(I’ve just changed the title of this post, 21/03/07, as a lot of people were coming here looking for a popular jazz title -sorry folks!)
A lot of people fancy the idea of improvisation -they just never get started. Where do you start?
There are probably almost as many different ways of improvising as there are people, so there are many possible starting points. However, if someone doesn’t know where to start, the chances are that they think of improvisation as the effortless creation of melody and will quickly become disheartened if their efforts lack conviction and form. One can improvise melodically in many styles but almost all successful melody creation is built on a strong sense of pulse and rhythmic balance.
Experienced jazz teachers frequently start off with rhythmic ‘question and answer’ activities: the teacher plays a short rhythmic idea to which the pupil responds with one of equal length. This helps the pupil develop a feeling for phrase length which, as most Western music is structured in balanced phrases, underpins melody. The second step is for the pupil to invent the ‘question’ for the teacher to answer. Once the pupil is secure in this rhythmic invention, the rhythmic ideas are clothed with pitched notes.
Rhythmic ‘question and answer’ is a good way to get started in any style of melodic improvisation and “Answering Back” provides some simple phrases with which to work in classical or folk styles. In case pupils are tempted to ‘turn up their noses’ at the simplicity of these rhythmic schemes, I should explain that they are all taken from melodies by ‘top rank’ composers. For Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven simple was good!