Creative Strings Workshop, through Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.There isn't just one way to jam on the violin, I'm discovering while exploring improvisation at Christian Howes'
We had a little elective in the afternoon, a choice between playing in ensembles that would be doing: free improv; reading sessions; or fiddle styles. After doing a reading session last night, today I opted for "fiddle styles" with violinist Andy Reiner, a versatile fiddle player who today was demonstrating Celtic Fiddle styles.
Hmm, could I get in touch with my Irish roots? I've always wondered how Celtic fiddle music sounds so...well, "Irish." If you look at the sheet music for it, it looks pretty simple. Then if you try playing that same music as written, it sounds...simple. But, if you listen to an expert like Andy, it's endlessly interesting:
Somehow when he plays it, it's full of mysterious fiddle tricks, groovy phrasing and infectious rhythm. How does he do all that? Well, he did illuminate a few of those Irish fiddle ornaments for us today. I'm sure it was just the tip of the iceberg, but I enjoyed being able to make an Celtic fiddle tune sound at least a little more Irish!
We went over four kinds of ornaments, which he called "micro-improvisations" because you can sprinkle them throughout a tune to make it sound not only more "Irish," but also to keep things different each time you play the tune.
"I'm trying to always keep the melody in my head, but I never want it to be the same," Andy said.
The ornaments were:
Here is a video demonstration:
Earlier in the day, I went to a basic clinic on improvisation with Christian Howes, the jazz violinist who is the director of Creative Strings. Today he spoke about how to get started with creative ideas. Of course, it helps to get a thorough handle on chords (here is a workshop he did about that), but the whole process involves more than getting to know the chords of any given tune.
"Creativity is about choosing," Christian said. And what holds people back? Two main problems: Not knowing where to start, and being in a rut.
"Play anything at all" is actually one of the most difficult ways to look at improvising. It's a lot more helpful to give yourself some parameters, to eliminate that feeling of being overwhelmed by too many possibilities.
In fact, "the more constraints you have, the easier it is to improvise," Howes said. "As long as I pick a parameter, it helps me move forward."
Here are a number of the categories for creating parameters that he suggested:
Music sounds like a big category, but here are some parameters: limit yourself to certain notes to play; rhythms; fast vs. slow; phrasing; number of notes; genre; space and silence. For example, he set three people up to improvise together, giving them each a different set of very specific parameters. The first person was instructed to play occasional special effects; the second person was to play lyrical music, all in fifth position with lots of vibrato; then the first person was to play three-note phrases on the G string, separated by awkwardly long spaces. It came out sounding like what we classical musicians would call "modern music"! More importantly for this exercise: No one had trouble coming up with their part.
He said it's important to listen for all the same things we do in classical music, when doing improvisation: notes in tune, in time, with good phrasing.
At one point it was my turn to play a one-on-one free-style improvisation with Christian, the only parameter being that it was kind of a back-and-forth. It was a real treat for someone new to improvisation to play with someone who knows it all inside-out and has put in his 10,000 hours on the subject. I did my best to pick up on the motives he was playing, and a pulse seemed to emerge as we went back and forth. This is a nice way of learning, too: interacting and doing things by ear, getting more to the instincts of music-making.
More to come!
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