When I got to Eastman this fall, I almost immediately discovered a bunch of great tunes written by faculty and guest artists. Most were charming yet complex, consisting of intricate bebop lines and quirky harmonies. My question became: how could I internalize all of that information besides just playing the melodies over and over again? Was there a way to weave parts of the lines I liked into my own? I have always sought to avoid the “copy-and-paste” mentality, or the process of playing entire phrases that I’ve transcribed during my solos. There is no such thing as “solo plagiarism,” but I never like to feel like what I’m playing isn’t mine. Plus, repeating favorite phrases in different keys gets boring pretty quickly and doesn’t force you to listen to yourself very critically.
With my teacher’s help, I developed two useful strategies for internalizing melodies and harmonies more organically. Whether you’re working with Charlie Parker heads or your own transcriptions, these techniques can help you engage with the material in ways that stretch your creativity.
1) Use a melodic “word” in your own sentence
Imagine that you’re trying to teach a small child what the word “luxurious” means. You might give them a definition before using it in a few phrases to give them a sense of context. To test their understanding though, you’d likely tell them to write some sentences of their own using the word. Their first few might not make sense, but that’s ok. “This pen is luxurious,” the child might say. Pen isn’t exactly the kind of noun an adjective like “luxurious” applies to, you might say. “What about a house?” Yes, that makes more sense…
Let’s apply the same process to integrating a simple bebop phrase into your own musical sentences. Pick a theme or pattern you like, no more than four or five notes. Try moving it around, starting on different pitches and different beats in the measure. Try adding rests in the middle of the phrase or embellishing part of the phrase. The possibilities are endless, and chances are you’ll learn both from what sounds good and what doesn’t. You’ll get a sense of what notes in the phrase are harmonically significant and which are less crucial. Those relationships may change as you move the idea around, or if you try applying it to a different chord progressions. As a final exercise, you could even try playing an entire solo over a familiar tune using only variations of that idea.
2) Contours and Contrasts
If you’re not looking to be quite that specific, you could also take a more birds-eye approach. To continue with the language analogy, let’s say you’re trying to teach that same child how to write a short story. “Suppose the most exciting part of your story is in the middle and the main character lives happily ever after in the end,” you might suggest. Your focus would be providing a more general structure they can use with the sentences they have already written.
You can take a similar approach with phrases of solos or melodies, extracting shapes or dramatic progressions rather than specific words. For example, your favorite solo might start with a line that gradually ascends to a peak by the fourth measure. You could try writing or improvising a line of your own that does the same thing. You might also notice that when the tune modulates to a different key, the soloist starts using different rhythms or articulations. When improvising your own solo over that section of the tune, you could try making similar changes to your own sound. An especially effective way of practicing these kinds of concepts is actually improvising your own solo along with the original recording. When the soloist ascends, you can ascend also with your own lines. You’re essentially improvising duets with the artist you’re emulating! Alternatively, you could compliment the artist you’re emulating by doing precisely the opposite of what they do. That can be a fun way of creating an accompanying part.
Again, I hope that at least a few of these ideas inspire you in some way. I invite your comments and questions, and hope these thoughts help you practice more creatively and efficiently!