A different view at the process of mastering improvisation skills for beginners

Edited: April 19, 2020, 10:45 AM · Hello to all participants from the newcomer here!
It is well known that beginning improviser immediately get basically three traditional tips:
1) to reproduce on the instrument by ear what others are doing;
2) find textbooks containing information about chords, scales and the relationships between them; exercises on rhythmic and melodic patterns, ready-made phrases licks, etc;
3) learn the appropriate repertoire .

These tips for mastering the language of musical improvisation are consistent with the process of mastering the native language in the preschool and school periods. With that between the two processes usually exists a distance of five, six and more years. This is a very significant fact, because a beginner in musical improvisation is no longer a beginner in speech improvisation.
If the widespread opinion is that improvisation is a musical story from an improviser, then the experiments conducted by Professor Charles Limb with the help of MRI have scientifically proved the truth of this statement: the process of improvisation activates areas of brain associated with verbal communication , including the mechanism of syntax; but excludes areas related to semantics control . Thus, the assumption that in the basis of musical and speech improvisation is a common mechanism, is IMO quite real.

This leads to the natural conclusion that the first stage of mastering the skills of musical improvisation should be based on the skills of speech improvisation, already developed to some extent over several years, using a sense of speech rhythm and almost without theory.

Replies (56)

April 10, 2020, 1:16 PM · It is established that the same areas of the brain are activated during speech as the areas activated for music in general-- not for music improvisation exclusively. The assumption that once speech is developed, skills of musical improvisation can progress "almost without theory" is just a dream on your part.
April 10, 2020, 1:32 PM · My grandson after 4 lessons, no theory other than showing 5 keys on which to improvise.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kPJR5EUslws&t=1s
Edited: April 10, 2020, 6:10 PM · There is no language of music apart from tradition. All music is based on other music. This approach to improvisation sounds very methodical and rational, but in my opinion it lacks what is essential. "Learn the appropriate repertoire" hints at it, but is so neutralized as to be meaningless. It isn't some objective "skill."

No one learns to improvise with any facility without a LOT of listening and imitation of masters improvising in a particular style/tradition of music. Preferably being shown in person, but you can get a lot from recordings. Unfortunately for the European classical tradition, whatever traditions of improvisation were lost in pursuit of impressive technical and reading skills in the 19th century, so someone coming out of European classical music is going to need to educate themselves outside of that tradition if they want to learn to improvise. Jazz (including Grappelliesque "gypsy jazz"), various indigenous European/American fiddle styles, Arabic, Turkish, Hindustani, Karnatak--something. So, the bottom line here is that unless you focus on improvisation in a particular musical/cultural context, you can't make it up out of some vague objective-sounding pedagogical agenda. So, if I had a gifted student, I would see what improvisation traditions they are drawn to for inspiration into how they might develop their skills, and get instruction in that style. Just an idea.

Edited: April 10, 2020, 7:02 PM · People who learn jazz improvisation by being told what scale to play with what chord can progress relatively quickly at first, which is good for adult beginners because otherwise they might just as quickly become discouraged and give up. But eventually people who learn this way will hit a brick wall. "Jazz theory" for many people boils down to understanding the basis of the chord-scale matching process, to know what basic progressions and turnaround are, and to deal with the most trivial chord substitutions and alterations.

What needs to happen is to develop "the mind's ear" in the idiom (whichever idiom one chooses), to have at least enough technical facility to express what the mind's ear is telling you to play, and to develop the discipline to exclude nearly everything else. Children in Suzuki type programs have the advantage that they already mostly learn to play by ear. This skill is difficult for an adult beginner to learn. Suzuki kids can quickly develop an improvisational aspect to their musical educations if they are encouraged using such questions as:

How can you make this music your own?
Can you mix it up a little with different rhythms and even different notes?
Can you play that piece in a totally different style?

Like everything else, improvisation improves if you work at it, and if you have expert tutelage from someone skilled in that particular art. Someone who can tell you what's working, what's not working, and how to spend your practice time. Developing the mind's ear does require extensive listening. Transcription is often assigned by teachers as a way to focus and evaluate critical listening. Transcribing is to ear training what Kreutzer and scales are to classical technique.

Most children are discouraged from spending practice time on improvisation because their teachers see practice time as a zero-sum game, so improvisation "takes away" from "real" practicing. My older daughter (a violinist) was never really too interested in improv, even though her teacher was quite musically progressive and open-minded. My younger daughter (a cellist) wanted it from day one, and fortunately her teacher encouraged that part of her development.

