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Improv Techniques: The Art of Improvisation

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 22, 2006

By Lindsey Berthiaume

Thursdays after school I would head down to my saxophone lesson with Jimmy Shand, who was a fabulous teacher and musician from the hey day of big band music in Toronto , Windsor and Detroit . During those lessons, we would spend countless hours working on improvising techniques, constructing chords, analyzing progressions, listening to solos and transcribing them. Much of my teenage life was spent listening to the greats of jazz and studying their contributions to music. Well armed with chord knowledge, technique and agility, the question was whether or not I would be able to use these skills in an improvised performance setting.

On the night of May 22, 1989 , I had a concert during which I was to play a publicly improvised solo for the first time. My palms were sweating, my mind was a complete blank and I was convinced that everyone would know that the jig was up as soon as I played that first lick, regardless of my relentless study. I played a solo that night and despite my nerves and amplified squawks, it was an expressive and rewarding experience. Many of my initial improv experiences were filled with anxiety and self doubt as is the case with many student musicians. The question in my mind today is how to make those experiences more comfortable and intuitive for students exploring improvisation.

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