Secrets of Jazz Improvisation on Saxophone, Flute and Clarinet in Popular Music
When I was growing up and trying to learn how to play my saxophone in the 60's there were no good jazz teachers at the time, so everything I learned, I learned by transcribing and figuring out how to play by ear. I think it was a great way to develop my ear and it forced me to listen very hard to exactly what the player was playing but I was on my own trying to figure out what scales and devices the players were using. These days, there are so many transcription books on the market as well as practically every recording ever made by every great saxophone player that a young student is overwhelmed by the amount of information and often doesn't know where to start.
What I'm going to tell you today is a secret or a tip that I would have paid big money to have understood. It would have saved me years of searching and trying to figure out what my favorite players were playing. At that time all my training was based on major and minor scales, the modes, and the bebop scale. The kind of music that I was interested in playing was more pop oriented which was heavily influenced by R&B. Every time I tried to play a solo it didn't seem to be in the right style because I was trying to force the scales that I was familiar with into these R&B styled songs.
SO MANY OF MY STUDENTS HAVE COME TO ME OVER THE YEARS AND SAID THAT THEY STUDIED WITH ALL THESE "SO CALLED GREAT TEACHERS" THAT ARE FAMOUS PLAYERS BUT THEY DIDN'T FEEL LIKE ANY OF THEM COULD HELP THEM FIGURE OUT WHAT THEY NEEDED TO KNOW TO SOUND GOOD.
You may be already figuring out what I'm about to tell you. It doesn't matter whether you're already an improviser or a beginner saxophone player, this one piece of knowledge will help you to understand how to play in all the various styles of jazz.
Every style of jazz is based on a specific vocabulary that is derived from a scale. Bebop is based on the bebop scale, so if you're interested in playing bebop you will want to learn that scale thoroughly and the arpeggios that go along with that so that you are able to play and understand what other players are playing in that style and then analyze what catches your ear and turns you on.
With that in mind, the secret that I am going to uncover for you today is simply this: Most contemporary pop music is based on the pentatonic scale and the pentatonic/blues scale (which is the pentatonic scale with an added flat 5th). You may say to yourself, well why is that such a great secret and how can that help me become a better saxophone player? Well, I'm going to explain how by learning that scale, you will be able to easily learn how to sound really hip in the contemporary pop scene today.Just by understanding that one thing and having the technique under your fingers, you will be able to cut down the amount of time it takes you to learn how to play a burning solo in almost all contemporary music today.
Everything in the blues style is based on it. As far back as Albert Collins, BB King and other blues guitarists of the late 50s and 60s, their entire career was based on the blues scale. As music evolved, that scale continued to dominate the pop music scene through R&B music and contemporary pop. If you've ever tried to learn a pop song melody, or tried to learn a solo that you heard, if you were anything like me, you wouldn't have been able to figure out what was going on. However, by memorizing the pentatonic and the blues scale in what ever song you're trying to learn to play or improvise on you will begin to understand just how easy it can be to play without any wrong notes over most pop music chord progressions.
For example, before I understood this in my early days of learning to play the saxophone, I was under the misconception that every chord change needed to have a specific scale that ran through it and all my solos sounded a bit forced. What I eventually figured out was that with the pentatonic blues scale I could play over many different chord changes with that one scale, and that would be the hippest way to play over those progressions. Even when you simply trying to learn a melody of a pop tune or R&B tune, if you learn the pentatonic blues in that key you will often find that the melody is based mostly or entirely on that scale. Let's look at some examples of pop melodies and see how well that applies:
1. Let's 1st look at the new Lady Gaga tune which I transcribed the melody and recorded a couple lessons on how to play it in a youtube video. Just click the link below to see the PDF that you can download. If we start at the pre-chorus you can see that the entire pre-chorus and chorus is based on an E minor pentatonic scale. G–A-B–C#-E. Just by knowing that, that melody becomes a super easy melody to not only transcribe but to also memorize. Further, if you were to solo or improvise around the melody itself you would sound the most tasteful playing that E minor pentatonic or E minor pentatonic blues scale.
