“I don’t know what to play” confesses the student when it’s their turn to solo…
I’ve heard this quite often from students throughout my years teaching and giving clinics. It is completely understandable, although I suspect that not knowing what to play (in that moment) is directly proportional to not knowing what to practice at home. Or, possibly, not practicing at all. It’s as if someone asked you to give a short presentation on nuclear physics and if you don’t know anything about the subject, you have no idea what to say.
There are a bunch of resources out there on things to practice. Trust me, I own most of them and I’m often quite amused when I run across the same concept over and over, maybe slightly varied. Musicians all have their own take on things like this, and some things stick with us (when we were learning) better than others. That’s ok. As a student you have to find something that works for you… And then simply get to work. (A good private teacher can help a lot with this. They are wonderful guides.)
I think students hope that if they stumble across the “magic” they will suddenly be able to improvise. Those who struggle feel like they just haven’t found it yet. Others know just enough to get by, but never produce anything spectacular. (I was that kind of student). But there’s no magic. You’re not going to wake up one day after years of not knowing what to play and suddenly know exactly what to play. It takes practice. I know it sounds cliche, but it’s true. Check out what Phil Woods has to say about it…
So here’s one suggestion from my library. All of Bergonzi’s books are worth checking out at some point, but this one is a good place to start.
Jerry Bergonzi’s section of Melodic Devices, on page 145 of his Inside Improvisation Series, Volume 6 Developing a Jazz Language is one of the most comprehensive and clearly defined lists I’ve ever seen. No digging, just pick one of his 43 suggestions and get to work.
Let me know how it goes!