Music Lessons Online

Interview: Mick Donnelly, Saxophonist to the Stars on Listening and Improv

Pop Solo Performances

Mick Donnelly has worked with some extraordinary names as an international saxophonist. He has worked with phenomenal names, such as, Barry White, Britney Spears, Sting, The Bee Gees, Ronan Keating, Kool and the Gang, Lisa Stansfield, Sammy Davis Jr, Whitney Houston, Lulu, Shirley Bassey, Jr Walker, Princess, Tony Bennet, Desmond Decker, Gene Pitney, Steps, The Four Tops, Ben E King, Boy Meets Girl, Madness, Bob Mintzer, Spear of Destiny, Ian Dury, Imagination, Bobby Shew, The Temptations, Kiki Dee, Stuart Copeland, Robbie Williams, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Swing Out Sister and many more, with him being a permanent and highly respected member of Lisa Stansfield’s touring band. Uptown Funk is perhaps one of his most recent famous numbers.

This interview is not about Mick being a celebrity saxophonist, but about how he learns, how he develops, how he thinks, how he improvises and how he “listens”.

Listening Skills for Solo Improvisation

Mick initially discusses how he has to play licks or copy existing solos. Firstly, he doesn’t practise the easy bits, he goes straight to where he needs to work most. He talks about what listening really means in a leading musician sense. He talks about listening to original artists, copying each phrase, recording it and then comparing it. We discuss focusing on note beginnings, note endings and the shapes of middles of notes, growls, falls etc. Mick informs us that he records himself, compares it to the original and then re-records. He also discusses the feeling of style and expression. We discuss how repetition is about improving and adding something. It is all about detailed listening for him as pop/rock contracts more often than not do not give him a written score. Mick points out the very important need to ‘blend’ with a band. He prepares in such a way that a recording can be made in only three takes. Mick reiterates that it’s all in the preparation, but that a live recording also needs that magical spark that comes from spontaneity.

Improvisation Lessons

Secondly, Mick discusses when he has to improvise solos and gives some excellent improv lessons for us all. He goes write back to basics discussing beginner pupils. He states that as soon as you have a reasonable number of notes under your belt, that you can improvise. He begins by getting people to play on the first beat of the bar with one note and then asks them to consider ‘how’ they play that note or what they do with it. He then says that if you can feel the beat you can improvise. He gives 3 steps: (1) have a basic technique (which he calls “knowledge” or “tool” and refers to knowing scales and a number of notes), (2) feel the beat, (3) create rhythm (he suggests making one note interesting by utilising rhythm and connecting it to the kit). With the rhythmic aspect, he discusses that he means interlocking with the drum kit and the patterns for that piece.

Improvisation Lessons and Spontaneity

I ask Mick about his own solos and how he prepares them alongside the need for spontaneity. His initially answer is, “I don’t prepare”, but then we discuss his bank of licks. I ask Mick about being on tour when he maybe has a 40 night tour and has to solo improvise every night. We discuss that he has to still have the “fire in his belly” and that he needs that spark and spontaneity even on night 40. He states that he discusses with the band how to ‘add some spice’ and that he and the band create something slightly different each night.

Performance Mindset: Improvisations in Concerts

Finally, we discuss Mick and when he may have felt pressure. He states throughout the interview that he does not get nervous because he prepares properly. He very much believes that it is all in the preparation. He discusses the most pressured moment of his career when he had 2 hours to prepare an infamous Barry White solo when he performed with Barry White for “Just the Way You Are” at the Belgian Grammy Awards. He discusses how the original solo is so famous that he had to mimmick every detail exactly as per the original. Mick also illustrates with an example in the Royal Albert Hall in which he was instructed to play the final solo for a major artist to end the evening, “playing out the number” as a sax solo. In his head he was subconsciously thinking, “Do I really go for it?”. He realised that he can’t let these thoughts enter his head and that solo is now on a live album. “Feel the fear and do it anyway” Mick said.

Great Set of Fingers, now Learn How to Use them!

