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Starting to Improvise

Nick Wyver

noisy
Subscriber
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5,953
I usually try to introduce improvisation to my students as soon as possible after starting lessons with me - whether they've played before or not. As soon as they can play a note they can have a go at it. The intention is to reduce the fear that a lot of people seem to have about improvisation. Occasionally I get somebody who really wants to go for it but, on the whole, most are reluctant.

When I first started teaching I found this surprising. I assumed that most people would be like me and want to play improvised music. Evidently not the case. The worst ones are the ones that have had some musical training that didn't include improv. Lots just flatly refuse to play anything 'off the top of their head'. Fair enough, if they just want to play from dots, they can. It's the fear, though, that I find most odd. They'll quite happily massacre a piece of Bach and be totally aware of the mess they've made but won't improvise a few notes because "it'll sound rubbish". Well, so did the Bach but that didn't stop you. It's as though they expect that they should be good at it from the beginning and if they're not then it's not worth trying. Why should improvisation be different from any other skill that you have to practise?

Anyway, what are your experiences with starting improvisation? Did you embrace it eagerly or were you petrified? If the latter, then I'd be interested to know what it was about it that caused this.
 

Moz

Senior Member
Messages
855
I usually try to introduce improvisation to my students as soon as possible after starting lessons with me - whether they've played before or not. As soon as they can play a note they can have a go at it. The intention is to reduce the fear that a lot of people seem to have about improvisation. Occasionally I get somebody who really wants to go for it but, on the whole, most are reluctant.

When I first started teaching I found this surprising. I assumed that most people would be like me and want to play improvised music. Evidently not the case. The worst ones are the ones that have had some musical training that didn't include improv. Lots just flatly refuse to play anything 'off the top of their head'. Fair enough, if they just want to play from dots, they can. It's the fear, though, that I find most odd. They'll quite happily massacre a piece of Bach and be totally aware of the mess they've made but won't improvise a few notes because "it'll sound rubbish". Well, so did the Bach but that didn't stop you. It's as though they expect that they should be good at it from the beginning and if they're not then it's not worth trying. Why should improvisation be different from any other skill that you have to practise?

Anyway, what are your experiences with starting improvisation? Did you embrace it eagerly or were you petrified? If the latter, then I'd be interested to know what it was about it that caused this.
To improvise you must usually be able to play by ear (there are exceptions but they are usually fully conversant with music theory). In my travels I have met many people who cannot play by ear to the extent that if no one had ever written any music they would be musically void. They have no tune in their heads and play someone elses music exclusively. Given a few notes on a piano (without seeing the notes played) and asked to repeat them on their chosen instrument they cannot, it does not register at all. Sometime I envy them because they can play any dots whenever they like but in the end I like being able to knock out a tune -- be it a little trite or naff or a work of exquisite beauty ( I wish). I played piano when young without musical instruction and I am fortunate in that I have always been able to improvise.

I'm afraid we are all different and we must each wonder about the gifts of others.

Martin
 

Rikki

Member
Messages
205
Hi Nick,

I could not agree more. When I was learning with a tutor (who became my uncle-in-law!) he positively discouraged me from trying to improvise as it was something "only black musicians" were good at, certain musicians like to build mystique and complexity around something which should be a natural development to anyone with a musical bent! I think also that people are scared when they see those chord patterns which change every other note, it certainly put me off. When I realised that I could improvise largely using my ear and some basic knowledge of scales, I found I had more confidence in putting my own interpretation on themes.

Regards Rikki
 

stefank

Member
Messages
366
I was raised (musically) reading dots, and while I admired improvisation and liked the idea of being able to do it, for a long time I had no idea how to go about it. Consequently I regarded it as an enticing but mysterious and dark art. I was was also terrified if someone took the security blanket of a written part away from me.

I've gotten (great word) better. The first couple of years that I seriously tried to play in a rock context I refused (for that band) to look at a note of music. I learned the songs from listening to recordings, and made do for "reminders" with a list of song titles and keys. I either had to remember what went on in the song, or I had to make up something that would fit on the spot. After six or seven gigs operating like this I started to relax. These days we're a section (all two us) so I end up writing arrangements, but I'm no longer filled with terror when I have to fill in the blank bits or get handed a totally unexpected solo in the middle of a song.

I say you're on the right track. Get 'em while they're young.
 

