Monday, March 12, 2012

Soloing, part 6-2: How to create a solo

Last post, I talked about crafting vs. improvisation. That's all well and good, but if you're new to soloing or just need a new approach, where do you take it?

There are countless ways to think about building a solo. I've had workshops with several different people who approach it from several different ways and I think it's good to listen to many perspectives. You never know when someone will say something you've never considered, or phrase something that never sunk in before and you get a moment of true inspiration.

Keeping things simple, let's look at two different approaches to solo development - the Forest and the Trees. Most of you are probably familiar with the phrase "can't see the forest for the trees", which usually has a negative connotation about a person's inability to see the big picture because they're too focused on the small details. Here, there is no "right" or "wrong" side, and the two demonstrate different ways to approach a solo.

The Forest looks at a solo in a larger scheme:
  • What's the mood of the piece? How would you solo in a fun, festive piece differently than a driving, intense one? What feeling does the ji impart to the solo?
  • What are your other solos like? Would you be interested in connecting them together by a common theme or perhaps try to be distinct?
  • How can you play off the soloist before you, or give something to the soloist following you?
The Trees looks at a solo by the tools you can bring into play:
  • Adding elements such as humor or drama by intentionally inserting it.
  • Moments of deliberate action, such as adding a jump, drop, or a... ...dramatic pause.
  • Moments of deliberate sound, such as a sharp "splat" or a buzzed note, or even a short passage of ka when there are none elsewhere in your solo.
  • Moments of ma (space/distance), either visually (by not moving) or musically (by not striking).
There are other ways to think of solos that don't follow either Forest or Trees, such as:
  • Thinking in abstract terms. What does the color green sound like? How would you play a sunset?
  • Thinking of the solo as a story you're telling the audience. What are you trying to say?
  • What did the composer of the song have in mind when they wrote it? How can you do it justice in your solo?
It really doesn't matter if you plan your solo out or let the inspiration hit you in the moment. Improvisation can use all of these elements just as much as crafting can. I find that most people like having new ways to think about soloing, because it's so easy to stay in our "box", whether we want to get outside of it or not.

The interesting thing about all these elements is that they can be applied to composing as well. What would an "orange" song sound like? How about a song that goes from fun to driving halfway through? What if everyone stops moving at once? It goes to show you that so much of what we do in one area can be easily linked to another, so you should never stop trying to grow in as many different ways as possible!


  1. Thanks for this perspective. But I need even more basic advice. I have to create a 4-bar solo for a temple matsuri performance. There will be 10-15 people on stage, in rows; everyone doing backbeat during rotating solos. I'm thinking I need to use some dramatic arm/body movements just to catch the audience's attention because I may not be able to play really really loud. Do you have any advice on that low-level pragmatic scale?

  2. ocmd, it's hard to give a lot of advice through simple text, but I can give you some ideas.

    - Think of what message you want to get across. High-energy? Playful? Lots of footwork/movement? You can craft a solo around a mood.

    - If you're worried about not being heard, then think of movements that will be seen and keeping the strikes simple and intentional.

    - If you're having trouble coming up with patterns to play, use variations of the rhythms in the song. As you experiment, you'll come up with patterns that get further and further away from the original patterns.

    Hope that helps!

    - Repetition can be a great friend. You can repeat a pattern twice to make a single bar, then repeat that formula for the next three bars with variations as you see fit.