Mick’s final story that is helpful to us all is when he worked at Ronnie Scott’s at around the age of 23. He discusses an after gig party at which the legendary saxophonist, James Moody (infamous American saxophonist), said to him, “Listen son, you have a great set of fingers there, now learn how to use them”. This was a significant moment for Mick and the moment we leave the interview to reflect on ourselves. You all have wonderful voices and piano/organ fingers. Now, go craft what you do with your gifts!

Mick passes his saxophone skills on via his own academy school in Hartlepool, the Mick Donnelly Academy of Music (

Piano Masterclasses Taught Via Saxophone

Who would have thought it? Yes, the piano online library of courses includes masterclasses by Mick, teaching how a melodic instrument thinks, enhancing improvisation at the piano, even teaching how to improvise on piano. Take a look – there are many guest piano masterclasses for you to enjoy, all focused on improvisation at the piano.

Piano Improvisation Lessons

Robin has studied under many wonderful improvisation lesson teachers. As a pianist, Robin studied with a Russian genius, Mr Valery, who learned Jazz Guitar in Moscow in the 1970s. He taught Robin jazz piano and never let him have anything written on a piece of paper. In the North East UK he has also worked with Paul Edis. Robin’s initial work with Valery on Jazz Piano was incredibly eye opening. Valery became his guru for 4 years. Follow these links for piano improv lessons: pop piano improv lessons and classical piano improvisation lessons.

Pop Vocal Improv and Classical Singing Improvisation

As a vocalist, Robin currently works with 3 vocal teachers. He works with a Nashville vocal coach on phrasing, stylising and improv. He works with two leading British classical singers developing Baroque and Renaissance improvisation with an Early Music Specialist (works such as Monteverdi) and on operatic Classical and Romantic cadenzas with a Sydney Opera House Soprano Soloist. For developing pop licks and runs or pop improvisation, visit and for classical singing improvisation visit

Organ Improvisation Lessons

As an organist, Robin’s first improvisation lessons came from the awesome Czech composer and organist, Petr Eben. He continued studies with Noel Rawsthorne, with particular regard to keyboard harmony, chord progressions and instant harmonisation. If you would like organ improvisation lessons, please visit: organ improvisation lessons for beginners or advanced organ improvisation lessons.

Robin has directed many organ improvisation lessons and workshops for the Royal College of Organists. He has taught on their annual Summer School for beginner improvisation classes, intermediate improvisation classes and advanced improvisation classes.

The Maestro Online has new library organ improvisation courses exploring how pre-Baroque players learned the harpsichord and organ before the invention of John Thompson’s Piano Course and the like! The use of elaborated bass lines being the prime method, connecting the ear with the sound and the mind plus imagination with the final product.

Robin has performed on the keys in many jazz bands, big bands and pop rock bands.

Piano Improvisation Lessons, Singing Improv Lessons, Organ Improvisation Lessons

Get your piano improvisation lessons, singing improv lessons and organ lessons here!

Music Lessons Online and near Stockton and Middlesbrough, Teesside

Whether you want to learn improvising on the piano, singing improvisations lessons, or organ improvisation lessons, professional vocalist, a beginner singing lessons student, someone seeking fun, a person singing to release emotions, if you wish to connect your emotions with your vocal tone and phrasing, are younger or older, please get in touch.

For individual, holistic pop, jazz, musical theatre and classical lessons in piano, singing, vocal coaching and organ, visit Lessons are available online or in person at my home study in Yarm, Teesside, UK, near Middlesbrough, Darlington, Stockton, Northallerton and around 1 hour from York, Durham, Sunderland, Leeds and Newcastle.

For pop vocals visit Pop Vocals Lessons For classical singing visit: Classical Singing Lessons.

Currently 25% off for the first lesson for new pupils. Dr Robin Harrison is a highly qualified, experienced, expert teacher.

Choose your plan

All Courses

£ 19
99 Per Month
  • All Piano Courses
  • All Organ Courses
  • All Singing Courses
  • All Guitar Courses

All Courses + Masterclass

£ 29
99 Per Month
  • All Piano Courses
  • All Organ Courses
  • All Singing Courses
  • All Guitar Courses
  • All Masterclasses