My jazz students and I often work through a process we call “The Treatment.” It’s a tune-based approach and I view it as a preparation for high-level study of improvisation. Once you can navigate a tune using the Treatment, you can more easily work on musical and artistic elements of improvisation.
I adjust the Treatment to suit a student’s individual situation, but a basic routine might look like this:
- Play the melody
- Play “in 2”
- Arpeggiate in 4 (to the 7th)
- Walk “in 4”
- Play the arpeggios (to the 9th)
- Play the scales in steady eighth notes “N8”—up and down
- Connecting and common tones
- Improvise an alternate melody
The bars below are the first four bars of All the Things You Are. In practice you would work the entire tune.
Part 1 of this series took us through the initial stages. The Treatment is a progressive process. Today we start with:
Arpeggiate in 4 (to the 7th)
Generally we work this step in quarter notes. ￼
I suggest arpeggiating a chorus upward, followed by a chorus downward and then combining both upward and downward motion in a single chorus to form more satisfying (albeit still not jazz-like) lines. For example the next chorus might look something like this:
Again, it’s expandable and can be as intensive as you like. For example, you can start on the 7th, the third or the fifth. If we were working this tune more intensely we might play several choruses, utilize a wide span of octaves, various fingerings, and so forth.
Walk “in 4”
Again, this can be as simple or as intensive as you like; one chorus, or one hundred. Either way, sure you should be comfortable before you move on to the next step.
Play the arpeggios (to the 9th)
This is generally done in 8th notes. Swing them if appropriate to the tune you are working on.
As mentioned in the “Play in 2” section, you may have to adjust what you play when the chords come at you quicker than one per measure.
Connecting and Common Tones
By now I am sure you are getting the idea. Let’s skip ahead a few steps to the Connecting and Common Tones exercise. Start by choosing a starting note that is present in the first chord. As the chords change you will move either up or down to the nearest chord tone. Whether you move up or down is a decision you make as you go along. Since we are looking for both common and connecting tones, you should stay on the same note, if you can. Here’s an example starting on Ab:
I suggest several choruses, beginning on different notes, and making different “upward/downward” decisions each time.
Improvise a melody
The final step of the process is to improvise a melody. This is a single chorus exercise, which you can, of course, repeat. The usual challenge for people during this step is keeping your lines vocal, and not instrumental, in nature. Imagine what you are playing has words.
You also want to give your melody form over the chorus. For example, in a tune with form A A B A, you want the final “A” section of your improvised melody to be reminiscent of your initial A. Look at a few melodies and you will see how they naturally do this.
During this step we must think of our solo over the full chorus, and choose our notes wisely. Quick licks and filler won’t service us well here. Simpler is better. We must also relate what we are playing in the later part of the chorus to what we played in the first bars. For beginning improvisers this can be a challenge. When we are actually improvising we may, or may not, think in this manner. However, this exercise helps us to go beyond thinking at the single-measure level. Although working a melody out beforehand also has some merit, the goal is to improvise a new melody.
There are many ways to learn a new tune, and to become more freer in your improvisation in general. I find the Treatment to be one of the more effective tools in my toolbox. Enjoy!