I have two daughters that love it when I read them books and tell stories before bed time. They especially love my improvised stories where they give me a subject or characters and tell me, “tell us a story on that, daddy!” It stretches my creativity a bit, but it is a lot of fun for them as well as myself. I have been thinking of the parallels of improvising on the bandstand in jazz with being a great storyteller.

There are a number of things we can learn from storytelling. One of the obvious parallels are that we communicate with a rhythm section and audience when we improvise (or at least we should strive to be doing that). But, I wanted to take a look at what characteristics a good storyteller has and how as improvisers we can learn from them. It is difficult to do this if you have not already learned your scales, can play your instrument with a certain level of proficiency and have an understanding of harmony, etc. I would suggest you check out some of the many other posts/tips on this site that will help that stage of your development and then come back to this.

I will admit I am not the greatest storyteller (although my daughters would argue otherwise), so I found an online source of characteristics from iLoveLiteracy.com that I thought were great. They are listed below:

  1. moves through a logical sequence of events
  2. has interesting characters
  3. includes details to develop the plot, characters and setting
  4. includes a problem that must be solved
  5. uses attention getting introductions
  6. tries to build suspense
  7. makes eye contact with the audience
  8. speaks at the right volume and speed for the audience to hear and understand them clearly

While reading that list I took inventory of how I approach improvising on the bandstand and took note of things that I did similarly and those that I know I can improve. Below are a few parallels that I see with jazz improvisation:

  1. improvises through the harmonic progression in a logical manner 
  2. interesting motifs, licks or melodic fragments
  3. develops the motifs, licks or melodic fragments to tell a story
  4. reacts to musical cues from other band members
  5. makes a clear opening statement (see Out of the Gate) to beginning of improvisation
  6. builds the improvisation with dynamics, articulation and phrasing that creates an overall arc that includes a climax
  7. makes eye contact with the audience. I am guilty of this because I tend to close my eyes while improvising
  8.  improvises in a way that the audience can understand them on some level (i.e. melody connects with the average listener while an array of technical virtuosity may not)

Try this out at some point in the coming days/weeks. As an improviser are you an effective storyteller? If not, work on becoming one by practicing some of the parallels above. People remember great storytellers…

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