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I might have mentioned this in a previous post, but when it comes to trying to improv I am having a hard time. I am trying to learn theory and apply it, but it seems very hard to understand. For example, knowing which chord can be substituted with another chord, without sounding bad. In addition, I am trying to apply it to playing by ear, so more likely than not I won't know the exact chord changes. I need some help.
 

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All I can tell you is start with any song you like and play it over and again, and listen to the improvs that others have made. Don't shoot for the stars, go with something simple like Scott Hamilton's rendition of Summertime and after a while you will start noticing that you start layering on. It is mostly about the mindset of getting into the tune, regardless of the actual chord changes.

If you don't like Summertime, listen to Spooky by David Sanborn and just try to understand what he is doing, minus some of the crazy good stuff. Once you have a few of these songs "absorbed" you'll just fall into the improvisations without effort.

Don't get hung up on licks, try to play the fewest notes possible until your fingers just develop a life of their own.

And, take Kenny Werner's advice: Think that what you are playing is the most beautiful thing anyone can do (or something like that)
 

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I might have mentioned this in a previous post, but when it comes to trying to improv I am having a hard time. I am trying to learn theory and apply it, but it seems very hard to understand. For example, knowing which chord can be substituted with another chord, without sounding bad. In addition, I am trying to apply it to playing by ear, so more likely than not I won't know the exact chord changes. I need some help.
Ahhhhh...this gets into a subject which is debated regularly among players. There is, for lack of a better word, an 'academic' way to learn improv, and a more 'organic' or 'holistic' way. Both are valid. Oftentimes, a player is more prone to be able to grasp one rather than the other.

Per your post, it seems you are dipping your toes into both, although you may not realize it exactly.

I do hope member whamptoncourt can chime in here, because he can explain the latter path quite well.
 

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The Maiden Voyage book of the Aebersold series is a good entry level primer to begin to learn about chords, scales, and improvising in general. I would strongly advise reading everything in the introductory pages before going to the playing portion in order to get the most out this book.
 

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I am trying to learn theory and apply it, but it seems very hard to understand. For example, knowing which chord can be substituted with another chord, without sounding bad. In addition, I am trying to apply it to playing by ear, so more likely than not I won't know the exact chord changes.
Just a couple of comments directly related to your statement here. First of all I wouldn't jump into substituting chords until I know what the original chords are and can improvise over them. Secondly, playing by ear doesn't negate knowing the chord changes. Knowing those changes well and improvising over them goes hand in hand. Improvisation is obviously done by ear, and it's essential to 'hear' the chord changes.

One technique to practice is playing through a set of chord changes using 'voice leading'/guide tones (look it up) to create a smooth line. Pay special attention to the 3rd & 7th chord tones; they help sound the harmony.

But this is a huge topic...
 

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Just put on some music you like. Take your horn out. Figure out the melody by playing along. Once you got that down, start embellishing it a bit. Add your own parts. Then you're on your way.

And please note, this is not to say you can ignore theory. It's just that first you need to train your ears. Regurgitating licks and patterns over chord sequences is not improvising. You need to be able to interact with what you hear. That's improvising.
 

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Agree with JL - chord substitutions are an advanced concept. First master the chords that are in the tune - get comfortable playing around those. Use something like iRealPro where you can type the chords in and create a loop so that you can shed those chords and understand them better.
You can also get Aebersold Vol 24 - Major and Minor scales - and use that to practice improvising on your scales. Go to Vol 1 next and READ the text before you start playing (as Saxoclese said). It will only help you.
Then go to a modal tune like So What (only 2 chords) and work through the chords and scales that apply. Then move to some of the tunes from V 54 Maiden Voyage.
One step at a time....

I forgot to ask, how much time have you spent working on this issue? Have you bought any books, courses, or are you studying with a teacher to help you get past this?
(If studying with a teacher, have you specifically asked them what you posted here?)
 

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Just put on some music you like. Take your horn out. Figure out the melody by playing along. Once you got that down, start embellishing it a bit. Add your own parts. Then you're on your way.

And please note, this is not to say you can ignore theory. It's just that first you need to train your ears. Regurgitating licks and patterns over chord sequences is not improvising. You need to be able to interact with what you hear. That's improvising.
I agree with you Grumps. However, as you imply, at some point you need to deal with the harmony.