2. Next, let's take a look at "Suit and Tie" by Justin Timberlake. Download the PDF below. Again, we will analyze the pre-chorus and chorus only. Here we see in the alto sax key that almost the entire tune is based on a G sharp minor pentatonic. (G#-B-C#-D#-F#). So if you were trying to transcribe this song because of the difficulty of the key you may not recognize that it's all with in this pentatonic scale (except for 2 places where it adds in A#). So once again if we just to learn that pentatonic scale, get it under your fingers then when you are listening along to figure out the notes you would see how easy it would be to figure out the song.
3. Another's example is up to that I recorded as well as did it a lesson for you on YouTube,” Firework” by Katy Perry. Download the PDF below to follow along as I show you how the entire verse is based on a D minor pentatonic scale(D-F-G-A-C). Again just learn that scale and this is also an easy song to transcribe on your own.
4. Here's another example of an entire solo that is really recognizable. This is a pretty famous saxophone solo that is based entirely on the B minor Pentatonic scale (B-C#-D_E
How To Get Started Teaching Music Lessons Online
Right now there are a lot of lessons being moved online because of the corona virus. So we put together a list of tips and best practices to help you make the most out of online music teaching.
All of the platforms that are readily available to us are not designed for instruments, they are designed for voice. This means that tone and dynamics are very difficult to hear. The best workaround that I have found is to ask the student to record a video of their playing on their phone or computer ahead of time, upload the video to YouTube as an unlisted video (not private) and send it through as a link.
Even the most basic of phones will likely produce better audio quality than you will find in a video call. The pre-recorded video can then be used and referenced in the lesson as you work on repertoire or exercises. The added benefit of this is that it brings a certain degree of focus, preparedness and organization to a teaching session.
In my experience the most impactful element that affects sound quality is the speed of connection to the internet. While you can ensure that you have a fast connection, you will not be able to control that of all your students. To get the best connection possible you can turn the wifi off on all other devices connected to the same router and at best have an ethernet cable run from your computer directly to the modem so that you are not relying on wifi at all.
A microphone will boost your sound quality too but not as much as a good internet connection from all parties.
Teaching with live video can be very off-putting with regards to sound but you also get used to it. I have found over the years that I can somewhat decipher what I am hearing and pick up some nuances that might sound garbled to others.
Facetime, Skype, or Zoom?My recommendation : Zoom
There are many video platforms that can be used but perhaps the most common ones will be Facetime, Skype, and Zoom.
Facetime and Skype will be excellent tools for one-to-one teaching scenarios and many people are already familiar with how to use the programs, which is a big plus. Skype has the added advantage of being able to send files and text messages while also on the call, which can be very useful for sharing scores, links, and pdfs. Facetime tends to be a bit more stable in my experience as a platform and can have better audio.
Zoom is a popular platform that is free to use for sessions up to 45 minutes in duration. For longer sessions you will need to purchase a subscription. Zoom is very useful for teaching because of the extra functions that it provides and I would recommend investing some time to learn this platform. For this reason I will focus on using the Zoom platform in this article, but many concepts can be applied to other platforms.
Zoom features for music teachingBy the way, I have no affiliation with this company.
Share your screen
The share screen function will allow you and your student to read off the same PDF score. As you are sharing your screen this means that you can open the score in a program (like Preview on a Mac) where you can annotate the score and point out sections with your cursor. Anything that you can see on the screen can be seen on the students screen. Just remember that people tend to be on smallish screens so you might need to zoom in on the score if you want to refer to small details.
Record the Lesson
It is very easy to record a Zoom lesson. Simply hit record whenever you like and a little red dot will appear on the feed showing that the session is being recorded. You have the possibility to pause the recording at any time – perhaps if you want to engage in casual conversation or there is a technical issue – and continue when you are ready.
When you end the session Zoom will take a few minutes to render a movie file that you can playback, upload to youtube or send to the student.
“Turn on Original Sound”
Zoom does have a setting that let’s you get around the dreaded sound quality that we normally experience and it is called original sound. This means that the software stops trying to be smart and detect when you are speaking and just transmits the raw audio feed of the microphone. This is GREAT but it comes with a couple of problems.
This is currently only available to the host, which means the teacher can better demonstrate sound but not the student.
