Becoming a Storyteller: Creating a Narrative as you Improvise

Put yourself in this scenario: you’ve learned some vocabulary, discovered some interesting harmonic devices, and developed your technique. As a saxophonist, maybe you’ve perfected your altissimo register, or as a pianist maybe you’ve been working on your “block chords” to generate a fuller texture. In other words, you’ve got all the tools.

The question becomes: how do you put those pieces together into a compelling story? Even if you don’t feel comfortable improvising yet, it’s never too early to start thinking about creating a narrative. Having a larger trajectory or structure in mind is often what makes artists sound mature and focused. You want to lead your listeners along, just like a singer progressing through each verse of a song. Here are a few parameters to keep in mind as you practice and play:

1) Energy Trajectory

Without getting too specific at first, ask yourself a simple question: where is the energy headed? Many solos tend to start simply and grow in intensity over time. Other improvisers prefer to begin with a more impassioned statement, cooling off as they go. There are a thousand variations in between, as you can ramp up or slow down at will. Some of my favorite improvisers build up to a peak in the middle of their solos, much like a good novel. Whichever way you choose to shape your solo, it can be effective to end in a different place than you began.

2) Contrasts

Once again, contrasts keep solos engaging. Over the course of minutes or choruses, you can progress from softer to louder, from sparse to dense, from the lowest register to the highest. While practicing a new tune, set yourself the goal of moving from one extreme to another. You could start “inside” the harmony and grow progressively more dissonant. The possibilities are endless, and each one takes control and patience to execute effectively. You need to learn how to maintain a sense of perspective even as you navigate all of the smaller-scale details in a solo. Easier said than done… That said, for a few minutes at the end of every practice session why not allow yourself to forget about all of the little things so you can focus on narrative? Addressing larger-scale issues takes practice too!

3) Develop a single idea

There are tons of good articles on motific development out there already, so I’ll keep this description brief. If you pick a simple melody or rhythm to develop over a chorus or two, chances are you’ll create a more cohesive statement than if you had presented a bunch of different ideas in the same amount of space. Try to “twist” your initial statement in as many ways as possible, varying the rhythm and transforming it to fit over a number of different harmonies. When practicing, treat your original idea as a kind of “thesis” statement that everything else relates back to. Even when you aren’t focused on doing that in other playing situations, you’ll likely find you tend to stick with ideas longer than you used to. You will learn to pace yourself more effectively, leaving more room to introduce other ideas and techniques later in your solo.

4) Listen to your accompanists

Luckily, the soloist isn’t the only one trying to create a narrative. Good rhythm sections are constantly looking for opportunities to “make things happen” by varying the time-feel, dynamics, or even the harmonies of a tune. Chances are that if you’re ever wondering what should come next, your pianist or drummer will feed you a few ideas to develop. Your bass player may start playing a pedal-point, creating tension and leading into the next section of the form. Even if you find yourself creating most of the drama, it will be four times more effective if your rhythm section is onboard. If possible (believe me, it’s hard sometimes!), communicate your musical intentions as clearly as possible with dynamics and body language. You may find that rhythm sections are listening harder than you thought for where you want to go.

Other suggestions or thoughts? As always, I would love to hear your thoughts about a fascinating topic!

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