Where does one start in order to learn improvisation?

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    Michael Lake
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    I saw a comment recently on my Youtube video on improvisation anchor notes. The comment stated:

    I often feel like I don’t know where to start when I sit down with a tune and the rhythm track to go with it… besides playing with the melody and anchor notes, what else needs to come first? I always feel like I need to know a ton of scales to get started… should I begin with thinking in a scalar way, or just play melodies?

    My answer was, Scales have their place, which in my opinion, is for building technical prowess. Good to have. As I think about improvisation, however, I don’t think scales. I think melody first. I based my book Jazz Ear Savvy on the idea that the connection between your musical mind and the horn is the critical skill in good improvisation. That’s why I recommend starting by playing Happy Birthday or Row Row Row Your Boat in various keys. Sing a note, then find it and use it as the first note in a song that you know. If you get stuck, sing or whistle the tune. See, you DO have it in your head. The trombone is just getting in the way.

    I believe that getting the trombone “out of the way” is the key task at hand. The way you do that is by making the connection between your musical mind and your trombone stronger. Remind yourself that you have no problem singing Over the Rainbow in Db. Why do you stumble when you play it on trombone? Because the machine requires you to move your arm and mouth in a precise way that accommodates the key of Db.

    Don’t think of scales as the primary developmental tool in improvisation. Instead, think brain/horn connection. That is, unless you don’t think of improvisation as spontaneous melody composition. Maybe you think of it as mechanical wizardry. I’m not kidding. Playing tons of notes is how some guys want to sound. They SHOULD be working overtime on scales and patterns.

    Me? I’m a melody composition guy.

    Michael Lake
    mlake@altobone.com
    Sign up for free monthly music at www.altobone.com

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