It causes echo.
The sound quality gets better and in part this is because the signal gets a little more complex. The buffering needed to carry this signal puts you slightly out of synch with your student you will get an echo. The solution for this is to use headphones.
The biggest advantage of Zoom is that you can have multiple people in a “room”. This means that you can work with more than one person at a time and have a shared discussion.
When there is more than two people in a room, you can choose to toggle your screen mode from featuring the person who is talking (or making sound) to a grid of video feeds where you can see everyone.
In order for people to join your session you will need to give them a link that looks something like this
“Join Zoom Meeting
When you have a zoom account you will have a default “personal meeting room” link and also the ability to create new rooms with distinct names and links. This means that you could create a room called “Tracy’s Teaching Room” and send out the link to all your students.
When a student clicks on a link the first time they will be promoted to download the zoom app to their device. Once this has been installed for the first time it will simply launch the meeting room directly from the link. The apps are free and easy to set up, even for the technology averse.
If someone comes to a room early, before you initiate the session on your side, they will just see a screen saying that the host has not started yet. If they come in while you are in there with another student they will still get access but you can mute them until it is time to work with them.
One benefit for music teachers is that you can set up multiple webcams to use for your teaching session. I am a guitarist, so it can be very useful to have one camera set up for a shot of my right hand whereas the main camera is the typical view from the front.
To toggle between cameras all you need to do is select what camera you are using from the video icon.
As the host in Zoom, you can mute participants. This is incredibly useful if you are in a group of people and you don’t want to hear the various sounds coming from all the microphones. You can “mute all” or mute one at a time. Participants can also mute and unmute themselves.
Dealing with Dropouts
If the internet cuts out for you or the student the room is still there and it won’t disappear for everyone. This is inevitable at some point so it is nice to know that you or the student can simply fix the problem (usually plugging the computer into power) and re-join a few minutes later.
Best Practices and SuggestionsPreparing Materials
Save yourself a lot of time by making sure that you both have the same materials to refer to. If you have different scores you might spend a lot of time trying to communicate exactly what part of the music you are referring to. It is possible to hold up sheet music to the camera but it is not particularly convenient.
One of the more subtle changes that you will have to make is regarding how you talk and listen. In our regular teaching you might find yourself interjecting simply to encourage or acknowledge something. Online, this will potentially stop the flow of conversation with the inevitable “oh, sorry you go ahead – no you go ahead”. By speaking and then giving a clear amount of time to listen to the response or playing you will make the interaction more effective and less frustrating.
Getting Different Camera Angles
If you only have one camera available, which will be the case for most of you, you can still get multiple points of view by physically moving or adjusting the current camera.
Take a few moments playing around with what angles might be useful in a teaching situation. How close do you need to be to see details and what details are visible at what positions. One thing to remember is that you don’t always need to have your face visible. Of course it is nice to see people’s faces but if you need to see a cello bow hold, perhaps you can adjust accordingly.
If you are on a phone or laptop you will have some ability to maneuver the camera either by tilting or holding the device in your hand. Handholding can be very disorienting for the viewer so don’t do it too often, but it can be useful for getting very specific points of view. If you are using an inbuilt camera on a laptop, don’t be afraid to tilt the screen to get the right angle.
The vast majority of cameras will be on automatic settings and adjust for light as they think is necessary. The only real problem that arises for our purposes is if you have a strong light in the background.
If you have strong backlighting – perhaps a sunny window behind you or a strong lamp – then the camera might think it is necessary to adjust for that light source. The result will be that your face will be very dark.
To fix this, aim to have the strongest light source in front of you, or potentially maneuver your torso to cover a specific back light. As soon as you do this you will notice that your camera adjusts on its own.
If you want to look your best, you will want to aim for a large lighting source – like a window -and a soft lighting source – like a window with transparent white curtains. A small and bright light source will give you harsh highlights and shadow.
A simple layout that works is putting a soft lamp next to your computer screen that lights your face from the front, turn on the overhead room light for a bit of ambient light, and potentially have some light in the background for depth. Of course, lighting can get very sophisticated and you can spend some time experimenting to find a setup that works for your space.
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