How to tech impro

October 8, 2018, 6:09 AM · Hi,

I have a couple of students who'd like to do the impro rather than sight reading for early trinity exams. I've had a look at the supporting docs and helpful youtube clips but I have no idea how to go about teaching impro (being pretty useless at it myself).

What are the steps to teaching impro?
How would this change depending on if they're choosing motivic melodic or harmonic stimulous?
What makes good impro in exam context?
How might it be judged at grade1/2 level? (Clips just say 'pass' but it's /10 so not much clue as to how the candidate scored?)

Any kind of advice will be welcome as I'm completely out of my depth here.

Replies (4)

October 8, 2018, 10:24 AM · I have only improvised when unable to read dog-eared hand-written parts in a dance band, but one can only improvise with what comes easily to the fingers, without prior reflection.

Example: I saw an ageing Stefane Grapelli in London: his playing was fast, neat, and beautifully in tune, but he tended to stay in one position for long periods (not necessarily the first).

Edited: October 8, 2018, 10:38 AM · If you don’t know how to teach improv, the best would be to find someone who does know how to teach it because it is like asking “how do you teach classical violin”. It is an extremely vast topic and requires the same hardwork (albeit in a different way) as it does to get good at classical violin. I fully realize that the number of violinists who can teach improv in a good way is much smaller than the number of classical violin teachers, so depending on wherey ou live, you might not find anyone

But to give you a very simple answer, you can teach them a major scale, and tell them to improvise using that scale over chord progressions that stay in the same key. If you teach them a C major scale, start on the open G to cover the entire range of first position. It’s not enough to start on the root, you have to start on the lowest note possible up to the highest note while remaining in position. Then they can use their ears to guide them. Another scale would be the C major pentatonic, so if you have a chord progression in C, you can use that and fiddle around. C maj pentatonic is basically C major scale minus two notes: C D E G A

That’s really a short and simple answer to question that is extremely vast.

Last but not least, improivisation is best taught in the context of an actual style of music, such as the swing music that Stephane Grappelli specialized in. But of course, there’s improvisation in every style of music too (including classical).

Edited: October 8, 2018, 11:08 AM · I have heard people shorten the term "improvisation" to "improv," but dropping the "v" makes it a bit unclear what you mean. Especially in this context (where you're being evaluated), my advice is to use the complete term.

I have two suggestions for you to improve your improvisation. The first is practice it. What exactly you look at depends on your response to my second suggestion (below), but whatever it is, you should do it all the time. You will begin by not really improvising, but coming up with things that you would like to have improvised, and practicing those until it comes easy enough that you could have improvised them. So, compose first, and then do that until the process of coming up with ideas becomes second nature. It will take awhile. The other part of this is that rarely do improvisers come up with some entirely new thing--most of what they play extemporaneously are ideas that they have previously cultivated--that's why you hear players use ideas that they have gotten from other artists... which leads me to the second suggestion.

I would advise listening to music traditions that involve improvisation--jazz, blues, some traditional fiddle styles, Middle Eastern music (Kalyan Kalhor, for ex), Hindustani/Karnataka music of India...Find one that you're attracted to, and listen to A LOT of it. You get the sound in your head, and then try to get it out of your playing. Begin by copying an improviser's playing, note-for-note, and balancing that with just seeing what you can come up with off the top of your head. If it's accessible, find a teacher of the style of improvisation you're interested in...

I have seen sort-of theory/technical approaches to improvisation where the style isn't really considered, but you have a scale, say a pentatonic scale, that you noodle around in. Playing against a blues chord progression, say. I think that it's best to work out of a style of music and then apply theory to understand what's going on. Good luck!

I see that another poster has many of the same suggestions, but I'll go ahead and throw mine in here too.

October 8, 2018, 11:28 AM · Looks like we’re on the same page Paul.

Like you I very much I dislike the overly theoretical approach that disregards stylistic interpretation. The improv language is often influenced by the style/culture and thease things go beyond theoretical/intellectual concepts

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