JTMaul

New Member
Messages
14
Improv wasn't something I even thought about trying until about my sophomore year in high school. A buddy of mine was doing some sort of contest and one thing he had to do was improvisation, and while he had time to work on what he would play it was still a strange thought to me. Now I do it all the time, though most of it IS rubbish, I enjoy it. I normally can't repeat ANY part of what I had just played, but I let it just happen. My hands go to fingerings and my tongue moves accordingly. I would play softly at first but after a few weeks of messing around I can play anywhere without too much embarrassment. However, this is normally just at school or in my backyard. It seems like it's just something you have to DO.
 

kevgermany

ex Landrover Nut
Subscriber
Messages
21,947
You've got me thinking now. Plenty of pplaces in my learners book for imrov, but my teacher just skips past them and doesn't want/expect m to do it. I think I will start doing it and putting it in. Will be interesting to see what he says/does. In a couple of exercises where I had to supply (written) a few notes joining passages, I had something completely different to the suggested answers and asked him to crit mine compared to the samples - his answer - taste... Same where I had to join beginnings and endings. hmmm...
 

old git

Tremendous Bore
Messages
5,545
Not sure how many times I've made this point before, (so why are you doing it again?) but improvisation was required at the end of each concerto. Some prat then transcribed a good improvisation and it became the accepted dots. Listening to the Radio 4 religious service yesterday, bit strange for an atheist but the music is interesting, it finished with a partly improvised organ piece and most decent organists do this at each service. Further, any composing or arranging is improvising, so can we blame it on teachers believing they must be better at every aspect of playing than their pupils?

Could it also be a how do you judge the quality of improvisation problem? Can understand how this could be appear to be a valid reason for some but any improvisation IS good as it is an example of free musical thought, with an added proviso that you need to believe in Free Form music. ;}
 

half diminished

Senior Member
Messages
1,302
Wouldn't say I was scared but more daunted when I started. I was luck enough to attend an Aebersold Jazz course and on he first day ended up jamming with 20 other musicians, all of whom were significantly better/more experienced than I was at the time. They were kind and gentle with the beginner I was then.

For me, improvisation is very hard. I'm pretty musical 'around a key centre' but as soon as I try to outline the changes I'm in trouble, despite having a marvellous teacher in Karen Sharp. All I can say is she say's I am improving and getting more confidence.

Damned with faint praise....... :w00t: but she is spot on! I do enjoy it though.
 

Pyrografix

Senile Member
Messages
1,026
I fall into the 'petrified' but keen to overcome it group (if there is such a thing!) I was brought up playing classical violin/piano many years ago, and to do anything other than playing the dots was taboo. The first sax tutor I found about 18months ago was also from a similar school so I didn't stick with her for long. My current tutor is the exact opposite and very much into improv, but I'm finding it quite daunting to make the change despite the desire to do so. O'niell and Aebersold to the rescue!
 

Sunray

Well-Known Member
Messages
1,708
Starting to Improvise ....

I usually try to introduce improvisation to my students as soon as possible after starting lessons with me.

----------------- 8< ----------------- Polite Snip ----------------- 8< -----------------

Thanks Nick ...

As a n00b - I find your post thought provoking, challenging and as always frank ... :welldone

I haven't really considered the scaredy cat scenario you mention, mainly because I am a total beginner .... But I tell you what mate ... I am sure gonna give it a good bash now, that's for sure ... [I got permission]!! w00t :w00t:

I sort of thought I would need to play a lot better than I can at present before trying new things like improvising, but you have opened up my mind ...

Safety Alert: Watch out guy's Sunray's got a hole in his head and his "ole grey matter" may drip on the Cafe floor and make it all slippery. :)))
 

dooce

Well-Known Member
Messages
1,418
I was brought up reading the dots while I learnt flute, but my Dad was a modern jazz fanatic so alongside the Bach and Debussy, I was mostly listening to MJQ, Brubeck, Dankworth and Getz with the old man pointing out the subtleties of the improvisation. Probably as a result, I have always been able noodle away for hours - either on an instrument, or just in my head. And as Moz points out, being able to play by ear is a big part of it. I am just very lucky I guess - it does come very naturally and I feel the limits are imposed by technical skill (lack thereof), not imagination.
 

BigMartin

Well-Known Member
Messages
3,904
I'm in the early stages of learning to improvise.

Played a lot of classical music when I was younger. Was always impressed by people who could improvise but had no idea of what might be going through their heads while they were doing it. So when I decided to try and learn to play jazz sax, yes, I was petrified of making an idiot of myself. If I massacre a piece of Bach, I've got enough experience to have a good idea of what I did wrong and how to fix it. If I mess up an improv, it just sounds rubbish and I don't (didn't?) know why. Also, it felt a bit like declaring to the world (even if noone was actually listening) that I am a completely uncreative person. I know rationally it's nonsense, but thats how it felt.

I'm still not good at playing by ear, but I'm working on it. What has started to work for me is playing flexible scales/arpeggios (a la Bob Taylor) to a backing track, one chord at a time and getting a feeling for colour tones, resting tones etc. Then you can think in terms of target notes, eg "I'll aim to start the next bar on the third of the chord" and find a route to them through the current chord/scale (I'm probably not describing this very well, but it works for me). All those scales/arpeggios I learned as a kid to help with technical facility and sight reading (not to mention passing grade exams) are finally beginning to make sense as building blocks of music (though I'm having to learn where the 7ths and 9ths are now).