I started out exactly as you describe. Playing along to records (yes, vinyl; this was some time ago!) learning the melody and trying to match some of what I was hearing. I did this with blues records and jazz records. I loved trying to play along to Charlie Parker recordings (I was too ignorant to realize how difficult that would be). Of course I eventually hit a wall because it was ALL hit and miss. I especially had problems when I joined a 'blues band' and tried to play solos in various keys. I knew the blues scale, but couldn't really play along to the changes, especially in any key I didn't know (most of them!). It was a real revelation when I finally learned the chords and got more comfortable in more keys, etc. That took most of the guess work out, resulting in fewer 'train wrecks.'

Bottom line, you have to know the harmony and structure of the tune. But not just by rote or just naming the chords; along with that you have to HEAR what is going on (which I think is Grump's well-taken point).
 

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Thanks to JayeLID for the invite to join the conversation. Not sure I have any magic words that can help. There are bits and pieces of all the comments so far that could be useful depending on what iceman wants to do.

There are certainly various paths depending on what you want to sound like. To my mind the ultimate is to sound like yourself rather than parrot some famous player. The "standard" formulae that's taught is to emphasize understanding the chord structure and use "tried and true" riffs and arpeggios that are strung together to show off your chops (cut and paste playing). If that's that's your goal then the path is fairly clear and the result is predictable. Progress can be proportionate to your coordination, ability to develop finger and mental memory, and most importantly how much you practice those patterns.

Improvisation (IMHO) is the art of spontaneous composition. This means you are generally playing a melodic line (since we can only play one note at a time). If playing a "standard" that means an alternate melody. As others have noted you need to HEAR that first, then be able to HEAR your alternate line that you wish to play. This can easily be done by singing/humming your alternate line. This is you composing in real time. Whether or not you're any good at this is a matter of talent and having enough exposure to music to draw on various influences (your mental musical library). The tricky bit is to make the sax your voice and be able to play what you would sing. There is no shortcut to the amount of time/work this takes and academia can't formulate a method (so they ignore this route completely?).

Are these paths mutually exclusive? Not necessarily. It's good to know how to read, understand chords and the structure of music (can't hurt). My personal opinion is that the academic approach to saxophone (which is not the way many other instruments are taught), has not supported talented individuals or creativity. Instead the standard teaching regime is a "one size fits all" approach that's most similar to "paint by the numbers".

Most new players seem to be happy following the academic route and not being creative. I guess they are happy if they can just sound like someone they admire. For those who have real talent I think the academic route is a disaster, but they are a very small minority.

Exercises that could help individuals to coordinate their playing to what they hear in their heads is another topic, and not necessarily what most seem to be striving towards.
 

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Then there's the uncomfortable reality that not all players are going to be able to truly improvise. Teachers may disagree, but that's only because they can keep charging for lessons that will continue indefinitely... or at least until the player realizes that uncomfortable reality as previously set forth.
 

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Hey Grumps. We ought to start an old cynics group!

It seems that most who have learned under the academic system are unable or unprepared to play music that is relevant or in demand today. They become teachers and perpetuate this (IMHO) failed academic paradigm. If we look at the plethora of styles of playing guitar or bass and the wide range of teaching that enables this, then it makes for a pointed comparison. Too often we hear the phrase "learning the vocabulary". Unfortunately this generally translates to a very singular style that doesn't fit most of today's music.

For those who don't wish to become a professional or (as you infer) don't have the talent anyway, it may be satisfying to play standards and strive to impress by being able to play those practiced formulations ever faster. Whatever gives meaning and pleasure to individuals can only be good. However I grieve for those talented individuals who may never find their way beyond the pedagogical system that has failed to enable their creativity.
 

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Hey Grumps. We ought to start an old cynics group!

It seems that most who have learned under the academic system are unable or unprepared to play music that is relevant or in demand today. They become teachers and perpetuate this (IMHO) failed academic paradigm. If we look at the plethora of styles of playing guitar or bass and the wide range of teaching that enables this, then it makes for a pointed comparison. Too often we hear the phrase "learning the vocabulary". Unfortunately this generally translates to a very singular style that doesn't fit most of today's music.

