Sunday, September 15, 2019

Connie Crothers Practice Method for Melodic Improvisation

 The below was posted to the Audiobus forum by another forum member:

Here is the technique Connie Crothers taught me on how to improvise on the piano. Connie's and her teacher Lennie Tristano's, method of teaching jazz improvisation (something many jazz musicians do just to supplement gigs and studio dates to the detriment of many talented players) is indeed a well thought out system of learning to do something that seems to defy understanding by mere words, chord progressions, or played examples. At least for me. The basic requirement is the pushing aside of the judgemental mind (good and bad) but maybe in another discussion.
Lennie's system was based on melody and not harmony. Singing along with the jazz greats was a primary part of this melody based technique. So it is logical that his guidance on improvising was melody based at well. It begins with ingraining the melody in its most accurate note by note construction.
You should, of course, experiment with playing the melody as expressively as possible, change dynamics, accenting notes and even changing the phrasing by adding the first note of the next phrase to the end of the last, for example.
With that in mind, pick a favorite melody. In my time I used jazz standards, which I recommend because they are often more melodically deep compared with today's tunes. Play it straight as much as possible in left and right hands separately. Yes, your left hand! You will find there are two distinct feelings and "voices" in each of your hands. Traditional jazz playing reduces the left hand at its worst to comping a chord accompaniment or the famous "walking bass" so many of us like. Rarely do you hear melodies in the left with comping in the right, or two melodies at once. But even a walking bass line is at heart a melody. Limiting your left hand to the status of solely being an accompanist is perhaps a poor use of musical resources at hand (ouch).
So pick a melody, and play the melody as deeply as possible in each hand. DO NOT IMPROVISE NOTES! Do this for a week as little as fifteen minutes a day. Don't try to improvise during that time. This will ingrain the melody in your head and make you wring the most "improvised" expression from the exact melody notes.
The next week play the melody first with exact melody notes in an improvised way as explained above. Then play the next round with the melody playing in your head like a tape recording. Play any notes you care to. They can even be random, just keep the recording going so your improvisation takes place in real time with the melody (as though you are taking a solo chorus with a band) then play the exact melody notes, then improvise a chorus and so on and so forth. Do this in both hands separately. Try this for another week fifteen minutes a day.
Then the third week record what you are doing.
Do the whole week without listening to what you recorded. Skip a couple of days, have yourself a drink or two, or at least pick a quiet time late at night and listen to what you recorded. The rest is for you to decide. I am reasonably sure that you will see a significant evolution in your playing. For many the change will be quite dramatic. Playing off tunes is great. Playing totally free can be even more satisfying. This melodic immersion will help with your free playing but requires other resources as well. All that for another time. May the melody be with you!