Edited: April 11, 2020, 3:40 AM · Paul Smith, your statement : "No one learns to improvise with any facility without a LOT of listening and imitation of masters improvising in a particular style / tradition of music" is consistent with the common opinion about mastering improvisation skills, but does not quite correspond to my video, link which I posted above. That is, the child’s natural musicality is expressed in the fact that he loves to listen to music and tries to sing along to it and even dance (like my granddaughter at the age of 4), but this is far from what you mentioned ; especially regarding imitation of a certain style. The child learns the world through an instinctive imitation of what he sees and hears in order to use it for external communication with others and internal with himself. Improvisation and spontaneity on an instinctive level is crucial here. Here is my definition of improvisation:
"A conscious or unconscious spontaneous reaction to what is happening outside and inside us, using means available at that moment."
The main thing in our life is communication, which requires self-expression skills, and these skills can be very diverse: boxing, drawing, music, playing with cubes, etc. ad infinitum . Learning new skills is necessarily based in part on previously learned skills; hence the need to find a common platform between them.
In some African languages there is no concept "music", but a word related to the syncretism of music, dance, visual arts and theater.It follows that success in a certain field of art is the tip of the iceberg, under which the influence of other arts is hidden, or should be there .
During my many years of work with students on the development of improvisational skills,after disappointment from a large number of readed books and textbooks on improvisation, I took as a basis the use of spoken language as a matrix for individual improvisation, and theatrical improvisation for working in groups with excellent results. Therefore, I chose the instrument melodica for educational purposes, which turns the spoken word into a musical sound , like a harp; but has a keyboard , like a piano.

BTW, the improvisation of my grandson from 1:40 is partially based on the prepared text.

April 11, 2020, 6:53 AM · In my many years of teaching private music lessons, including a lot of introduction to jazz improv, I have found that the best way to get people comfortable with the idea of making things up is to give them a decent scale that will work for an entire song, either a blues scale or a pentatonic scale. Get them playing along with accompaniments generated with Band-In-A-Box or an app such as iRealBook, and they will relax. Many people, especially older adolescents and adults, just are not any more comfortable with improvising than they are comfortable with public speaking. But get them doing it in the safety of their own homes without censure or telling them what they "MUST" do or filling their heads with a lot of chord/scale theory and they will actually enjoy it.

Once that happens, THEN it's possible to introduce chord/scale theory but even then if you listen to 100 great jazz improvisers you will get 100 different approaches to what notes sound best over which chords, so there's no single hard-and-fast-always-true correlation between chords and scales that everybody who is good uses. Lots of people who aren't so good and whose solos are predictable use that approach.

There's an anecdote in Miles Davis's autobiography where he was a young man newly in New York and while a student at Juilliard he was also learning be-bop jazz theory with Dizzy Gillespie. Diz would take Miles out to hear various people playing and explain what they were doing so that Miles could expand his vocabulary. One particular night they were listening to Charlie Parker and Parker played a particular note over a particular chord and Miles turned to Dizzy and said "You told me you should NEVER play that note over that chord!" To which Dizzy supposedly replied "Well, I meant never play that note over that chord unless you're Charlie Parker."

Which points out that what one person can make fit in an improvised solo won't necessarily work for another person. So much depends on a persons facility with their instrument and their ability to formulate solos on the fly. And that only comes with hours and hours and days and days and weeks/months/years of improvising practice. No amount of theory will ever take the place of that.

But get people relaxing about improvising and doing it a lot and they will gradually realize what they have to learn and it will make sense for them and they will expand little by little what they are able to do. And while many of them never get beyond the simple blues-scale or pentatonic scale at least they gain a new appreciation for those who can solo effortlessly and amazingly.

