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There are several reasons I often can't think fast enough to improvise a trumpet solo live over an unfamiliar set of chord changes, things like:

  • if there are upper extensions on the chord (e.g. #9, 13, and so on)
  • unfamiliar key
  • chords given at concert pitch and I play a transposing instrument
  • given chords contain substitutions making it hard to spot common cadences, e.g. a ii-V-I has had its V chord replaced with its tritone substitution.
  • finding a compatible whole-tone or diminished scale or compatible chord

Those things slow me down in a live performance, but if I have a while living with the chord changes, I can try various ideas out, and then with Sibelius I can write out a solo that works absolutely fine.

I already transcribe solos that I like from youtube and other places, and I try to incorporate similar ideas into my offline improvisations.

My question is, when I perform my notated solo, how do I make it sound improvised? I'm a trumpet player, so if you have trumpet-specific tips that's great. But I'd appreciate general performance tips too.

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    A good improvised solo sounds structured, elegant, lyrical, thought-out, precise and well-executed, as if it was written and rehearsed. IMO. Jul 6 at 13:20
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    IMO it's a bit silly to worry about “sounding improvised” – just worry about playing a good and natural-sounding solo. There are great improvised solos and great composed solos, just do it whichever works best for you. (Improvisation obviously has many practical advantages, but you don't get any of those with a composed-to-sound-improvised solo!) That notwithstanding it's an interesting question what properties are characteristic for impro vs. sheet playing. Jul 6 at 15:37
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    Something seems "off" in this question. There are two issues. Are you trying to convince someone your rehearsed solos are improvised? It seems your real concern might be to improve at improv? Jul 6 at 16:05
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    Just to drop something into the conversation: This is totally a valid motivation in other genres. "Classical" music is often mimicking improvisatory genres: Bartok or Liszt imitating Roma or Hungarian practices, De Falla imitating flamenco, Gershwin orchestrating the blues. We often advise people playing these pieces that "it needs to sound more improvised." So... what the heck do we mean by it? Jul 6 at 17:12
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    Have you tried memorizing your notated solo?
    – Dekkadeci
    Jul 6 at 20:48

7 Answers 7

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When an improvised solo is good, it sounds as if it had been composed, written with great skill and artistic taste, and practiced to perfection. Like a good performance of a good composition. The only real difference between a good improvised solo and a composed one is, when you improvise 10 times, you get 10 different solos, but the written notes stay the same. So, here's what to do: play variations of your solo.

Since you're able to compose a good solo and practice it so that it sounds nice, what you need to do to make it actually improvised is, change something about it every time you play it. First, make only a few very small changes, and then gradually more, and larger changes. Try not to play the exact same thing twice in a row. Change the rhythms and lengths, the phrasing and emphasis, the dynamics. Then start changing the pitches. Add a different embellishment each time. Incorporate a few small licks in the solo, and for each new solo, play a different lick somewhere. But start small - make ONE variation to ONE note in ONE place. Can you do that? If you can, then make a change somewhere else. And then make TWO changes. That's improvisation.

You say that unfamiliar chord changes are a problem, because you can't handle them fast enough. Writing a solo - or many solos - helps here. You get familiar with the changes, slowly and peacefully. For every chord and tone you select in your written solo, you may find a few alternative notes. Try to find alternative notes. Write a new, completely different solo from the beginning, if it helps to come up with alternatives. Select a backing chord and find a couple of optional notes to play over it. Or you can even write a completely different chord to arpeggiate on top of the accompaniment. No hurry, take your time, write it down. You'll get better at it. Try selecting a triad pair over a chord or a passage. For example, over a Cm7, try alternating between the triads F major and G minor, it creates a nice sound. When you have a triad pair, it's easy to create variations. Just arpeggiate the triads in a different order and different rhythm every time.

Prepare your written solo with the specific purpose of being able to create variations of it. Write an outlined chord arpeggio somewhere, so you can play a different chord every time. For the triad pairs trick, write yourself some triad pairs, and then change what triads you play and how.

I can't guarantee it, but I believe that if you keep doing this, you will not only play better solos, you'll also learn to be a better improviser. Why not take someone else's solo as the starting point for playing variations, or the song's main theme? As far as I know, that's where jazz improvisation starts from - playing variations of existing tunes.

