me a starting point which allowed me some small success. I'm not suggesting that it is a panacea, nor an endpoint. One thing I do know - there would be no chance whatsoever of me achieving what I have by just singing in my head.
 

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I haven't assumed anything and I'm not advocating any side of the fence as far this topic goes. For the benefit of the op I was sharing what worked for me. I'm a poor improvisor, but I can put together an average solo now where previously i had no chance. The scales gave me a starting point which allowed me some small success. I'm not suggesting that it is a panacea, nor an endpoint. One thing I do know - there would be no chance whatsoever of me achieving what I have by just singing in my head.
I'm not talking about singing in your head but about singing out loud. Have you tried it?
 

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I'm not talking about singing in your head but about singing out loud. Have you tried it?
Yep, I suck as a singer vs saxophonist by a factor of XY squared
 

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Yep, I suck as a singer vs saxophonist by a factor of XY squared
Btw I dont mean to say that you shoulnd't study scales and stuff but ear training is also a big part of the whole picture. I used to suck but then i took singing lessons and that helped me a lot
 

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That's because you assume that it doesn't take as much practice. If you truly want to play what's in your head you got to learn how to sing. I'm practice how to play by ear everyday(In addition to scales and stuff) by playing all kind of songs(kids songs, jazz standards etc) by ear from memory(without the music as a reference).

If you want to be able to improvise by ear you should sing whole solo's, sing your scales/chords/licks. This isn't easier then playing from memory this is much harder.

The only time I really feel like i'm playing music is when i let my ear guide me instead of my fingers.
I didn't start doing this intentionally until a couple years ago. I always sung along with solos I was listening to in the car, etc. When I started playing jazz live, I didn't know what I was doing. Of course I knew my scales, but nothing about playing jazz. The first 2-3 years I did it all by ear, without working on singing anything. Even as a kid, I was able to play melodies back from recordings by ear, without singing. Singing is not required. It helps, though!
 
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