Edited: April 11, 2020, 9:54 AM · Perhaps something teachers should seriously look at are the obstacles to improvisation, creativity and musical instinct, inherent in teaching methods.
If a student has a book already I will generally work with that one as I'm not particularly fond of any of them as it is. Here is the thing: nearly every one of them has Jingle Bells. Most kids know Jingle Bells and in their mind's ear they are hearing the dotted rhythm in the 3rd bar. It's one of the first tunes you play and the brain says 'I know this'. The beginner is excited that they can play something they know and they play it the way they know it, partially by ear. However, all the books simplify this rhythm to straight quarters. The teacher can at this point squash the approach that is coming from internal hearing with a big "No! - You have to play what is written on the page. What you are doing is wrong! Play those notes straight and obey the written page - don't do it how you think it is, follow the dots...."
The next thing is: "Only do as I say. Don't go any further until I show you, don't get into bad habits or you are doomed, don't even pick up the bow yet, don't do anything other than what is set and written". This is a grounding in non-creativity and can be passed down to the next generation. This approach might churn out generic classical violinists that can follow the written page well, follow the teacher, follow the conductor etc. but closes the door on other areas of musical creativity - improvisation being one of those.
I agree that it's similar to speech in that you hear your words in your mind's ear before you say them. We can hear music in our head before we play it - certainly if we are improvising. We don't want to squash this early on. If you only give the brain the written page then it will make that connection and become dependent as a way of making music.
April 11, 2020, 12:31 PM · Yes, there are two types of elementary music education: music education and music notation education; and it’s not always possible to determine when the first turns into the second. Improvisation games bring a lot of fun for children, and preserve musical hygiene.
April 11, 2020, 1:12 PM · We even refer to sheet music as 'music'.
April 11, 2020, 10:49 PM · I agree with David Bailey about starting with tunes where you can play over the whole changes with one basic scale. But you can't let that go too long or it can become a very deep rut.
Edited: April 12, 2020, 3:42 AM · Indeed, major and minor pentatonic scales are most convenient to begin to improvise; for keyboardists - on black keys, for violinists scales from G, D and A. However, from the very beginning it is worth considering pentatonic as a source of a set of pitches that serve the specific intonations of the question and answer. With this approach, the student will understand why the melody should rise and fall, and how he can use the line of intonations in improvisation. This already requires a small script, which can be created through preliminary theatrical improvisation. Thus the melodic curve gets meaning. However, questions remain of rhythmic logic, the logic of small forms; as well as the choice of pitches, which - unlike other elements - certainly requires some theoretical knowledge.If any beginner improviser - violinist can study the pentatonic scales, then the blues scale is a completely different story, although it is based on pentatonic. Pentatonic is the most ancient scale in the world music history , exists in all musical cultures, and isn't specifically associated with style and genre ; while the blues scale is very specific and is actually a set of intonations - submotives that include “blue notes" that require mastering the intonation of a separate pitch at least in third and quarter tones. And this already requires working with records.


April 12, 2020, 7:14 AM · People have been playing blues (and "blues scales") on the piano for a long time and quite effectively, and I assure you they are doing so without quarter tones.
April 12, 2020, 8:49 AM · Yes, I heard something similar from pianist I performed with in 1973-74. His name was
Memphis Slim.))
April 12, 2020, 4:56 PM · OK, Nachum, I watched the video, and I'll stick with my original position--this child is doing some interesting things, I guess, but this is a long way from meaningful improvisation. Precisely what is missing is, wait for it... a connection to any tradition of improvisation. It's a kid playing around, sort-of, with the materials of general stuff he's heard. It's a start, but it's also a dead end without learning a language. I am not all sure that you really understand how improvisation works.
Edited: April 13, 2020, 1:20 AM · Paul, over the years of teaching improvisation, first as a private teacher, and then, for 33 years, in the jazz department at Jerusalem Academy of Music, I gradually switched to specializing in the development of improvisation skills from stage zero, which turned out to be very interesting.
This is precisely my idea: the first steps in improvisation should occur unconsciously, regardless of traditions , style or genre ( but in strong connection with the rhythm - even of spoken language ). This feeling must be maintained and developed - not a little advanced students and even professionals complained to me : "During improvisation, I constantly think about the theory - what to play. How to get rid of this?".
In childhood, the child learns to talk, absorbing everything he hears from others; even if it is in different languages, which creates a certain lingual Olla podrida.The same thing happens with a beginner improviser IF ONLY GIVE HIM FREEDOM! In this way, the natural mechanism of improvisation through musical sounds is activated, which gives the student great pleasure and motivation . Stylistic restrictions in improvisation may appear later, they will already stand on a solid foundation. Stylistic restrictions from the very beginning are no less a mistake than the requirement of the Euro-centrist academic teacher to always play only what is written in the notes and never play by ear.


