Video transcript
@The Arts Unit Art Bites – Saxophone – improv by ear

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[intro chime]

JAMES LOUGHNAN: Hi, everyone. My name is James Loughnan. I am a saxophonist. And I work at The Arts Unit as one of the directors of the New South Wales Public Schools Stage Band. Today, I'd like to speak to you about improvisation, what it is and how you can get better at it. I'm going to play for you, now, a little improvisation on a song you probably all know, called 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.'

[saxophone playing]

You may have seen musicians improvise before live or on recordings. And it may seem like they're making it up as they go. It's not really the case, though. Music is a language that you can learn. You can learn vocabulary. You can learn rules about how to use that vocabulary and how to break those rules.

The goal of any language is to be able to say what we mean or what we think. Music is no different. When we improvise music, the goal is to be able to play what we think or what we hear in our head. And to do this well, we really need to strengthen the connection between our instrument and what's happening in our head.

One of the best ways to improve this connection between your instrument and your ear is by learning simple songs just using your ear. The best songs for this include nursery rhymes, folk songs, Christmas carols, basically, anything that you've heard a lot of times over the years. When you're starting out, the best ones to do are tunes which are diatonic. And diatonic is just a fancy word meaning all the notes exist in one key.

The first song I usually pick for my students when we're doing this sort of exercise is the song I played earlier, 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.' I choose this one, because it is diatonic. And it only uses the first six notes of the major scale. I'm going to play it for you now in E flat concert, which is my F major on my tenor saxophone.

[saxophone playing]

Once you're comfortable playing 'Twinkle Twinkle' in that key, you should try and challenge yourself by playing it in a new key. One of the reasons I really like that song as the starting point in this exercise is that it starts on the tonic, or it starts on the first note of the scale.

The next song that I've chosen for this series, 'Jingle Bells', or the chorus of 'Jingle Bells', starts on the third note of the scale. So if we're playing it in concert C, we're going to start on a concert E.

[saxophone playing]

The next two songs in this exercise that I like my students to try are the Aussie folk song, 'Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree' and 'Happy Birthday.' I choose 'Kookaburra' next, because it starts on the 5th and has some tricky fast sections in it.

Next I'm going to attempt a melody which, while it's probably one you are very familiar with, it is quite a challenging one to translate by ear to your instrument. The tune is 'Happy Birthday'. And it's difficult, because it has some rather large intervals in it. Intervals, if you're not familiar, is a musical term we use to describe the distance between two notes, in terms of their pitch-- so how high or low they are. Intervals can be small, like a major second. [saxohphone playing] Or intervals can be large, such as a major sixth.

[saxophone playing]

If you're not familiar with the term intervals, don't worry. It's not at all essential for this exercise. And if anything, it will make it more of a purely ear-based exercise for you.

I'm going to attempt this exercise, first, by singing it through. Now I find this a really helpful bridging exercise for learning a tune. I'm going to attempt it in E flat, again. And an important piece of information for this one is that it starts on the fifth note of the key, or of the scale.

So if we're going to be playing it in concert E flat, [saxophone playing] we're going to start it on concert C-- concert B flat, my C.

[saxophone playing]

So I'll sing it through, first. La la la la la la, la la la la la la, la la la la la la la, la la la la la la.

Singing it through, I find, really helps to engage the ear. Because if you can't hear, it you definitely can't sing it. And it really paves the way to learning playing it on your instrument. So now I'm going to play that tune on my sax.

[saxophone playing]

So remember to play that one in a key that you're more familiar with, first. And then you might like to try some other keys. And one important thing to note with this exercise, as with a lot of your practise, is it's OK to make mistakes. Mistakes are not only OK to make, they are vital for learning this exercise. I quite like the analogy of the professional archer. And you think about the professional archer and how many targets they've missed to get that much accuracy in their sport. So we need to make those mistakes in order to be able to play what we want to play.

This exercise is endlessly scalable, depending on the melody and the key that you choose. And it is therefore really beneficial for all ages and all abilities. Once you feel comfortable with the diatonic tunes that I've shared with you today, you might like to try some other melodies that involve concepts that, perhaps, you're working on.

One that I like to give my students when they're thinking about the chromatic scale, for instance, is a melody by the great piano player, Thelonious Monk. And it's based on the 12-bar blues. And it's called 'Blue Monk.' And it contains lots of chromaticism, or chromatic notes. This is what it sounds like.

[saxophone playing]

So as you can hear, lots of chromaticism and lots of repetition. That's a really good one to attempt next. I hope you'll give this exercise a go, as it really helps strengthen the connection between your instrument and what you're thinking. And that's a really important part of learning to improvise.

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