Here's a way to add a sense of structure and cohesiveness and "composition"
to your improvised playing. The focus is on the melodic
rhythm of a phrase.
The idea is to repeat that note-value pattern
(the relative note durations) over different pitches
at different times in the improvisation. The result is a sense of
"variation on a theme" familiarity (where the theme is the melodic rhythm
statement rather than (necessarily) a melodic (note-values plus pitches)
Melodic rhythms can come from:
The first (or any arbitrary) phrase (or lick)
In other words, play a phrase the way you normally would--but pay
attention to and remember the note-value pattern of the melodic rhythm
of the phrase.
Some familiar melodic rhythm you already know
For example, try using the melodic rhythm from "Mary Had A Little Lamb",
only don't play "Mary Had A Little Lamb", play other note pitches.
The meter of any sequence of words
As you read a series of words, the syllables form a rhythmic meter (e.g.
iambic pentameter). You can reflect these spoken patterns as melodic
A melodic rhythm in the song you're playing
These add a sense of "fitting-in" with the song.. working well, sounding
good in that song
Melodic rhythms from phrases of other soloists (or any other player)
These add a sense of cohesiveness among the musicians and to the different
solos in the song... working well together, playing "off" each other, listening
to each other. Makes the music the main thing, not the soloist.
The basic bass or rhythm "groove"
of the song
Once again, this maintains a sense of cohesiveness between the improvisation
and the song.
Variations Upon a Melodic Rhythm Theme
When a melodic rhythm note-value phrase has been established, it can later
be improvised off of, again, rhythmically, where the pitch of the notes
has less importance, over and over, with variations. For example,
take a quarter note and turn it into a triplet shake, or swing eighths,
or a tongue switch warble... endless variety, yet the melodic rhythm theme
is still recognizable. And you certainly aren't restricted to a single
melodic rhythm theme. Play one, play another, repeat the first, repeat
the second, play a variation of the second, play a variation of the first,
play the second, play the first. An endless supply of structural
The goal is to get a sense of completeness, cohesiveness
all fits together), and integration with the whole
piece of music.
This attention to melodic rhythm patterns is also useful as a "rut-busting"
exercise. If you find yourself getting bored with the same ol' thing,
try making up new melodic rhythm patterns and playing a familiar lick using
the new rhythmic pattern.
One result of listener expectations when using the "theme and variations"
approach is that you can... trick 'em. Set
something up by repeating a phrase or melodic rhythm until the
listener comes to expect something--a concluding note or cadence,
a particular beat or groove, a certain effect, like vibrato (absent or
present), etc.--then take it away and give
them something else. This adds interest, and builds a sense of excitement
at the unexpected--"what's coming next that I don't expect?" Of course
this, like most things, can be over done. You have to create a balance
between playing the expected and the unexpected so the music is neither
too predictable nor too "off the wall".
Too often, musicians, especially less experienced ones,
pay too much attention to the pitch of the notes, and not enough
to their melodic rhythm, which is when they occur and
how long they last The notes you choose to play should always
fit with the rhythmic content of the music.