Get out of the improvisation box Part 1 of 6

What is the improvisation box, are you in one, and how do you get out?

The box refers to the limits that younger and less experienced improvisers play within. Those limitations make their playing sound less musical and they dull the emotional impact instead of their playing sounding fresh and expressive.

I’ll identify six types of limitations and within this and next few posts, I’ll provide listening examples of great players who perform that particular musical attribute well and suggest ways you can exercise those areas for improvement within your practicing and in your performances.

Here are six musical attributes that players often limit themselves within what I’m calling the box:

  • Note range – Improvising within a narrow range of notes, perhaps only within an octave.
  • Dynamic range – Improvising within a limited mezzo forte or forte dynamic through an entire  solo.
  • Articulation range –  Improvising using a narrow range of articulations, typically only basic legato articulations. Each note is attacked in the same way and the same length (especially wind players)
  • Phrase length range – Each phrase within an improvisation is pretty much the same length. Similarly, each phrase may start and stop on the same place within the bar or beat.
  • Rhythmic Range – Playing every musical idea using the same basic rhythm, typically eighth notes or some repetitive pattern (daa da daa da daa da daa…)
  • Harmonic range – This is a little trickier to break out of. It involves playing only within the diatonic center of the tune instead of exploring outside the basic harmony and scales related  to the changes.

I’m going to divide these topics into separate posts, each discussing one of the above attributes. In this post I want to address note range limitations and how to work your way free out of that box.

Note Range

For each of these improvisational limitations, including this one, I suggest listening to a recording of your playing. Find something representative of your playing that you’ve recorded in the recent past and listen to it. Neither the best nor the worst. In this case, you are listening for the range of notes within your improvised phrases. (High notes to low notes.)

Do your lines seem to circle around a limited range of an octave or so? 

Expanding your note range will help your improvisation become more expressive and elicit a more emotional response within your listener. Just listen to any great player and you’ll hear how their wide range of notes adds an emotional element to their playing. Here’s one example with David Sanborn. I’ve always loved how he twists those high notes to wring out the emotion in them. Listen to his solo around 2:20.

How can you practice expanding out of the note range box if you find yourself in one?

While playing over a rhythm track or with a rhythm section, as an exercise, start on one of your lowest notes and play some sort of scale or interval arpeggiation up to one of your highest notes. This is obviously easier for piano players than us trombone players, but regardless of your instrument, practice stretching above and below your normal comfortable solo range.

Then start on a high note and work your way down to a low note using some sort of simple scale or interval arpeggiation. By doing this, you are getting the feel for expanding your range. 

Next, hold a high note and work your way down in some sort of musical phrase. High notes elicit emotion that notes in the middle of your range don’t as easily. We all know the cheap way for wind players to get a crowd response is to hold a high note. I’m not necessarily intending this to provide a hack for cheap audience response, but it does work for a reason. The human scream is usually a high pitch. It grabs our attention and makes us feel anxious. 

But you can also express emotion in working your way up from a low note to a high one within the same phrase. Here’s another example of someone who took full advantage of his range on trumpet: Kenny Wheeler. Listen to his solo starting around 2:40. And while you’re listening to this track, check out Michael Brecker’s solo. One of Michael’s great skills was using the full range (and then some) of the tenor.

While you practice or rehearse, force yourself to explore the higher and lower regions of your instrument. It may at first be difficult because you’re not used to playing in those more extreme ranges of your instrument. You don’t have comfortable licks up and down there and may even have trouble with scales and keys in those extended ranges.

That might give you something new to practice. When practicing scales and patterns, play them in the extended ranges low and high. Start doing that while keeping in mind that all growth comes from outside your comfort zone!

Read part two of the series…

2 thoughts on “Get out of the improvisation box Part 1 of 6”

  1. Have been working on all aspects of my playing, including range. However, I have not been concentrating enough on dynamics and articulation, and will keep this discussion in mind.
    I HAVE had the opportunity to listen to my recorded self A LOT lately, as I just finished a “legacy” 2 CD set for my Grandchildren. They include my playing in trio, quartet and Shearing type vibes quintet settings. A real eye opener. For the most part I’m pretty happy with my playing, but the two areas described above need work!

    Thanks, Ned (And have a great Thanksgiving!)

    1. Isn’t it amazing what we hear when we listen to a recording of ourselves? I’m always amazed. Seems that what I hear “behind” the horn rarely matches up with what I hear on a recording “in front” of the horn!

      On another note, that sounds really cool what you did for your grandkids!

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Michael Lake

Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, composer, marketer

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