February 9, 2009 at 4:03 PM
For years, I've been trying - quite unsuccessfully - to improve my ability in playing by heart, learning by ear or improvising.
As for learning by ear, my teacher patiently provides a little exercise between the warm-up and the main part of the lesson, which - slowly but surely - shows some progress in my ability to do that.
On Saturday, I took part in a very inspiring improvisation workshop. The coaches came all the way from Vienna: Johanna and Resi from the extraordinary Austrian string quartet Netnakisum. Without further ado, Resi startet laying a rhythmic foundation while Johanna improvised a melody. The participants were told to just add their part to the accompaniment. As soon as everybody was in a groove, Johanna got up and took a seat among the participants, while Resi started to play a melody, slow, at speed, slow again - repeating the phrase over and over, some of us playing along (or anyway, trying their very best), some still playing rhythm.
Now everybody had the chance to do a little solo and then to hide again in the crowd. Since we were already playing something we didn't know and everybody was in the same predicament, it actually worked - each and everybody played something resembling a solo. Some were great, some were good, some just were (mine, for example), but everybody took the chance.
Then, Resi introduced the second part of the melody, repeating the above procedure, and finally the third and last part.
In the evening, when all groups played the music they had rehearsed during the day, Resi went from one workshop participant to the next and told us that we would all be onstage in a few minutes to do our little tap dance again. This time, some copped out. I forced myself to do it, played something that was (even shorter than in the afternoon), but it was.
Now, there's a long road still ahead of me, but I finally took the first step.
I once took an improv workshop that was extremely worthwhile. The students were of different ages and skill levels, but there were ways in which each person could contribute something unique and personal. Unwittingly, I learned a lot about the rhythmic and harmonic structures of music in general. It was great fun, too.
We went to an improv workshop recently and it was an interesting experience. First off, everything that the teacher said confirmed my suspicions--that classically-trained musicians tend to be appalingly bad at improvisation--due to lack of practice and exposure--due to it never being a part of the art. Furthermore she explained that it is a skill, not some magical talent--a skill--like reading music--only in this case hearing music. (We even in discussion decided that there is a third skill--hearing a note name and playing it...)
Most of the people there were well-practiced band players--flute players preponderantly as the teacher was a classically trained jazz flutist. She handed out some music. And when she asked people to play it--well they sure were good at sight-reading music! Left me in the dust. But during the improvisation it was as you described--variations from fear, and or incompetence to really nice ideas. For us, the improvisation was easy. It was supposed to be a 12 bar blues. The girl next to me said, "what is that! I don't know what that is!" I said, "don't worry--you'll feel it! (And she did!).
So I got the reverse result--as an improviser mostly, I saw how inadequate my sight-reading is. Yet when I actually played formally as a kid, it was all from sheet music. I am a natural improviser and unnatural reader. I seem to have passed that trait on as well. Yet being a natural improviser doesn't mean I am a skilled player--it seems to be unrelated!
I think the natural improvisers are the ones who, at a young age, have an inner soundtrack going all the time (I had one, my kids have them). At some point this is either squashed by formalization or maybe other musicians never had the soundtrack. I think it would be interesting to explore that.
Now another thing about improvisation is that there are varying levels of competent musicianship. Some people are very practiced and recognize the mode and tonic of any piece after a few bars. For me, I do this too, but not so formally. Often I mistake the dominant for the tonic--especially if it is not Major or Minor modes. However if I get into a mixolydian groove I usually recognize the tonic even though that might be counter-intuitive--as it is minor above the dominant and major below. The other night I actually mistook a key of C blues jam for G--I had been filling in and working around the Dominant--this is quite easy to do as the dominant is sort of a second tonic--that's why it is called the Dominant!
Every instrument and every genre has its own strengths and weaknesses here. The structure of the instrument affects how you think--guitarists tend to get the key signature and chord structure more at an early stage compared to violinists. But genre seems to affect this, too. For instance folk fiddle players who pay attention to mandolin learn the chord shapes and even those without mandolin experience are likely to learn them. After watching classical and Suzuki teaching for 5 years, I have yet to see any such discussion. The first time we jammed with an old Kentucky fiddle player, he showed the 7 year old how to play the chords of the tune "Old Joe Clark"...
Finally, the improvisation teacher said that for her, improvisation and composition are related. The skills that are good for improvisation are good for composition and vice-versa. The difference was whether it is coming out through your instrument, or residing in your head. In composition, you translate from your head, into the paper. With practice this is automatic, just as your hand shapes while playing improvisation, or while sight reading are second nature to your process.
Oh, and it wasn't about being best, or correct, or right. It is about getting into the groove. Everyone *did* have something to contribute--there is beauty in the unexpected. When you are improvising with others--whether experienced or not--you are writing a collaborative story serially--except that it is a sound poem. What you play is always influenced by what you just heard--she who precedes you hands off tho tonality, a motif or phrase, a rhythm, and you react to it--you elaborate, you concur, you juxtapose, invert, convert, elucidate--and on it goes. It is a wonderful feeling and really the fun is just beginning!
So improv can be learned. But it is really a matter of being "in" the music rather than outside it. It is a matter of unucture--of getting into the music without a translation service--no translating words, or concepts, or maths. You just do it. Written music is a translation--sight reading ios translation--it isn't music by itself. And this leads to the final point that came out of the improv worksho we attended: that in her composition, she is drawing on her improv--that they are from the same place--improv is composition on the fly.
Well done for having the guts to do your improvisation.
Years and years ago I did a jazz improvisation course at Benslow House in Herts, England and had a pretty excruciating/exhilarating experience. The tutors were very understanding and when it came to our performance night they even gave us some forewarning of where in the piece we would be expected to do our solo (and they allowed us violins to say seated during our moment, phew). I cheated by going back to my room and composing 8 bars that would get me through the time slot. My little solo wasn't great and it definitely wasn't jazz, but I would have thought that from an audience point of view our beginners group were easier on the ear than the advanced group. They all wanted to do ten minutes each as they didn't seem to have grasped the principle of 'less is more'.
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