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I was taking jazz piano lessons but had to stop. My teacher's approach to teach jazz improvisation was to break it down into a series of "building blocks" which are small motifs found frequently in the majority of solos.

I know that a lot of people swear by licks, but all the greats couldn't have learned strictly by licks alone. How do you acquire the ability to create your own licks and melodic content for blues?

  • Are you asking how you develop licks? Or something else? Would you mind clarifying the question? – Jacob Swanson Aug 21 '15 at 5:57
  • Yeah, basically. I updated the question above. – 02fentym Aug 21 '15 at 6:02
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I believe that the oft-cited analogy with learning a language is quite to the point. You need to learn (i.e., copy) words, phrases, and simple sentences, and after a lot of practice you will be able to form your own sentences and express what you want to convey. You can speed up that process from copying to self-expression by total immersion, i.e. by maximally exposing yourself to the new language.

So what does that mean for learning how to improvise in a certain style? First of all, immersion of course means listening to the greats as much as possible. Try to be able to sing your favorite solos. Copy (play) them on your instrument, and try to understand why certain phrases work well over certain chords or chord progressions. After having learned many solos and copied many licks or "basic building blocks", you'll be able to come up with new melodies in the style that you've been working on.

Note that improvisation is mainly about two things: hearing melodies in your head, and being able to play them instantly on your instrument. So it is advisable to combine everything I've mentioned above with general ear training, and what I'd call "instrument-specific ear training", i.e. the ability to play everything that you hear in your head.

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    Sounds good, this is consistent with what I've seen among peers when I was in music school, people who were dedicated to jazz and were getting great results. I just wanted to add that I have been watching my son progress with jazz piano over the last three years (he is now 12), and it has been rather different. His teacher has him work on a tune for 4 - 8 weeks. Initially, of course, he's just learning the notes in the melody (the head), and the chords (they use The Real Book). That usually takes a week or two. Then she shows him a simple way to vary the left hand. The following week – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 12:06
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    ... she shows him the next step with the left hand. After a few weeks of this, his left hand is expressing the groove, not just chunking out the chords any more. Somewhere in there, he starts introducing his own little ideas in a few places in the melody. Sometimes he plays it through in a rather nonsense fashion, just letting go and experimenting with any old notes in the right hand, that go all over the place and don't necessarily stick to the notes of the chord. The key is that he plays the tune a few times every day. The nonsense improvising seems to occur only a few times, and not – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 12:13
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    ... in his lessons. Somewhere around the four-week point, his teacher shows him how to do certain things with the chords in the right hand.... By the time they feel read to move on to another tune, his improvising has become civilized (sticking to the correct notes of the chord).... Interestingly, when he started playing bari sax and tenor sax in school, he was able to improvise the way we recombine words to make new sentences. Yes, sometimes there's a note that doesn't belong, but not terribly often. Sometimes the solo isn't terribly interesting or memorable, but – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 12:22
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    ... the band teacher encourages everyone to experiment on their turn to solo, and they just keep going.... It's been fascinating to watch. Sometimes in music school I heard solos that sounded a little "cookbook". I don't hear that in the middle school band concerts. – aparente001 Aug 21 '15 at 12:23
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I would say that at the very core of improv there lies the undercurrent of completion of a melody. Whether the great jazz / blues masters had any formal training in it does not take away from the fact that that is in essence what you are doing when you do improv.

If you want to take the easier way to become proficient in completion of a melody I can really recommend doing the theory work of learning to write melodies and then further on learning to complete melodies.

It is hard and takes a decent amount of effort to master the skills of melody writing but going the formal route with an actual qualified music teacher is much easier than what the jazz masters of old had to endure.

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