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Psyching Out Improv Demons - Jazz Improvisation

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Psyching Out Improv Demons

by Roger Freundlich
Music Entertainment Music artist Musician Performance

Look the demons of jazz improvisation straight in the eyes and say,
"I'm going to improvise - deal with it!"

That's the attitude I try to instill in adult jazz improvisation students at Jazz Studio, an adult-education evening class held under the auspices of the City of Espoo Adult Education Centre outside Helsinki, Finland. The participants, generally adults between 30 and 60, are seriously interested in unlocking the secrets of jazz improvisation. In the course, we investigate total musical discipline and total musical chaos to find the magic middle ground where the best music is created.

To supplement the systematic study of intervals, chords and scales, a series of simple group exercises can help adult amateur musicians overcome psychological inhibitions in their desire to become more comfortable as improvising jazz soloists. Developed to educate people in a culture where modesty is a virtue and the ability to improvise is not generally an inborn trait, the following classroom techniques can also be used by band directors to sharpen soloing skills in their big bands.


This exercise emphasizes the close relationship between musical phrasing and speech patterns. The linking of speech and playing processes automatically results in more vocal, natural and communicative musical phrasing.

Parallels to this starter exercise can be found in certain kinds of blues. The student says a few words about any subject, followed by a short instrumental figure played on the instrument, followed by another few words and another short instrumental figure.


A student creates and plays a short, repetitive riff figure that is then repeated by the rest of the group. The riff creator must be mentally focused, otherwise the rhythm will not repeat properly and the imitators will not be able to learn it. The exercise encourages rhythmically clear melodic thinking. A motif easily imitated by other players will be easily grasped by a listener. The exercise hones listening skills and helps increase awareness in jam sessions.

I Am the Greatest

Based on the famous Muhammad Ali quote, this ego-enhancing exercise helps players develop the self-confidence necessary to improvise. Students are given the opportunity to brag shamelessly about themselves. It doesn't have to be truthful, so it can include the most egotistically grandiose fantasy ("I'm the greatest saxophonist in the history of the world, and I hope that you appreciate that I gave up my Carnegie Hall gig to be here with you tonight").

It's all bluff, but maybe just a little ego-support dust will rub off to give the students who need it a better feeling about themselves. This exercise helps improve musical self-confidence through relaxation, humor and positive thinking.


Students are first asked to create the worst possible or ugliest solo performance they can muster for 15 to 20 seconds. After a short pause, it's followed by another 20-second performance in which they attempt to play the most beautiful solo they have ever performed. The student's thought process is what's important, not the actual performance result. The exercise serves as a direct confrontation with the dark side of one's own instrument or musical personality. But like in the old monster movies, the creature is less scary after it shows up. The result is increased awareness of the emotional range and expressive capabilities of one's own instrument as well as applications to free playing.


Amateur improvisers tend to use too many notes. Working over an easy F blues, I tell students to imagine that they will be paid by the note, so they should cram as many notes as possible into their solos. Then we reverse the process, and I ask them to imagine they will have to pay for every note they play, so they should use the fewest number of notes necessary to make musical sense. Think of an excited Brazilian radio announcer during the final seconds of a world championship soccer match. Then think of Clint Eastwood in one of his tight-lipped cowboy roles. I consider these speech patterns directly analogous to the playing of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The results of this exercise are an increased awareness of saturated and minimalist approaches.

Guest Drummer

All students, non-drummers included, are asked to come to the drumset to create a repetitive, rhythmic groove. The rhythm section picks it up and the horns develop it further, all on the spur of the moment. If it's a good groove, let your soloists loose. The function of this exercise is to increase rhythmic awareness and respect for the drummer's role. The result is an increased rhythmic sense in solos.

Roger Freundlich

Source: Down Beat, June 1998.
Reproduced with permission.

Follow-up article by Roger Freundlich

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