Tips for improvisation

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Tips for improvisation

Postby Sharon Gartley » Wed May 12, 2010 9:39 am

I want to be able to improvise on the fly, adding accompaniment notes and embellishments to the melody line so that it sounds full and rich and also so I'm not playing the same thing over and over. I have worked at it, have been to some workshops, taken some lessons, and I'm better at it than I used to be, but I still am nowhere close to where I want to be. I can write arrangements but I also want to be able to just play, to have beautiful things flow from my hammers with a minimal amount of forethought.

Some of you excel at this. Some of you even remember some of the processes that helped you get there. I would like to hear from you! Some of you were born this way and don't remember how you learned. You probably can't help much. :lol: (but maybe I'm wrong about that).

So, what I am looking for is tips, ideas, suggestions, brilliant exercises and suggestions for how to practice, develop, and improve improvisational skills.

Thanks!
Sharon
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby mrchips » Wed May 12, 2010 11:23 am

You can do many things but probably the easiest is improvising around the chord progression. For instance with say a D major. You have several choices here. First off try one of the chord inversions or doing the chord in reverse order. It dosent matter where you get those notes or in what order but its still a D major. Changing the way you do it changes the sound but not the actual chord.

Many times for a short while the melody is basically a short scale run. Instead of doing individual notes simply play the original one and play another note a third higher or lower in parallel with it. You can take the same idea but go an entire octave one way or the other with the other note.

There are many more tricks such as grace notes, shifting octaves, and shifting the timing around a bit. You usually dont want to get really weird with that one though. :lol:
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby Marjorie Orr » Mon May 17, 2010 1:28 pm

I wish you had more replies to your post as I need the same help. I feel like the blind leading the blind when it comes to giving anyone advice because I am so new to it but this is what I am currently trying. Experimentation (although slow) seems to be a great teacher because it stays with you.

[list=]• On hymns I fill in the melody with 8th notes from appropriate chords until it is solid, yet too much gets boring. I find that a song usually sounds better with some open space in it.

• Substituting chords – secondary choices for the mundane. (ex. ii instead of IV)

• Piano music (borrow from a friend if necessary) can give you great ideas and chord structure. For instance I am currently working on My Tribute using an arrangement by Dino Kartsonakis. His chording really lifts the soul!

• Patterning – double note in middle or beginning of an arpeggio or any other pattern you can create. As you play arpeggios (up, down, multiple directions) pattern them as if you are playing a drum. Again go to piano music to find ideas and/or listen to YouTube. Listen not only to HD but to piano music for the tune you are working on

• Grace notes and Ornamentation – I have a Baroque ornamentation book. In Table I it shows 3 notes up the scale and 18 ways to play them! And many more ideas.[/list]

I look forward to more replies on this subject. How and what do you great players think as you create? And Sharon, how about posting your own tips for the rest of us; you obviously play very well already.
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby Sharon Gartley » Mon May 17, 2010 2:28 pm

Marjorie Orr wrote:How and what do you great players think as you create?

Yes! That is what I want to better understand! I don't want to just know the types of things I can do to improvise, but how to practice so these things become solidified as part of my bag of tricks that I can just whip out (and be good at) anytime I want. You've given me some ideas about that and I welcome more.

I don't think I have any tips about this because it is something that seems to elude me. I can improvise accompaniment when I'm playing with the worship band at church, and I can come up with nice arrangements for things, but at this point I can't play melody and accompaniment on the fly without having previously figured something out and worked on it.

Thanks!
Sharon
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby cboody » Mon May 17, 2010 8:00 pm

Oh my! This is such an important thing and so difficult to talk about and teach. I've done a couple of workshops about it, but I've never been sure I got at the whole issue. For that matter I just do what I do, and others do very different and equally valid things that I can't do or don't think of. So, with that caution:

1) Pick slow tunes, I find that waltzes work well, particularly for some rhythmic reasons. Then try these techniques. Southwind works well for a starting point.

2) Play the tune adding a second lower note to the melody note on the first beat of each bar. That second note should be the root tone of the chord played in that bar.

3) Do the same thing, but instead of the root tone of the chord play any other note.

4) Do the same thing as 2 & 3 but add your harmonizing note ABOVE the melody.

