Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 21

Pianist Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 21: Phrasing in Improvisation

 

    A simple tip this week is this:  Play less not more.

 

    It’s a common shortcoming of improvisers at all levels but particularly beginners that there are not enough spaces in the music. Simply put this means that while we’re thinking about all the technical details (diminished scales and so on) we often forget about the musical goal which should be to tell some sort of story. And one of the most important features here is learning to construct phrases. 

 

    A phrase has a beginning middle and end and so there should be frequent spaces (silences/gaps) between them. Above and beyond everything else the spaces between phrases enables the listener to digest what they’ve just heard and prepare for the next phrase. It’s just like listening to a speaker. We all know what we do if someone doesn’t stop talking –we stop listening and it is much the same with badly phrased music.

 

    So practise this: force yourself to play phrases which have an end. For example: play for two bars then have two bars off. Then 3 bars on, 1 bar off or 6 bars on, 2 bars off etc etc.

 

And listen to yourself as you play – when you hear the end of the phrase then force yourself to stop, resist the temptation to continue.

    This is probably the most common cause of weak musical ideas.

    You’ll be surprised how much better you’ll sound by constructing good phrases, and it should be easier to play less than more. 

 

    Listen to the masters. Okay some of them play very long phrases and sometimes it works but they will often be contrasted with shorter ones.

 

    By the way although I’m referring to melodic improvisation here you apply the same ideas to harmony and rhythm in the sense of comping and drumming.

 

Terry Seabrook