For those who don't wish to become a professional or (as you infer) don't have the talent anyway, it may be satisfying to play standards and strive to impress by being able to play those practiced formulations ever faster. Whatever gives meaning and pleasure to individuals can only be good. However I grieve for those talented individuals who may never find their way beyond the pedagogical system that has failed to enable their creativity.
Well-said. The problem here becomes "learning the vocabulary" in and of itself is not the endgame. Yet oftentimes, in academicized learning, it becomes the endgame.

Back in art school in the 80's I was first made aware that this was a HUGE debate, regardless of whether it was in the Painting, Architecture, Film/Vid, Sculpture depts. etc.

The two sides were basically:

~ Does not learning the established/conventional vocabulary actually hinder our creativity, because we are then hemmed in by the 'rules' we have learned ? If we are spending so much time on this, will we not be in a likely danger of just producing (at best) 'reconstituted' versions of what has already been done ? Thus hampering our individual voice/creativity and never really creating something original ?

vs.

~ It is important to first learn the (conventional) Vocabulary before you can experiment, stray from, or all-out reject it in your future endeavors. In this way you can see how others may have tried to alter it, or perhaps even take a certain aspect of a rule but manipulate it differently, etc...

A REALLY GOOD debate. Still applies today, in all facets of creative arts, crafts, literature, etc....

IMHO the answer lies in both. Keep the momentum and fire of the first argument alive within you; use the conventional vocabulary in order to understand what has come before you but do not let it be the end target...use it as a tool, in other words...as opposed to a set of rules which must be absolutely adhered to in order to 'do it correctly'.

Easier said than done....:| as our 'western' cultures have a predilection towards packaging 'understanding' into a linear, 'task-based' kit for mass consumption.
 

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I would refute that it's an absolute that everyone who follows a prescribed course of study of improvisation is going to sound the same. Maybe at first; and it depends on how fast one's playing matures (and everyone is different in that); the 'academic' path of study is in itself a gigantic exercise in ear training. I still know a few saxophone players I went to school with, and now that we're old farts, we don't sound alike at all.

For me, getting away from the methods I was taught (but they never go away entirely) was prompted by several people coming up after shows at Jazz festivals and saying "So when did you study with Jerry Coker?". That was around 6-8 years after I was out of school. Around the same time, I had Jerry appear with our big band as a featured soloist. He commented on my playing, saying I should learn more non-terminal patterns to get from one range to another on the horn. Which is valid, I suppose, but by that time I was already trying to avoid stuff like that. I mean, it was valuable to do that, but I wanted to move beyond that. So I get it, in a way. But, fact is for me, it took a good 10 years to start to develop my own style on saxophone. Having been a guitarist before that, it was a different animal for me, my guitar playing has always been pretty unique.

So my advice would be, embrace the 'academic' study of theory, chord-scale relationships, into substitutions, introducing outside playing, etc. etc. If you have it in you to develop a unique voice, it'll happen. If you don't, you'll be able to sit in and play with most anybody. That's the real goal of music school programs: turn out as many working professionals as they can. Their methods do work.

BTW, if you don't already, develop some chops on piano and/or guitar. Being able to play a polyphonic instrument helps immeasurably with all the theory stuff, you'll be able to play and hear how it makes harmonic sense.
 

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I can't entirely argue with bokagee, as knowledge is valuable and knowing the history/background and trajectory of your art is also valuable. What I can tell you is that those with talent in the arts are generally encouraged to continue their studies and often supported by scholarships. Nice...or is it? Can you name a single famous artist, composer, or musician who has a PhD? Some may have been given that honor (more for the school's benefit than anything else). Is it a coincidence? Did none of those people who started their journey in the arts actually have talent?

This is not really a debate as far as I'm concerned as the evidence is clear. The only question is at what point do you bail out while you still have a modicum of individuality or creativity? The academic route is one where you continually jump through hoops in order to appease (get good grades). The more restrictive the study, the less broad your musical horizons become. Jazz vocabulary that only relates to the middle of the last century, and what's often called theory, are a professional dead end. Theory for jazz teachers is unfortunately an "after the fact" analysis of what those amazing musicians did half a century ago. It was new then, it's history now. Do you really want to repeat history like a tribute band member for a style that hasn't been popular for half a century? You don't want or need to use those jazz conventions to play pop, reggae, funk, new age, house, world music, etc. etc. etc.