Edited: April 14, 2020, 5:30 AM · A very simple method to begin to improvise: invent a pentatonic riff, two 4/4 bars long, based on verbal text. It resembles the process of creating a melody according to the rules of counterpoint, where cantus firmus serves as a matrix; in this case, the lyrics is a matrix. It can be any text: prose, from a song or poem, or just a funny sentence, for example: "Lot of cats are flying in the sky "; the main thing is that the proposal fits into two bars, including a pause at the end of it, in a bar or shorter in length .
Further, the created sentence turns into a riff, which is pronounced rhythmically in the exact form of two bars, simultaneously joining with a playing on an empty violin string (or on one piano key); and repeat in this way in segments of four or eight bars - a genuine mantra.))
When it starts to come out on one note along with the pronunciation, it can be stopped and playing can be transferred to two, three, four and in the end five pitches of the selected pentatonic scale. At first, the order of pitches isn't important, the main - connection between a repeating rhythm and pitches collection .
The next stage is the introduction of two main elements of melodic intonation: question and answer; and planning for their use.


April 15, 2020, 6:33 AM · Everything that is written here was tested on students, and some of the tests were recorded.Here is an example of a student who is technically and rhythmically rather weak, but who understands the idea of structured melody and intonation in improvisation based on the blues scale:

https://yadi.sk/d/oZPYhVMgmev-2g

The question of the logical relationship of melodic tension and resolution with respect to chords, and their intensity, was not considered at all at this stage.
Another example of dramatic impact of a pre-given emotional scenario on completely free improvisation (2) compared to completely thoughtless aimless strumming (1). A student does not consider himself an improviser at all and doesn't study it intentionally :

https://yadi.sk/d/S-qrTNpy3Wo3pz

https://yadi.sk/d/lbbKWx2y3Wo4Ak

The idea of an emotional script was born under the influence of a theatrical improvisation course at Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts.

April 17, 2020, 11:38 AM · If someone tried the methods described here, I would be glad to hear feedback if this had a positive effect in anything.
I think that everyone who wants to improvise will be interested to watch the video: a Russian 7-year-old girl improvises for the first time (filmed in Portugal):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gbd0CPZJHeg&list=FL6fqDmZ4pyKBMwRtE4VUMvw&index=24

It should also be interesting for graduates of Berklee and other similar educational institutions. .

April 17, 2020, 1:11 PM · It's one thing to start little kids off in a fun and care-free way. It's another to take a serious high-schooler or an adult and bring them into the jazz fold. By then they have developed "Fear of Being Patronized."
April 17, 2020, 2:03 PM · This is exactly the problem: to provoke a serious high-schooler or an adult to the reaction of a child playing with sounds- cubes. They are often afraid to look stupid in their own eyes. Therefore, it isn't necessary to exclude the importance of using theatrical improvisation, even on the basis that nothing is known about this in music schools (as Dave Frank told me).
Edited: April 18, 2020, 11:45 PM · Here is another exercise that is not easy for beginners, but very important for understanding and mastering the element of intonation, which is so necessary in life in general and in music in particular: reproduction on an instrument a speech melody (btw, the tradition of gypsy musicians). I remember that I began with the historic speech of MLK "I have a dream!" Highly recommend: this speech melody sounds authentic blues, even contains blues motifs; and every sound is cut out in the rock. https://soundcloud.com/jazzman1945/i-have-a-dream-blues

By imitating someone’s speech, we also imitate his intonation; so small children unconsciously try to imitate parents, for some period. Imitating the improvisation of Stuff Smith, we also imitate his intonation and for the most part also unconsciously . Imitation is a necessary stage of training (but not the goal !) The intonations of speech in each person are individual, as are the fingerprints,express his personality ; and they are knowingly or unconsciously an integral part of musical improvisation as well.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_AFJ7NPcEA

April 18, 2020, 11:52 PM · Thanks , Jeff! Another example of the fact that the Google translator's censor allows itself to be absent from time to time. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
April 20, 2020, 12:46 PM · Already mentioned researches of Professor Charles Limb in the field of brain activity during (jazz) improvisation as compared to playing written notes . One of the important conclusions of these studies for us was the confirmation of the fact that musical improvisation also activates areas of the brain associated with verbal communication , ie verbal improvisation . Thus, the statement that improvisation is a personal story of a musician received scientific support with the help of MRI; while we, professional improvisers, have always known this instinctively. The conclusion about the unification of musical and verbal improvisation, as mentioned in previous posts, should inevitably follow from this.
In addition, an idea came up about the opposite process of activation of brain areas associated with verbal improvisation under the influence of musical improvisation.
In practice, it looks like this: work on musical improvisation is preceded by an improvised story out loud by the performer himself for several minutes with an instant transition to the playing . It is advisable that the story be associated with images and ideas for current musical improvisation; for example, before "Autumn Leaves", the performer can first verbalize his attitude to autumn, leaf fall, etc. This creates a preliminary emotional adjustment ; that is, again, an element of theatrical improvisation.
This stage of improvisation already requires knowledge in form, harmony, phrasing, etc. There is no longer a musical imitation of speech, but a verbal - emotional impulse is created, which will certainly affect the improvisation itself. In my work with students, they always noted the change in the character of improvisation towards smoother flow.

