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there’s no secret to improvising (or what I took away from Ingrid Jensen’s masterclass)

Yesterday Ingrid Jensen came to McGill and gave a masterclass. I’ll admit, I’m often wary when it comes to masterclasses run my horn players. I know how amazing Ingrid Jensen is but I didn’t know if what she had to say about playing would resonate with a singer.

I definitely had no reason to be wary.

She didn’t say in so many words that there is no secret to improvising but I left the class with a whole new lease on practicing. We played a tune by Kenny Wheeler called Heyoke:

Someone asked how to start learning to improvise on a tune like this one. Ingrid said to find the thread of consistency, the strongest modal choice, and start weaving lines around that. But what really hit home with me was when she said “If you hadn’t worked on your Lydian going up in major thirds – you’re screwed!”

And that’s when it dawned on me that I will never magically unlock something in my brain and instantly become a good improvisor. What Ingrid said really said to me that all music is made up of discreet sonic cells and you just have to work through whichever ones are important to you. If that is ii-V-I then you go sit with ii-V-I for a week. If that is Lydian scales ascending in major thirds, then sit with that for a week.

After her class I went home and I put on a Lydian dominant drone and I did what she calls “sacred interval study.” I just sat with all the intervals over the drone and felt what each one felt like. Then I started combining them into patterns and shapes. At the end of the session I wasn’t a much better improvisor but I had one more sonic cell in my bag.

Somehow this actually makes me a lot more excited about practice. I feel uplifted and grounded at the same time.

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Renée is a queer, non-binary, disabled, and chronically ill creator based in Montreal. They are a singer, songwriter, pianist, YouTuber, and Periscoper. They are currently a student of jazz studies at Mcgill University and a freelance vocal coach for young and emerging singers.


  1. Totally agree on the value of choosing the sounds that are important to you! Steve Swallow is one great player I saw recently who seems dedicated to mastery of a remarkably small set of sounds.

  2. Nicole

    Wonderful Renée!

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