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Helpful Phrasing and Motivic Development Tips



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Colombian guitarist and composer Juan Dhas provides some helpful tips to improve your phrasing and motivic development.

Phrasing and Motivic Development are always popular topics, as so many of our heroes can be recognised by their touch, their melodic approach or how they piece together a story. However, there is a lot to be discussed and so as to avoid this becoming too lengthy, I will give a few pieces of advice to consider when trying to work on these concepts. 

Juan Dhas

You can check out examples of the included recorded backings via my YouTube channel. Below are excerpts from my e-book and backing track package “Narrative Soloing”.

1) Be aware of pacing your melodic statements 

In general, we can sometimes fall into the habit of spitting out any and every melodic idea we have available to us. A few things can happen as a result. One of which is that our playing becomes very blocky, due to jumping from one melodic idea to the next without any threads holding them together. Another potential hang-up is that we run out of material pretty quickly in our solos. This is especially a problem on longer forms or ballads. 

Remind yourself that you don’t need to use everything in one go. A more measured approach can yield fantastic results, and just keep things fresher with every pass of a tune or progression. 

2) Develop your ideas 

This one may lead some to think “Okay, that’s fairly obvious”, however it’s surprisingly overlooked. A melodic statement can be manipulated in many ways! Let’s take a three note cell, for example. 

You can play different permutations of the idea: forwards, backwards, juggle the notes around in different combinations. 

You can also elongate the rhythms, or shorten them, making the idea more rhythmically dense. 

You can take the idea and put it into different ranges of instrument. 

You can augment or diminish the intervallic structure of the melodic idea. 

You can use the general melodic contour of the melody. For example, High-Low-Middle. Try utilising that general contour but with various notes. 

You can play exclusively with the rhythm of your initial melodic idea. 

You can experiment with the dynamics of your statement. 

Lastly, you can push the same idea through the changes, morphing it to fit the changes in harmony. 

To start with, take one concept and apply it in your practice. Then over time, incorporate maybe 2-3 concepts at a time for a single melodic statement. Try and see how long you can go before you break the pattern! Eventually, this becomes more natural to your playing, and you begin to freely improvise in a much different manner. 

3) Think as both a composer/a listener 

This will be the last general pointer I’ll give for now, as the ideas put forward already give plenty of food for thought. In my personal experience, some of the best improvisers I’ve encountered have been great composers. Now there could be a number of reasons for this, but usually, great composers see the greater whole of a piece. As such, they weave between ideas beautifully, and take great care to develop a motif in service of the piece (maybe even calling back melodic statements from many sections ago). Imagine that you are composing your solo…this is essentially improvisation, except done in real-time. 

From a listener’s perspective, I feel that we as musicians often take for granted how quickly we process information. Generally speaking, we as the performers have already processed our idea before playing it…the listener however has not. This even extends to how we process music that we casually listen to! Consider this, and understand that maybe what you consider to be good development in your playing, has in all actuality not really been developed at all due to you simply being in your head and casting ideas out too quickly. 

Imagine yourself inhabiting both of these roles, composer and listener, and you’ll find that some of the above issues begin to slowly fix themselves over time. 

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