5) In many waltzes, like Southwind, beat two doesn't always get played. Try the same things as in 2 to 4, but instead of playing with the melody on the first beat add your other note to the empty second beat. This will not work on every bar, so figure out when it does.

6) Turn the piece into a steady run of eighth notes by adding a drone note on all eighth notes not in the melody. Drones on the fifth note of the scale work well in major key pieces.

7) Do the same sort of thing as 6, but fill the eighth notes with descending arpeggios of the chord being used. In both this and 6 above be very careful that the melody can be clearly heard (a steady string of eighth notes without accents that make the melody clear are boring and unmusical).

8) Harmonize every note of the melody by using the first chord tone below the melodic note to be the harmony.

9) Harmonize the melody in thirds or in sixths and discover where you must alter the pattern to make harmonic sense.

10) Take the chord pattern of the piece and play interesting patterns with no particular reference to the melody. Concentrate on making the chord patterns link together. Don't just "play up" or "play down" each chord.

11) If you can manage some or most of the patterning things above begin to look into varying the melody iteslf. This is a huge topic in itself. Take a look at the Northumbrian Piper's Tune Books for some ideas. That tradition puts heavy emphasis on melodic variation. There are other traditions that do that too, but that is a good starting point.

12) Once the tricks in 2 through 10 become comfortable start using different techniques on different measures of the tune to give your playing variety. Soon you'll discover which of these techniques work for you and will begin to use them automatically. That's the time to stop yourself from becoming a cliche!

I hope this is clear and a bit helpful.
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby Guy George » Mon May 17, 2010 9:26 pm

Great discussion on this topic . Of course , basic skills are needed to improvise ... these are obtained in different ways for different people from what I've seen in students and teachers . When some skills are learned wouldn't it be interesting to bring these techniques to the jam session where other people could listen and learn. The Jam sessions I've participated in before getting involved with the dulcimer were done like this.... a tune is called and played, then one by one everyone except the rhythm section improvises on the melody by themselves so everyone can hear their ideas , good, bad or mediocre. This is an incredible learning tool and has been around for years and years ...
I realize people learn tunes at jam sessions and that's great .. Everyone playing the melody over and over and over .. all together .. over and over ... but it might be a nice break to have one of these "Jam" sessions at a dulcimer Fest ....just a thought .......
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby vjicha » Mon May 17, 2010 9:45 pm

What a fabulous response. I copied cboody's tips, pasted them in an email, and sent them to myself so I could print them out to have at the HD. Can't wait to try them.
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby Dan Landrum » Mon May 17, 2010 10:30 pm

Sharon,

Perhaps improvisation isn't as improvised as it looks. Most of what we see when watching a great solo comes from many hours of practice, starting with scales. Chuck offered some great advice there. You have to understand scale theory though, not just as theory, but so that the scales fall simply and naturally from your hammers onto the instrument. Then you can easily think in modified scales and intervals - better yet, parallel intervals of intervals. Thanks Chuck for your very concise explanation. The only thing that I would add is that the notes must be supported by solid, rhythmically predictable, grooves. This is where practicing rudiments is important. It develops rhythmic confidence and gives you a kind of stencil pattern into which you can drop your paint (notes).
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby cboody » Tue May 18, 2010 12:07 am

@ Guy I don't get to Evart until Wed. afternoon just before the festival starts, but I'd be happy to help you organize such a jam. Given my music background I'm really crummy at it, but that's OK. It would be nice to have a sort of "bluegrass" style jam but not necessarily on bluegrass tunes. The only consistent bluegrass jam I know of at Evart is Pam Bowman's and you have to stay up really late to get to that one!

@ Dan Right on about the rhythmic groove. None of the things I suggested are worth anything without a steady underlying rhythmic pulse. Yeah things can flex in tempo but the pulse is always there...
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby Sharon Gartley » Tue May 18, 2010 12:13 am

Dan Landrum wrote:Most of what we see when watching a great solo comes from many hours of practice

That's what I wanted to learn here, specifics of how best to practice to develop the skills I need for improvisational playing. I need to get systematic about this. I am way too hit & miss and realize I will never get where I want to go if I keep that up. Also, I'm not wanting these skills only for playing great solos, but also so I can just have fun sitting at my dulcimer playing new stuff halfway decently without having to take a lot of time to figure out an arrangement.

