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4 Ways to Improvise

Michael Fox

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Published: September 17, 2014 at 7:59 PM [UTC]

When I first walked down this path of using strings to create sound, I was unaware how versatile it could be, or how the same instrument could make me comfortable in a huge variety of settings. I have inserted my voice into all kinds of situations – sometimes projects involving many hours of rehearsal, and others involving street musicians I’ve never met before who simply see my case and say something like “Why don’t you join us, man?”

One thing I hear a lot from ethnomusicologists is that “music is not a universal language, but it is a universal phenomenon.” In other words, the same piece of music isn’t going to mean the same thing to everyone. Based on numerous, sometimes unknown and uncontrollable factors, the same song could sound scary to one person, sad to another, exciting to someone else, romantic to another person, and spiritual to yet another set of ears.

But not only can music be heard in a number of different ways, but it can also be made in a number of different ways. Playing with a string quartet and playing in a street jam session require different parts of the brain, and totally different approaches to knowing what notes make sense in a particular context. In the area of improvisation, there are a number of different ways to go about learning how to "jam" over a piece. I believe that to be truly proficient, all musicians should be pushed to be comfortable making music in all different ways possible.

There are, I think at least four ways to approach learning or creating a song, and all four can be jumping off points for improvisation. To help me keep things straight, I’ve decided to label each way of musical creation with the part of our bodies from which that way of playing originates. Of course, anyone playing will be using all these different parts all the time, but I feel that certain styles of creating music demand that one part gets more attention at certain times.

1) Playing by sight – reading what’s written on the page.

This the path emphasized by traditional Western music education, of reading sheet music. It is a valuable way of learning songs, but I would argue that it should not be the exclusive one. However, some people critical of Classical violin training scoff at the process of sight-reading, believing it is uncreative and a simple robotic bending to the will of a God-like composer. However, this is very much not the case. Sheet music provides a blueprint for a piece, but there is still a lot left up to the individual’s creative interpretation. A composer might want a song to sound soft in a particular section, so he or she will put a stylized “p” for piano under the staff. However, what does “soft” really mean? It’s up to the player to decide just how dramatic that “piano” should be emphasized. That’s just one of hundreds of decisions a player must make. So that's why Jascha Heifetz can sound so different from Hillary Hahn. And why, if you're classical trained and intimidated by the concept of "improvising," you're actually being more creative and spontaneous then you may realize.

2) Playing by ear – playing by hearing and imitation, learning a song the same way a growing child learns to speak language.

This is the primary way most of the world’s cultures learn their “folk songs,” as the song leader teaches others to join in through listening, imitation, and repetition. Once a tune has gotten so far in your system to be known, the ordination is up to you, and can be improvised in the moment, often never really played the same way twice. Some styles of music, like classical Arabic music, and old-time Appalachian fiddling allow several people to play the same tune together, with the subtle differences each musician brings blending into one whole.

Here's a cumbia (a popular style of Latin American dance music) song that can be a good starting point, as an example for its relative simplicity:

After careful listening to this song a few times, you'll start to notice this is built along a minor scale, and has two different melodic phrases, starting at different pitches, jumping up, and then descending. Simply try repeating the accordion introduction, and trying to play along on your instrument, listening carefully and adjusting until the notes match. Before long, you'll start to really get this repetitive and catchy melody so "known" in your ears, mind, and fingers, that you can experiment with branching off - keeping the melody in your head, while trying out other "licks" that might sounds good.

3) Playing by brain – using the chords figuring out the skeletal “song behind the song,” and then building melodies that fit around this internal melody. This is the central place for jazz, rock, and pop improvisation.

Going back to the aforementioned "Rumba Cha Cha," careful listening to the piano part can show you that there's more going on in the song then just the melody. Advanced knowledge of composition or jazz theory could go all over the place with this song, but at it's most basic level, the song goes back and forth between two chords. - E minor and D major.

Looking at a piano, and playing the triad, or the (1st, 3rd, and 5th notes) of both of those scales will give you the most basic internal melody, namely.

E – G – B


D – F# – A

That’s three notes that move down either a whole or half step. To create a solo that makes sense, be aware of this movement, and emphasize those notes. Of course, in the heat of performance, you shouldn’t have to be aware of all that. Practicing the different scale and arpeggio possibilities over the song will eventually cause the process to become automatic.

4) Playing by heart (or gut, if you prefer) – Playing spontaneously, creating something that is uniquely yours. This is the home of the composer and improviser. Whether spending hours carefully crafting a symphony, or exploring the sounds that emerge when you mindlessly let your fingers glide on the strings, utilizing your own music voice is an essential part of what it means to be a full musician. Getting comfortable creating music when there are “no rules” other then ones you decide to put on yourself will enrich your ability to play with true expression and heart in all the other modes of playing. Plus it’s great therapy!

Different people are going to find different that one pathway is going to come easier to them then the others, and that’s ok. But I feel that since music can be made all of these different ways, that it’s my goal to become more comfortable with all these different methods.

Do you think there are any other ways or approaches to making music that I’ve left out? Let me know your thoughts!

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