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Coursera Jazz Improv Class, Week 2 Homework

It’s probably silly of me to start with a caveat, but: this weeks’ homework could have been easy if I’d let it be. It’s basically playing six scales or modes, then improvising freely on them. This is the kind of thing I do for warm-ups every day, no particularly challenging in itself, even if some of the scales and modes are ones I haven’t practiced in a decade or two.

But I believe that creative people grow by pushing their boundaries, so I decided that if I was going to do the assignment, I’d do it in a way that put me outside my comfort zone, and challenged me.

Here’s the crazy part: I’ve been successfully working on altissimo for almost exactly a month solid now, and I’m getting kind of stable with most of the notes in the first octave of the altissimo range.

But the problem, as a friend of mine named Joe (also a writer: see his “Ghost City” about Seoul) put it, is making the altissimo useful in real practice, in other words, using it in in an improvisation, lyrically and melodically instead of just in a show-offy way. It’s one thing to screech out a high note once in a while: it’s quite another to use those notes the way one uses the rest of one’s range.

One of my solutions, include those notes whenever I practice scales, with the belief that mastering the extended range is useful in terms of controlling and developing my tone, just like working on overtones. I fight my way to the top of the altissimo on every scale I play, every day. So when this assignment came up, with its clear link between playing scales and improvising on those scales, I thought for a moment and knew what I had to do.

I hate when people base their thinking and speech on television–I’ve noticed the perniciousness of that lately–but a phrase from a sitcom I no longer bother to watch came to mind: “Challenge Accepted!” It came to mind because the character who says it uses it almost exclusively when he takes on insane challenges. After all: I’ve been getting the altissimo to speak at all for only a month now, really. Using it melodically, that’s… tough.

But there’s no time like the present to start working on the future. So I included the altissimo in my scales, and in all my modes but one. It ain’t pretty, but I did it:

And what’s more… my altissimo has improved from all that effort. Today, I was tearing up and down the scales, even in the top end. It’s still not 100% stable, I still find myself biting sometimes, and have to stop and go back to practicing overtones and throat slurs. But it’s coming along. A few months ago I would never have imagined I was even this far along. A couple of hours a day can do a lot, if you’re focused and concentrated and attentive… and always pushing your limits.

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