We are what we play and the patterns that we develop. We are also subject to "imprinting". This happens for many/most between teenage and 25 years old. What this means (in a musical sense) is that the music we listen to (or play) at that stage of our life becomes our "go to". Radio stations are based on this demographic and it pays handsomely to sell products to specific age groups. Check out all the stations that specialize in music of the 70s, 80s, etc. If you are spending years studying to play like a mid 20th century sax player, then that's going to be your normal. Breaking that can take a lot of undoing and retraining yourself. Why go there?

How many aspiring guitarists will put up with being told they have to learn "the language" of a phenomenal player like Joe Pass from the 1950s in order to play as a professional pop musician today? As an aspiring guitarist I might want to learn about Joe Pass and give a bash at playing in that style for a short while. The exact same thing should be true for sax. Learn lots of styles and and develop your ability. Don't let a failed pedagogical system dictate. Just look around...how many professional jazz sax players do you see compared to how many are graduated from universities? They mainly become teachers of the same failed paradigm. This has got to stop. We're closer to 2050s than we are to 1950s. The sax is an instrument with enormous potential and uses. It's NOT just about one "vocabulary" or style of playing from the middle of the last century.
 

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I might have mentioned this in a previous post, but when it comes to trying to improv I am having a hard time. I am trying to learn theory and apply it, but it seems very hard to understand. For example, knowing which chord can be substituted with another chord, without sounding bad.
Chord substations are relevant for rhythm sections playing chords as accompaniment, or for arrangers.When you are improvising, all you really need to know is what to play over the actual chord that is happening at the time. There is no need to substitute another chord, and thinking there is adds a whole layer of complexity that is totally unnecessary and actually counter-intuitive.

If you hear a C major 7, then play what you think works well over that C major 7. Just because the notes you play happen to be E G B D (=Eminor 7) or G B D F# (= G major 7) doesn't mean you are playing E minor 7 or G major 7 as a "substitute," it just means you are playing notes over a C major 7 that could also be attributed to those other chords.

So keep it simple and start off learning what goes with the chord, then when you are comfortable get more adventurous if it is appropriate in the genre.

Your thread is titled sax improv, and that doesn't mean jazz improv, nor does it mean you have to worry about complicated theory just because the word "saxophone" get confused with the word "jazz"
 

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Learning theory IS hard to understand. It's basically math, and math is hard for some people, easy for others. But knowing how to do math is not a bad thing, even if learning it is difficult.

The learned theory of music is an academic pursuit. It will help you if you want to compose, and it will help you have a vocabulary to communicate with other musicians, so it has value and has a useful place.

HOWEVER...it has no place at all in the act of improvisation. When you are improvising, you close your eyes in order to immerse yourself in the sound. The music you're improvising to becomes the aural landscape you inhabit, and the sound of your horn becomes a dancer in that landscape. Nothing else exists. Scales, patterns and 'what works over what' has no part in this, except as a tool for analysis after the fact.

If you surf, or ski, or snowboard; even riding a bike there are complex equations of physics; force, momentum, gravity that describe and define what you are doing and have nothing whatsoever to do with your ability and/or enjoyment in doing these things, and if you try to compute these factors while doing these things, you will almost certainly crash, wipeout, stumble, in other words FAIL, because when you are doing these physical activities, you are improvising. It's just you, in the moment, immersed in the activity.

In improv, anything that takes you out of the moment makes your improv suffer. It HAS to be just you, in the moment, immersed in the music. All of your attention needs to be there, not thinking about the math.
 

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In improv, anything that takes you out of the moment makes your improv suffer. It HAS to be just you, in the moment, immersed in the music. All of your attention needs to be there, not thinking about the math.
I might agree in that it could be more how you react to what is going on, however some of that may involve theory. But I do understand what you are saying. I think some of my best improvising has been in the moment, though at other times I may be thinking about things from the past or future. More likely the past though, if we believe our experience shapes some of what we do in the present.
 
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