Compose, Improvise, Practice: Three Birds, One Stone!   


Do you ever NOT feel like practicing?  If your go-to staple is a dry method book, you’ll probably answer “yes” – if you’re really honest.

On the other hand, if you dream of becoming an inventive improviser or an innovative composer, then read on!

Practice Compositional-Improv

For those days when you feel too whimsical for method books, or seasons when practicing seems labored and downright pestiferous, try this:

Fall back on a simple slow blues or mess around with a basic ii-V-I progression.  For example, you might begin – as I did last night- with a totally mundane, basic, generic ii-V phrase like this one:


Not too thrilling, but it might serve as a skeleton to build on, perhaps like this:


The added non-harmonic tones add a bit more life.  That’s how my practice session evolved last night.  I started out totally uninspired, looking for something to jump start my imagination.  Here was the next step in that evolution that popped out as I doinked around with this simple idea:


By now, it’s starting to feel like a lick that’s engaging enough to try in all 12 keys.  The basic outline is still there, but we’re beginning to flesh it out with some melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic interest.  How about adding a bit of accented syncopation?  Maybe repeat that rhythmic pattern to lend more unity?  And let’s swing it!


You get the idea?  You start with something totally mundane, just as boring and uninspiring as you’re feeling right now, go at it like you’re hitting a punching bag or mangling a hunk of Silly Putty.

After twisting and contorting this particular molecular phrase every which way for an hour or so, what finally emerged was this phrase:


By the time that dorky little cantus firmus (#1.) had metamorphosed into what seemed to me to be a worthwhile, interesting phrase, my boredom had turned to fascination, and I was all set to input it to Band in a Box and shed it in all 12 keys.  If you want to shed this phrase on your axe in all 12 keys, check out the complete recording and chart below.

But I encourage you to try doing something like this on your own.  If you do, you’ll be exercising in three essential ways simultaneously:

  1. You’re developing chops on your axe.
  2. You’re honing your improvisational ability.
  3. You’re actually turning into a composer.

Perhaps you’re that rare specimen who’s consistently blest with energetic ambition, for whom Klosé, Ibert, the Bach Cello Suites, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, Charlie Parker’s Omnibook, and all the other great transcription collections consistently feel like perfect practice vehicles.  Awesome!  I applaud your diligence.

For the rest of us mortals, on the other 26 days of the month, trying something akin to what I described above might just save us from spiraling into practice oblivion.

Here is the chart.   But if you want to learn how to play melodies like this one in all 12 keys by ear like I did without a chart, download “New Ears Resolution.”



One thought on “Compose, Improvise, Practice: Three Birds, One Stone!   

    “Hi, Craig! I delved into your improvisation lessen and played all the examples (on my phone, that is), and I must say I find this approach extremely enlightening. Having students devise their own exercises is so creative. It allows them to embrace their uniqueness. It’s exciting to tap into your individuality. I usually found that I enjoyed playing something that I personally generated rather than someone else’s stuff. The step-by-step approach that you illustrate so clearly takes the mystery out of improvisation, and I’m sure that it would lend confidence to players who wouldn’t normally feel capable of spontaneously coming up with ideas. This provides the “key” conceptually to unlock what must otherwise feel like an unattainable goal for kids (and adults) afraid to deviate from the printed page. One small step at a time, and voila! The mystery disappears. This is really great, Craig. So well-organized! I assume you will use this approach at the Carmel Valley camp. Anyway, let’s talk….Brian”


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