Solo Development

November 1, 2006

Teaching Solo Development in Improvisation

Whether a musician has been improvising for twenty years or twenty minutes, the challenges of pacing and development during an improvised solo are significant. Great improvised solos are often described as “telling stories” to listeners.These solos increase and decrease in intensity in the same ways that well-told verbal stories do.During an improvised solo, as in a spoken tale, the performer must manage intensity and shape to keep the attention of listeners. Unfortunately, most beginners in improvisation focus little attention on the essential skillof solo development. Teaching beginning improvisers the art of solo development is one of the most unique challenges that music educators face.

Beginning musicians are often so overly focused on playing the correct notes that they fail to consider solo development while improvising. These beginners are often overwhelmed with the technical and harmonic aspects of soloing to the point that they fail to remember that jazz improvisation is a language meant to elicit an emotional response from listeners. Jazz educators can help students remedy this dilemma by addressing the concepts of solo development beginning in the earliest improvisational settings. From the first days of learning improvisation, students can be taught to consider both the melodic shape of improvised lines and the overall developing shape of solos. Beginning musicians who work to create positive habits for developing solos while learning to improvise will find that the melodic quality of their solos often disguises their inexperience.In the following article, I will outline proven techniques and approaches that jazz educators may use to help students improve and internalize the development of improvised solos.

Melodic Contour
Before beginners focus on overall solo development, they should practice and understand the role that melodic contour plays within improvisational lines.Melodic contour describes the general intervallic shape that improvisational phrases follow. Beginning musicians often have difficulty deciding what to play while improvising and the resulting solos may consist of disjointed intervals or unconnected improvisational ideas. Focusing students on melodic contour encourages them to think about the general shape of improvisational lines and the melodic direction of a solo, rather than the minutia of individual note choices.

The solos that beginning improvisers often play may contain wide intervals or consist of several unique phrases that are unconnected.In order to improve the melodic contour of a solo, beginning improvisers should focus on creating melodic lines that use scale pitches and small intervals.Musicians should practice creating melodic lines that have a gentle rolling contour as show above:

Controlling the melodic contour of an improvised solo has a significant impact on how the solo sounds. There are countless variations of contour that musicians can create while improvising, but beginners should not allow chance and technique to dictate the melodic contour of a solo. Beginning musicians should consciously choose the melodic contour that will be used during a solo and the solo they improvise should reflect that choice. By learning to consciously control melodic contour, beginning musicians develop an essential skill that is needed for overall solo development. In the following exercise, the suggested melodic contour of a solo is notated for three choruses.The actual solo could be over a blues form, rhythm changes, or a simple standard. Educators and musicians can use this type of contour chart to create new and challenging melodic shapes for solos during practice sessions. By limiting the range that students may use during improvisation, educators enable students to focus more attention on developing melodic lines and the overall shape and direction of a solo.

Tracking Melodic Contour
Beginning improvisers can greatly benefit from tracking the melodic contour used by other soloists.While in a classroom or group improvisational setting, non-rhythm section musicians often spend the time when they are not soloing unproductively. To better use this time, educators might try using a blank graph like the one shown above and encourage students to draw the shapes of the solos that they hear over the appropriate choruses.

Musicians who track the melodic contour of fellow soloists can greatly improve their own skills.When tracking the melodic contour of a solo, a musician must be constantly aware of location within form and the shape and melodic development of improvised lines. Furthermore, musicians can critically assess improvised solos in both qualitative and quantitative ways.Beginners may find that replicating certain shapes works well over some forms, while others are to be avoided. Most importantly, musicians learn to move beyond focusing on the “right” notes and consider the shape, direction, and the intent of improvisational phrases.

Solo Development Tools
Once beginning musicians have developed a general control of the melodic contour that they use within improvised solos, they should start to consider the overall shape and direction that a solo will take. Generally improvisers have three choices during a solo: to increase intensity, to decrease intensity, or to maintain intensity. The following lists highlight common ways that improvisational musicians increase and decrease intensity during solos.

How do improvisers build intensity during a solo?

