Practicing Improvisation

Bob Anram, the tenorist, has some thought-provoking ideas about improvisation in three essays (called “Letters”) that are posted on the Sax On The Web website (here). In the second essay/letter, entitled Neutral Phrasing, he describes how he has solved the problem of how to practice improvisation without memorizing phrases. In a nutshell, here’s what he does:

“I use Bach-like phrases (Get a copy of the Well Tempered Clavier-initially listen to it, but do not read it before you start practicing, to establish a sense of sound). I start with fairly conventional phrases to establish my sense of tonal center (key). Throughout the session, my thoughts (emerging from the horn) become more complex harmonically- but still neutral. I set up parameters such as starting successive phrases on a different note (eventually starting phrases with all 12 tones) and resolve to the tonic. or end a phrase on a different note- eventually encompassing all 12 keys- I will keep ending in a certain note until it sounds logical to me. I will create ascending phrases, descending phrases rotational phrases, long phrases, short. I will create phrases on the lower, middle and upper ranges of the horn. Follow a slow phrase with a fast phrase. .If I feel that I am weak in a certain range of the horn – I will create phrases in that range. I am constantly examining my playing for “tendencies” then create exercises to strengthen non tendencies.”
To better understand how to use this practice regimen, the purpose behind it and what is seeks to accomplish, I encourage you to read the all three essays.

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