IMPROVISATION


[As of right now, I have not posted music examples for the improv section here at the website. The following does give you some interesting things to think about regarding goofing around at the piano, or on any musical instrument. There will be more later]

   Hand independence, song forms, melodies, fingering, riffs, rhythm, and some imagination all come into play when improvising.

Q. Do I have to wear my heart on my sleeve to improvise?
No you don’t. Wear it around your neck. It’s less likely to fall off and get stepped on in the bar in the dark. I hate having to grope around with one hand looking for it while trying to keep the groove going.
Seriously, no you do not. Some of you may have a lot to say emotionally right now and will do so no matter how much you know musically. However, many of us need to develop some skills and musical confidence before we start inventing things. A lot of improvisation, and songwriting, is about recombining things you know and imitating things you HEAR. Even when it is deep-down-you, you are drawing off of what you have learned. Developing the ability to choose what to play and when while playing on the fly is ‘being in the moment’ and the better facility you have with your instrument, the more likely it is that the idea that pops into your head will get played by your hands.

    YOUR HANDS WILL ONLY PLAY WHAT THEY KNOW. You can argue this one with me all day and I won’t let up. Chords you have played, fingerings you have done, melodies you know by heart, song forms you know by heart, every fragment that you have played enough to fiddle with a bit is there for you to use creatively. If you haven’t played it, you won’t play it, unless you conciously make up new shapes. Original recombinations, ideas that seem to come out of thin air, come from your hands being ready to follow what your mind is thinking AND KEEP UP AND NOT LOSE THE BEAT. The more options your hands have, the more often unexpected things will just happen when you are feeling creative, or fun, or really really bummed out and god I just gotta play something now or I can’t go on.

   Practice your rhythms and riffs and melodies often and as soon as you know them, try combining different patterns in sequence-MIX IT UP!! Exploring contrasts is crucial to becoming expressive. Get a song book and lift some chords from a song and line them up with the rhythms and see what you get. Always take the initiative to experiment with the elements that are presented to you. Always look for a way to either challenge yourself or to be creative. I think the word there is, improvise.


IMITATE

   Imitate as much rhythm as you can from recordings. Drums are a great place to start. Listen to the kick and snare interplay, and do that with your left and right hands. Also, imitating the rhythm and GENERAL SHAPE of a solo or melody or rhythm you heard is a great thing to do. Don’t worry about getting the notes right. Just make a guess. I got Louie Louie wrong note-wise my first time, and that is just about the easiest tune there is. I didn’t care. I had something to play! The integrity of a good rhythm, whether it is a beat or a longer shape of a melodic rhythm, will make it hang together no matter what notes you play. Imitate good rhythms. Use your ear. Do it now. Don’t wait for me.


CONTRASTS AND EXPECTATIONS:

   Making music is the combination of rhythms, harmonies, patterns, melodies. Going from one rhythm to another; changing the chords; changing the texture; changing the curve and rhythm of the melody; going from loud to soft; setting up EXPECTATIONS of something going to happen and then deciding whether to grant or deny those expectations to the listener is what makes music go ‘round (this can also be thought of as dissonance/consonance or tension/resolution though it isn’t always the same thing). This is a really simple concept that is sooooo useful. Music relies heavily on this concept. If you keep it mind, things get much easier. All music sets up expectations of something about to happen. Think of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Sing it all the way to the last note. What if, at the last note, you sang a different note? Maybe one that was really unexpected? That would be DENYING expectations of the listener. It could be unexpectedly funny, or ugly, or like a door opening on another scene. The effect can be jarring or pleasing, depending on the contrast of what was expected, and what one got, and the tastes of listener (or the person creating it). If music always hits all the markers and gives you what you are expecting, it is way boring and uninviting. [This is why a lot of cheesy teen pop music is so tiresome, not because the music itself is poorly performed, but because it does exactly what you expect it to do. It will sound formulaic and insincere. ] If music always denies your expectations (doesn’t deliver the juicy punch line, seems to keep making sharp turns for no apparent reason, never seems to ARRIVE, or is just too clever for its own good), then you will turn it off very quickly because it is frustrating. A great deal of the modern classical music of the 20th century suffered from this problem. Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone atonal music was up against our natural, though subjective, listening to sound. It constantly avoided ARRIVING at ‘home’ because of its system of avoiding being in a key. It was impossible to grant expectations unless you could follow the highly complex structure of the music, which almost no one is motiviated enough to do. It asks too much of the average, and even above average, listener. [Some of his disciples, Alban Berg most notably, got around this problem by inserting ways to ‘hit the marker’ at least some of the time. His operas, Wozzeck, and Lulu, still get performed today. The story line of the opera helped immensely in giving the atonal music a structure to support.]

   These combinations of contrasts, and granting and denying expectations go a long way towards flicking the switches inside you to draw you into a piece of music and whether or not you like a piece of music. Every single person has a different set of likes and dislikes, and needs, in this regard. If you wish to be a student of this sort of thing, explore all the musical styles you can lay your hands on, and observe what it is you like about each one of them in this way (granting and denying and contrasts). Observe which styles are most popular, what likes and dislikes you share with your friends.

   So, what you decide to do with this simple concept in your playing is up to you. It is a simple and effective way to guide your path so you can keep the listener (maybe just you or a whole audience) paying attention and joining you on the path. You can employ it as you improvise, and/or you can employ it when you are listening back to the tune and trying to make improvements. However you do it, developing the sense for changing things up, and being able to execute it as you play, is central to fun improvising. You will be able to tell a story with a tune.



SOME SUGGESTIONS

Well, maybe not that suggestion...

   If you really want to improvise then bear in mind that you may have to musically:

flout authority (maybe flaunt your flouting of authority on the flute)
shamelessly flirt
lie, a lot…possibly for the sake of finding a truth
seduce
do not look over your shoulder
reject
accept
get mad
really piss somebody off
ask for forgiveness
tell someone you love them
amuse yourself
tell people what to do
be social
be private
make silly jokes
be extremely serious
investigate acting
pretend things
think in shapes
think in images
think in a tweed suit with a pipe
wonder why you are so alone
tell people to go away.
Wonder why you can’t more easily give love
Try to reconcile your flaws to yourself
Have fun
Show off
Fool around
Avoid seriousness altogether
Be illogical
Be logical
Imitate others
Mimic
Steal things and act like you made it up yourself
Argue
Have dialogue
Be really careless
Make an awful racket
Behave as if you have no reverence for anything, and you just don’t care what anybody thinks of you.
Make a point of not playing something as written, just so everybody knows you are free and you are doing it your way.
Be willing to keep trying over and over
Be willing to practice in a deliberate, and obsessive, way
Do odd tasks that are background to the act of improvising
  If you can do all, or even just some, of that, then you have a chance.