  1. By playing in increasingly higher registers- Gradually increasing range to play in higher registers during a solo builds tension for listeners.
  2. By playing with increasing speed- Technique and speed can build tension and intensity within a solo. This type of intensity can be used to communicate a range of more aggressive emotions to an audience.
  3. By sustaining notes- Holding out notes for long periods of time can increase tension and defy expectations of listeners. When a musician holds out a note, listeners create an internal expectation of when the note will end.If the expectation is not met, tension builds and the listeners create a new set of expectations.The longer a note is held, the more listeners expectations are defied, the more tension builds.
  4. By phrasing in an unexpected way- Phrasing solos in an unexpected way can increase the intensity felt by a listener. Listeners intuitively expect phrases of certain lengths and melodic rhythms. Altering the length and placement of phrases can be an unexpected and interesting surprise for listeners.
  5. By playing louder- Increasing volume alters the amount of tension that listeners feel. By combining phrases that are both loud and soft improvisers can imitate a vocal quality in a solo that can be both engaging and intuitively understood by listeners.
  6. By using repetition- Repetition reinforces improvisational ideas to listeners. Continued repetition increases intensity in the same way that asking a question over and over again in a conversation increases tension.
  7. By adding harmonic tension- Harmonic tension is created when musicians play notes that sound dissonant and resolve to notes that sound consonant. Harmonic tension plays an important role in improvisation and there are countless options and techniques that musicians can apply to create it.

How do improvisers decrease intensity during a solo?

  1. By playing gradually in lower registers- Gradually decreasing range and playing in decreasingly lower registers creates an audible decline in intensity for listeners.
  2. By playing simple phrases- Phrases of less technical and rhythmic complexity create an audible decline in intensity for listeners.
  3. By phrasing in an expected way- Constructing simple phrases that meet the expectations of listeners decreases the audible intensity of a solo. Phrases that begin on downbeats, are two or four bars in length, and coincide with strong harmonic changes tend to meet listener’s expectations and decrease intensity.
  4. By diminishing overall volume- Playing at a softer volume can audibly decrease the intensity of a solo.
  5. By effectively using space- Leaving significant amounts of rest bars or space in a solo decreases the audible intensity for a listener.

Once musicians understand the tools that can be used to increase and decrease intensity within an improvised solo, they should choose an overall shape for their solo to follow. Once a shape is chosen, beginning musicians should choose one or two development tools to implement and practice within the solo.It’s important, especially for beginners, to limit choices in order to facilitate decision making while improvising.Often students become so overwhelmed by the amount of choices and decisions that occur while improvising, they forget to apply any solo development techniques. Educators should focus students on one or two simple techniques to immediately implement during a solo. In the following example, we will develop a solo that uses the following shape:

The following improvisational roadmap is for a two-chorus solo over a B flat blues chord progression.The written example solo uses only notes from the B flat blues scale for demonstration purposes.

Beginning improvisers should create concrete examples, like those above, to practice using all of the tools for solo development. Practicing concrete examples of solo development helps students internalize new tools and make their use habitual. While these types of roadmaps are restrictive in that they tell improvisers exactly when to play and what techniques to use, they are valuable tools for helping beginners master location within form and productively apply new approaches and techniques to improvisation.

If playing an improvised solo is like telling a story to a listener, beginning musicians must focus on tools for solo development in order to engage and communicate with listeners. By encouraging musicians to look at the big picture within improvised solos, educators can help them move beyond the common concern for playing the “right” notes to the more compelling concerns of communication, style and intent. The language of jazz is complicated and not all students will master the tools and techniques needed to become proficient improvisers, but encouraging students to understand and experiment with solo development will make them better musicians and will help them gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of all improvised music.

Brian Kane was director of Music at the Inly School in Scituate, Mass. from 1997-2006. Presently he is the executive director of Jazz Path Publishing and the author of numerous books and articles including the vocal warm-up book Singing Tongue Twisters A-Z. Brian can be reached at

Copyright 2005 Jazz Path Publishing, Excerpted from “Constructing Melodic Improvisation” Used by Permission.

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