[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 dont. Wear it around your neck. Its 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 WILL ONLY PLAY WHAT THEY KNOW. You
can argue this one with me all day and I wont 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 havent played it, you wont 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 cant
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 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. Dont 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 didnt
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. Dont 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 isnt 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 (doesnt 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 Schoenbergs 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
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.