In my work with new improvisers, I have found a handful of traits that many students have in common. The sum of these traits, I believe, combine to create a sound that defines the beginning improviser. Many new improvisers will exhibit one or more of these characteristics. Being able to identify these pitfalls in students’ playing and then guide them in a different direction will help put students on the path to playing more mature sounding solos.
The following is a list of these common pitfalls with strategies to help students overcome them.
It’s about time
My number one rule for soloists is simple: Play in time! New improvisers are often so overwhelmed by note choices that they ignore rhythm and time altogether. Just a simple reminder to play in time usually fixes the issue. Time is the organizational structure in music. When a soloist is not fitting in with the time, the music feels disorderly and lacking in control. Put those same notes in rhythm, though, and all of a sudden students are playing phrases that make sense.
Too many long notes
I hear inexperienced improvisers play a lot of long notes, especially at the ends of phrases. Long notes don’t swing. Longer notes have their place, but a preponderance of them drags the energy of a solo down. By changing those long notes to shorter rhythms (such as a single short note, two eighth notes, or a dotted-quarter plus an eighth) the soloist can instantly create phrases with more rhythmic energy.
Starting each phrase on the same beat
Students often get in the habit of starting most or all of their phrases on the same beat. This seems to happen mostly on beats 1 or 2. This habit creates solos that sound very predictable. Encourage students to wait longer before starting a phrase, add a pickup note, or start on an offbeat.
It can be difficult to know when to end a phrase. With the brain spinning in circles trying to figure out what to play, it’s easy to just keep tacking on more notes. The result of this is the musical version of a run-on sentence. I like to equate music with language. Like a good speaker, a good improviser makes a statement, has a slight pause, then begins the next statement. When working on phrasing, I ask my students to do just that: make a statement, put a period on it, pause for a moment, then make your next statement. When students have this mindset, they immediately start creating stronger phrases and better structure in their solos.
It’s common for new improvisers to limit their solos to their middle register, often utilizing less than an octave of range. Encouraging students to expand into both their lower and higher registers will help them to build more exciting solos while pushing them to venture outside their current comfort zone.