If you play the saxophone, you have to play jazz at some point, and I’ve been playing the tenor saxophone for 11 years. I like playing jazz because I get to improvise, or play a solo that hasn’t been prepared or written beforehand. The gist of improv is that you can make up whatever you want as long as you play in the right musical key and for your allotted amount of time. Despite this freedom, learning how to improvise was really hard for me at first. When I started to learn, the background music would go by way too quickly, and I would concentrate so hard on playing the correct notes that my solo time would end before I could figure out what to play.
This is the importance of having a good teacher. I would have been absolutely lost if it hadn’t been for my saxophone teacher from middle and high school. She taught me first to just play the chord notes of the current key, so when I had to be in the key of C, I would play the notes C, E, and G. Start with quarter notes, build up to eighth notes and then start adding other notes in the key in between the chord notes. To know when to change keys and chords, just listen to the other instruments for when they change. I wish I could say that was all the help I needed, but learning how to improv well was a long process. Even with the chord notes and the other instruments guiding me, I still struggled with inventing a satisfying melody within the time that was given to me.
The last piece of advice my teacher gave me was that even if I didn’t like what I was playing, I should just keep going. At the time, I didn’t take this advice well. How could I continue if I was playing so poorly? As I practiced more though, it became easier to get over the mistakes, to improve and to create interesting melodies.
Eventually, improvising became less of a chore and more of a fun challenge. It was an exciting, spontaneous way to create art, something so different than the prepared work I had to do for school, where you knew what you were submitting. Not knowing what the final product of improvising is scary, but that’s also the whole point: to create something on the spot, yet still have it sound effortless and full of life.
The process of learning how to improvise provided some insight for how I can generally improve in what I do. Just have a good foundation in the basics, get the help you need from others and build up from there. Even if what you’re making is not perfect or what you like, keep on moving until you’re satisfied with your creation.