As for rudiments, I need to take drum lessons or something. I have a couple of books and that doesn't help at all b/c I don't know how to execute them (the rudiments, not the books :)). I suppose there are videos on YouTube. I will look there. I seem to remember you were working on something, Dan, so if it's available and I don't know about it, let me know.

Guy George wrote:a tune is called and played, then one by one everyone except the rhythm section improvises on the melody by themselves so everyone can hear their ideas , good, bad or mediocre. This is an incredible learning tool and has been around for years and years ...
... ... ... might be a nice break to have one of these "Jam" sessions at a dulcimer Fest ....just a thought.

That is a great idea, but would have to be a very non-threatening atmosphere in order for people like me to be able to handle it b/c being put on the spot sometimes does me in. Incorporating it into a fun workshop would be great so we learn, try things out, and practice together before being put on the spot. Somebody should do that as an extended session at the Buckeye Dulcimer Festival, or someplace somewhat near Marion, Oh: several hours of teaching and jamming together as a class.

I have a fantastic teacher and he works with me on these things (and could add some good insight to this discussion, no doubt). I want to learn from all of you as well. Something inside me needs to be able to play this way and I have to develop a solid practice routine that will help get me there before I die. I want to be having fun with this within months, not years. (not talking about mastery, talking about playing well and having fun.) I think I have the basic skills, just struggling with it still.

Thank you so much for your great suggestions, Chuck! Very helpful! Yours too, Marjorie and mrchips!
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby MarkAlanWade » Tue May 18, 2010 10:50 pm

There have already been a lot of great ideas. The only thing I'll add is that there is a chord/scale relationship that we have to learn. Every chord has a scale to match since the Bebop era. Prior to that, early jazz was conceived more vertically, or thinking up the arpeggio (listen to all the arpeggios in Louis Armstrong). In most improv today, we still use the chord/scale relationship.

It's actually pretty easy. All major chords go with the corresponding major scale. Minor chords go with the Dorian scale for that root. V7 chords go with the relative Mixolydian scales. There are more, but these apply to our tunes. So when you see/hear the I chord in D (D), play patterns on the D scale. When you have Em or Bm, play the E dorian or B dorian scales. For the A7, the V7, play the A mixolydian scale.

To apply this, try playing through the entire tune playing only 1-2-3-5 for each chord change in rhythm and at tempo. For instance, if you have two beats of a D chord, you would play D E F# A, the 1,2,3&5 for the D major scale. If the next two beats were Em, then you would play: E F# G B, the 1,2,3,5 of E Dorian. Work your way all the way through the piece only playing these chord changes with the scale patterns. Then you will start to find ways to noodle smoothly from one to the next, like up one scale and down the next. For instance, instead of playing the common progression: ii, V7, I as: E F# G B (ii), A B C# E (V7), D E F# A, instead, try: E F# G B (ii), A G E C# (V7), D E F# A (I). With practice, you will hear and play the scale that goes with each chord and learn to noodle through them in more and more clever ways.
Hope this helps! If not, you could always just stick to the blues scale where the 1 blues scale works for all chords in that key!
PS, Sharon, I too think you have a great teacher. He is amazing and deserves much Starbucks! 8)
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Re: Tips for improvisation

Postby cboody » Tue May 18, 2010 11:19 pm

Just to muddy the waters but perhaps help clarify:

In Mark's example (key of D): If you look carefully the D major scale, the E dorian scale and the A mixolydian scale are actually all the same set of notes just starting on different pitches! so perhaps thinking of the one scale will help some folks. Now, the second part of what Mark suggests (playing 123 5) of each scale will basically give you a sort of pentatonic sound (but based on the different starting notes). Pentatonic patterns really fit nicely in many situations! Also with the Bm chord (still talking the key of D) playing notes 1-2-3-5 is still playing notes within the D scale. Mark doesn't say what scales or pitch patterns to play (in the key of D) with the G chord but I strongly suspect he would recommend notes G-A-B-D as 1-2-3-5 and those are still within D scale!!

Jazz players would probably stress the notes at the other end of the scale more since one gets more "tang" that way. But I think Mark's suggestion is a really good one and plan on adding it to my collection of thoughts.

Thanks, Mark.
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