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Pacing Your Solos: A Guide to Improvisation

It is not uncommon for students of improvisation to approach their practice without a real plan. They simply start trying to improvise a solo, without really focusing on When, How or What to play, hoping things will simply get better over time. I was certainly guilty of this. It’s one reason I developed my expandable “Tune Treatment” mentioned in an earlier column as a way to practice.

While “just playing” is beneficial for our overall development, we can streamline and intensify our progress by putting some thought behind the musical aspects in our solos that we wish to improve. Isolate and strengthen.

Every facet of improvisation can be improved through practice directed specifically at that issue. Note choices, melodic flow, harmonic connection, etc. can all be enhanced by isolating the topic and then focusing on it during our practice session. With that in mind, let’s talk about “pacing.”

When someone talks about the pacing of a solo, they are usually referring to the ratio of sound to silence. How often did you play? vs. How often did you remain silent? Resting during a solo (i.e. using “space”) is essential, as it allows for interaction between the soloist and the rest of the group. Controlling our use of space not only allows us to converse more effectively with our musical partners, but allows us to control the direction of our solo, providing the listener with peaks and valleys necessary to maintain their interest.

So, how do we work on our pacing? There are many ways, but I suggest starting with pre-determined alternating periods of Playing and Resting. For example, improvise for two bars, and then rest for two bars. Using a common chord progression, it might look something like this:

Common pattern for practicing improvisation

Follow this “2 on/2 off” pattern for several choruses, or until you are comfortable with it.

One of the things the above approach forces us to do is play ideas that are clear and satisfying. The silence in our improvisation compels us reflect on what we just played and let it sink in. If what we played was weak rhythmically, harmonically or melodically, it will be unsatisfying. The bars of silence will emphasize our perception of this. A few sessions working in this manner and you should find your ideas are clearer, more concise and more pleasing.

Once you are comfortable with the “2 on/2 off” approach above, change the ratio. For example “3 on/1 off” and “4 on/4 off.” Once you get used to controlling your pacing in this manner, don’t just stick to the combinations that fit well into an 8-bar sequence. For example, try ratios like “1 on/4 off” for more of a challenge.

The more creative and challenging you make this “pacing game” for yourself, they more control you will ultimately have on where your solos go, how they get there, and whether they encourage the audience to go along with you. Listen to your favorite players and see how they use silence. Bring that information to your own practice sessions and see if you can emulate their pacing. When you are actually on the bandstand: Play and rest with intent.