Setting limits when improvising

During the Jazz Education Network (JEN) Conference last week in Dallas, I attended a composition clinic given by the great composer/trumpeter Dave Douglas. The clinic was one of the best I attended and I left feeling not only inspired, but armed with ideas. One thing really stuck with me, even a week later. It was the idea of setting “severe limitations for yourself”. That statement resonated through me and something clicked. I had been setting limits for myself for a long time, but not severe limits.

I started setting severe limits when I was practicing and writing. Here’s a couple of examples:

  1. As a flute warm-up, for 10 minutes I limited myself to only the notes between low B and low G. (I was actually inspired to write 2 melodies from doing that warm-up)
  2. On saxophone, I improvised from high A to high F (Playing both in the key of C and key of Eb). I did this at various tempos and styles, thus limiting myself even further.
  3. Improvise at various tempos in B Major.

And, like any good teacher, I also started to experiment on my students.

I have one student who is learning how to use the Blues scale over a blues. She’s a saxophone player so in G Blues you have almost the full length of the horn at your disposal. (From low Bb up to the high F, not dealing with altissimo.)

At her last lesson, I gave some additional limits to try while improvising using just the blues scale:

  1. Range from High G to F only
  2. Range from Low G down to low Bb
  3. Use Full Range of the Horn.

It’s been really interesting figuring out new ways to set limits for myself (more and more severe) and inspiring my students to do the same. What limit will you set for yourself today? Leave a comment below and share!



One thought on “Setting limits when improvising

  1. Hi Monica, This is highly valuable advice for anybody wise enough (and perhaps tenacious enough) to carry it out. Creativity is often cultivated as a result of limitations. Learning to do more with less, as it were. Your experience working on the flute in the low register is a good example of this.

    I’ve been using this concept (I love Dave Douglas’ term “severe limits”) for years in my practice (particularly in improvisation), and it continues to help met to go ever deeper into the music. I regularly discover things I never would have imagined had I not set limits. Thanks for posting!

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