Went to the RNCM sax day yesterday, and decided to stick my neck out and go the "advanced improv" workshop session run by Mike Hall. Wasn't that advanced as it turned out (mostly going over some II-V-I's with some advice on melody construction). Was delighted to find that I was able to join in and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
 
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thehunt

Member
Messages
785
Good thread, i absolutely love improvising but find it hard to play by ear. I can read the dots and know what key i am in, i had a discusssion last saturday with my teacher as i am aware that i tend to noodle around on key centres and don't add many arpeggios, so my playing can be a bit linear, however that is my next quest apart from improving my tone to make my impro's more interesting, not necessarily more complex. To answer the question when i started i thought i would not be able to improvise, however it just seems to come naturally now. Phil
 

MandyH

Sax-Mad fiend!
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Messages
3,556
Anyway, what are your experiences with starting improvisation? Did you embrace it eagerly or were you petrified? If the latter, then I'd be interested to know what it was about it that caused this.
Nick, it filled me with the fear you so correctly descibe. But I did have a go, and rather enjoyed it in the end. I was "forced" to improvise as that's what the syllabus required of me (TG grade 4 jazz sax). Initially I found I had no idea, but after some time, I felt much more at ease - I was given a blues scale to work around, and it sort of fell into some sort of place. I knew that if I restricted myself to just those notes in that blues scale then it should sound OKish, at least, and once I got warmed up, I rather enjoyed it.
That said, I have just (today in fact) started on the impro piece of grade 6 Jazz sax, and find myself filled with just as much fear and trepidation. But the scales on which to hang my notes will be advised, so at least I know once again if I stick to just those notes, I should sound OK. This time however, I get 2 scales not one, and I have a really bad memory, so probably will take ages to get anything sounding vaguely OK.
:))):sax:
 

TomMapfumo

Well-Known Member
Messages
5,219
My experience of beginning improvisation was twofold. My first teacher introduced me to Kelly Santin "Creative Saxophone Improvisation" a little too early (as several of the pieces are Grade 5,6 & 7), and insisted that I just "get on with it" - all of which was daunting - the idea of doing so many bars of the stuff etc. etc. Not encouraging. I changed music teachers shortly afterwards, and his approach was influenced by my choosing a scale to use, and just playing a few notes, then he'd respond, then me and so on - blues, pentatonic and similar scales. The other thing we worked on were riffs of 5/6 notes as a main theme and then slightly adding/developing themes and variations. This worked much better and a lot of my warm ups consist of such improvisations. Now doing 6 or 7 choruses is second nature..............and helped me find the tunes within, as it were.

Kind regards
Tom
 

dave 645

Member
Messages
124
Nick, I find your thread, and the responses very interesting.

I have about 80 hours playing experience, just sax, never learnt anything else, could not read music until I decided to learn sax. So relative novice. Largely self taught, but have had four 30 minute lessons over the last few weeks.

I guess for me the big question here is what is improv? As I understand the word, it's make it up as you feel for it, yet as I read people's responses there does seem to be more to it. Are there rules?

I largely follow books for my learning, but do sometimes put the radio on and just try to play along if I can. Ocassionally something sounds good to me, but by the time I've stopped congratulating myself the music has moved on and I'm lost again.

Thanks for bringing up the question.

Dave
 

JTMaul

New Member
Messages
14
I do hope to be able to play by ear, as I am rather discouraged during Dictation practice in Theory class, but I do often get lost in melodies going through my head during school and when I am able to pick up my horn they've left. It's a feeling that I dislike, knowing that I had a wonderful song going through my brain, but not being able to let others hear it.
 

johnboy

Senior Member
Messages
1,179
Nick, I find your thread, and the responses very interesting.

I have about 80 hours playing experience, just sax, never learnt anything else, could not read music until I decided to learn sax. So relative novice. Largely self taught, but have had four 30 minute lessons over the last few weeks.

I guess for me the big question here is what is improv? As I understand the word, it's make it up as you feel for it, yet as I read people's responses there does seem to be more to it. Are there rules?

I largely follow books for my learning, but do sometimes put the radio on and just try to play along if I can. Ocassionally something sounds good to me, but by the time I've stopped congratulating myself the music has moved on and I'm lost again.

Thanks for bringing up the question.

Dave
Hi Dave,
The way I like to think of it is:-
Playing by ear - Playing tunes you know, without the music.
Improvisation - Messing about with an original melody (as in a solo, or playing jazz).
Composing - I think that this is JTs problem in the next post (JT if you can, use your mobile to record it on the spot).



John.
 

MartinL

Member
Messages
366
As a school kid I learnt guitar and as such I became familiar with strumming chords. Now as a novice sax player i can honestly say that i can tell if a note fits in a chord by ear, although I would struggle to know the note names for each chord or the scale of the chord.

I thought this would be a good start for improvising but I'm useless.... I find improvising hard, I just dont have the imagination to play without some sort of lead or structure. Maybe it will come, but when...
 
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