Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
tps_fan

Improvisation

2 posts in this topic

I'm just going to make this a simple and open-ended question: What is the best (type of) approach of learning how to improvise? I'm interested in any suggestions whether it's in terms of instructional materials or ideal work in recorded formats.

I'm really more concerned with developing a core method rather than adhering to a specific style.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I'm just going to make this a simple and open-ended question:  What is the best (type of) approach of learning how to improvise?  I'm interested in any suggestions whether it's in terms of instructional materials or ideal work in recorded formats.

I'm really more concerned with developing a core method rather than adhering to a specific style.

“Improvisation,” as the term is used by most musicians, simply means the ability to create a finished product at will, without prior reflection or practice. But to an onlooker, the definition may not be a very helpful litmus test, since there is no way directly to enter someone else’s consciousness to learn how much relevant mental activity has preceded a given performance. For example, just as today’s opera singers and concert pianists memorize vast quantities of repertoire, many aspiring jazz enthusiasts have committed the published arrangements of Ellington, Fats Waller, and others to memory so that they may sound like they’re “improvising” when they perform them on the piano. By the same token, someone with a very good ear can recreate a performance heard repeatedly from a recording and virtually reproduce it. That’s the way Bix Beiderbecke began his earliest work on the cornet, since his music reading ability was poor and his ear was astonishing, so that this approach served him well in the early stages of his development. At some point he began to hear the sounds in his head that he wanted to bring to life, and then it was simply a matter of coordinating his ear with his physical approach to the instrument.

Effective improvisation requires all three attributes: 1) a mental conception of what you want to hear; 2) an “ear”—i.e. a sense of pitch—which enables you to find the corresponding pitches at will; and 3) the necessary physical command of your chosen instrument that will allow you to realize your mental conception. But a stunted growth in any of these areas can cripple all three. For example, I’ve seen many good pianists virtually imprison their improvisational style simply because they never sought to improve their technique, and over time their “conceptions” fit comfortably only into the framework of what they could easily play. By the same token, a lot of people who stop listening and are unwilling to take chances—i.e. they’re not developing their ear—begin to improvise around the same narrow formulas or in just one of a few keys, and their renditions begin to sound stultifying and monotonous.

The questioner offers no details concerning the style he seeks to learn, so this answer is probably longer than it needs to be. All successful improvisers perfect a backlog of devices, techniques, and melodic formulas that they insert at appropriate times, and a great deal of learning how to improvise is learning a repertoire of such devices. If someone is interested in traditional jazz improvisation, I often suggest they obtain the music for half a dozen traditional standards (anything from “Over the Rainbow” to “Laura” to “The Sound of Music”), and try substituting chords (this can and ideally should be taught via principles, but it’s too involved to relay here). A great deal of the interest evoked by fine jazz artists is the specific character of their harmonic substitutions and the best of them work this into their melodic invention as well. If you learn to do this sort of thing well, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with less demanding styles (blues and rock almost by definition admit less harmonic variety). Some music schools today, however, are also teaching their students to improvise in the style of Mozart, and although the harmonic inventiveness is far more restricted, the keyboard demands are far greater, i.e. you have to learn to play the piano really well first.

Stephen Siek

Prof. of Music

Wittenberg University

P.O. Box 720

Springfield, OH 45501

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0