Have you seen the movie Birdman? Jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez wrote the film's score and most of the soundtrack is solo drumset. He has also been Pat Metheny's drummer for the past 15 years. I recently watched his instructional feature called Creative Soloing & Freedom presented by Drumeo and was impressed by the clarity with which he explained and demonstrated his concepts. While I think it's well worth watching the video, I'll list the most important points here.
Sanchez says that he tries to tell a story when playing a solo. This means stopping yourself from operating on autopilot. Instead of just letting your hands play your usual licks, you start with a motive (idea) and then develop it using techniques such as:
1. Giving yourself space to think. The space could be silence or going into a holding pattern such as a groove. "Give space...be patient...be friends of silence."
2. Using repetition to establish the motive in our memory and the audience's memory. Ending a solo with the same motive from the beginning is a very effective way to structure it.
3. Creating an answer to your motive's call. As an example, Sanchez sings the opening 2 bars of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (Allegro) to see if his interviewer could sing the response (he did easily). Another example was the melody of 'shave and a haircut - two bits.'
4. Using the full dynamic (volume) range of the instrument. "I cannot stress enough how important soloing dynamics are."
5. Creating contrast through rhythm, sound, dynamics, etc. to interplay with the motive.
6. Developing your vocabulary by copying others, then making the material your own by exploring new ways to play them. Emulating great players in the genre you're studying is crucial to learning that specific language. It's important to understand the historical context of the style.
7. "Practicing with a metronome is extremely important...allows you to get your ideas in to the grid that is time. You have to be very certain of what subdivisions you're playing all the time."
8. Making sense. "People start following you if you make sense...saying something meaningful." An example of NOT making sense would be the statement "I love scrambled eggs, but the movie was terrible." Those two things are not directly related.
Sanchez says that this kind of approach in which you are truly improvising is more challenging as it has more risk involved. But "going into the unknown" is the way to explore fresh ideas and play differently each time. Because the possibilities are endless, it can be intimidating to start with this "blank sheet of paper." Sanchez says that these ideas can be applied at any level since you don't need a lot of technique to start practicing this way.
To me, everything presented in the video is spot on. Soloing and improvisation is a topic I'm often asked to teach in workshops and private lessons, and it was good to hear new ways of thinking about the topic from one of the most in-demand drummers working today. I would encourage everyone to check out this video and then share your most memorable take-away points.