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    One could argue that effective improvisers follow a similar process, but have done it so often that they've moved it to an intuitive and unconscious layer of their mental processes. Jul 6 at 17:37
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    I like this answer. But I'd like to add a suggestion to OP: get together with others and play some pretty simple tunes, and improvise your solos. I'm concerned that a tendency toward perfectionism may be hanging you up, and I think that working with simpler tunes could help free you up. Obviously it could take a while for you to work your way up in complexity, and I would understand if you want to use your approach for performances for the time being. Jul 7 at 4:36
  • 'Good' improvisation requires knowledge of keys, scales, styles..., especially in Jazz/Blues, which are based on genre conventions, traditionally. Even experimental improvisation, e.g. Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett) improvisation sounds good, because of a mix of technical/theoretical knowledge. I agree knowing the piece instinctively helps, but in cases where there is no prior knowledge of the piece, success depends on thorough knowledge of scales, keys, genre. To sound like you're improvising, make a few subtle mistakes and muted licks between sections, play off-beat, then recover back to time.
    – user73967
    Jul 8 at 22:32
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I wonder if your biggest problem is that the very act of writing a solo down on manuscript paper (or in Sibelius) shoehorns it into the limitations of our standard notation system. I've transcribed solos from recordings in the past and given them to other musicians to play, and they always end up sounding a little more 'mechanical', a little more 'constrained', a little less 'free' than the solo on the original recording. This is because the notation only ever an approximation to the original recording.

It seems to me that when you play from dots in front of you, the dots tend to constrain you to some degree to put in less expression and 'feel' than when you play entirely by ear. But some of this influence lingers even after you've learned the solo from the dots and then taken the dots away.

If it is a transcription of a recording, the answer is probably to listen to the recording over and over again and try to take your rendition beyond the transcription. Doing this may also help you to start to do the same with solos that you have composed yourself.

(As an aside, if the real difference between a true improvisation and a pre-prepared solo is that the improvisation will be different every time you play it, then that is a bit of a red herring because most of your audience will only ever hear you play it the once. What do they know or care that it was just the same as you played it in your previous gig?)

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It's probably only you who worries about this! The audience just think 'that was a good solo!'

Write more than one solo for the same song. But don't be afraid of preparing a solo. We used to consult books of 'hot licks' that fitted various common sequences. The modern trend is to think in terms of 'chord=scale'. Both are useful. And don't lose contact with the original melody - it's good to play a solo to 'this song', not just to 'these changes'.

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Why does it matter if a solo is composed or improvised on the spot? The only thing that matters is that the solo is interesting and that it works. Many great solos are improvised, but many others are not. If you want to go for something more improvisorial, take your composed solo as a skeleton but feel free to vary it as you like. The hard thing about improvising is improvising the grand scheme, not improvising small fillings and variations. This way you can get something of both worlds.

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I don't understand why you want to do this, but the easiest way would be to throw out your sheet music and try playing it from memory. I don't play trumpet, but with guitar there is lots of room for "sounding like yourself" with slurs/bends, grace notes, etc.

Accidents and screwing up can often lead to things that are musically interesting, so don't fear doing it.

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  • Yeah. You can sound like Adele - so much emotional filigree that no-one knows what the tune is! But don't over-do it. Jul 8 at 9:57
  • Emotional filigree . . . I'm stealing that! And yes, usually you can just play the melody if you can't think of anything else and it will be totally fine. Or you can just play a different tune entirely and claim you were 'playing outside' lol.
    – Gerald
    Jul 12 at 12:42
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    I used to occasionally have the pleasure of playing piano for Maxine Daniels, a superb jazz singer. Except that she rarely sang 'jazz' in the sense of improvising. Just sang the melody. Perfectly. youtube.com/watch?v=X8u1JZCB3-8 Jul 13 at 14:38
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Trumpet-specifically, a few things come to mind, to make a solo seem improvised:

  1. Close your eyes. Nothing says "I'm reading this" more than having your eyes glaring down over your instrument at the music stand.
  2. Nervously and rapidly finger the valves in the few seconds before you play and in any pauses. (kidding) 2a. Move the bell around as you play (tastefully - just a bit for expression).
  3. Use a wide dynamic range - hit those accents like you MEAN IT, not as if you are merely complying with sfz written under them.
  4. Half-valve or drop to pp some passing notes here and there.
  5. Use some rhythmic styling such as delays or anticipations like jazz singers do all the time.
  6. Vibrato - nobody 'reads' vibrato.
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One mark of an improvised solo is a coherent tension with meter and harmony of the background: every phrase is developing its tension in relation to the background. When reading a solo from a score sheet, you run into danger of maintaining your timing in relation to counting, of placing focus on the beats rather than unfolding your lines across the backdrop of the beats kept by the rhythmic group.

You need to be on top of your solo, anticipating and developing its lines in large storylines rather than following the score closely and being surprised by where it leads.

It may help to mostly sketch your solos and adding embellishments and runs as you go: you don't want to pick little stuff off the score; that's about as likely to end up charming as reading a poem syllable by syllable.

Think of it as reciting poetry. You don't want to deliver a phonetic performance: you need the familiarity with the material that allows you to make it emerge like a fresh outpour of your thoughts.

And there is no such thing as a "mistake". Nothing to correct, nothing to regret. Of course, sometimes going on where a stumble led you is easier if you are actually improvising, but you should be able to do something and resynchronize at a suitable place.

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