However, the most effective method of developing improvisation skills is group; I call it "The African way"; and in the absence of a group an improvised dialogue is also good. There simply is no zero! Students at the workshop really love these group exercises!


Edited: April 20, 2020, 1:32 PM · I am reminded of something Louis Armstrong said,
If you have to explain it, then you don't get it.
April 20, 2020, 1:02 PM · Someone said that music improvisation is the first draft of composition. Talent for composition is uncommon, I know I don't have it. Technical skills to help improvisation: Know music theory on your instrument; not just book-knowledge, but an instinctive level ability to play all the scales and chords from memory in all the keys without thinking about the individual notes. Start with interval recognition ; know what they sound like and how to play them. Test for it by doing transcriptions from recordings of new songs, instead of buying or down-loading the lead sheets, which will have errors in rhythm and chords anyway. Pick a classic jazz tune, memorize it, then play it in different keys without the aid of paper. That will break the mental habit of thinking of notes and finger numbers, replace it with the melodic contour of intervals.
April 20, 2020, 1:38 PM · Jeff, Satchmo said : “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” His boss in Creole Jazz Band , King Oliver, taught that when playing a melody, you should be as close as possible to your own voice and speech articulation.
April 21, 2020, 10:28 AM · I guarantee that King Oliver did not teach Louis Armstrong to play melody by imitating "[his] own voice and speech articulation." Look, Nachum, until you produce actual music students who can really play using your method (which we certainly haven't seen/heard yet), no one's going to take this seriously. And, as a professional who uses a couple of languages of improvisation in my work, your method sounds like a complete waste of time, and your confidence in it strikes me as an obstacle to your understanding. The existing methods for teaching improvisation--that is, as I described in earlier comments--seem to do a fine job pedagogically. If it works, don't fix it.
April 21, 2020, 10:55 AM · From what I mentioned - what exactly have you and your students already tried?
April 21, 2020, 11:08 AM · Joel wrote, "Someone said that music improvisation is the first draft of composition." This explains why Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were so productive. Because they were masters of improvisation, they didn't need to fix very much between the first draft and the final one.
April 21, 2020, 11:16 AM · By the way, about teachers and students.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLEMUHfgY20

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMu5xUKDRDk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oItYxz7bhDk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwXzJx5K4mk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIdtEN9tiiM

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jNQTTboUIs&list=PL96A4F3136E736D05

Edited: April 21, 2020, 1:14 PM · Paul Deck wrote--" This explains why Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were so productive." I think it also explains the drastic reduction in output between the first two and Beethoven, who really seems (via his notebooks, which are very very interesting to look at) to introduce revision and intense editing to the composition toolkit. He used the conceptual framework he got from Haydn, but no one had revised like Beethoven, before he took it on. This coincides with the elimination of the role of the composer in aristocratic European households, producing new music constantly for their patron as an upscale servant. Beethoven completes the transition into independent contractor, the value of his compositions increases, he pioneers professional relationships with publishers, and we go from 100+ Haydn symphonies, through Mozart's 41, to Beethoven's 9.5. Before the Napoleonic Wars, working composers didn't have time to revise--there were no "drafts"--and their methods seem to me to involve a slower form of improvisation, using strategies that they had absorbed from their training, to put it down ASAP on the page. Bach's 500+ cantatas come to mind. The manipulation of small elements (retrograde, inversion, etc) to create larger musical structures goes back into Renaissance composition methods, and so the architectural approach was part of the method for centuries, which makes sense since the music is passed on as a physical object (written text). But they had to have sat down and started writing off the top of their head. Every day. For hours. In grad school, I had a fun little project where I took Mozart's known output over a couple of years, I think it was 1786-87, looked at the biographical data, and figured that he had to spend about 6-8 hours most days, simply writing music down. This isn't exactly improvisation, because it doesn't happen in real time, but they had to have ways of working that allowed them to solve composition problems in the moment as they worked. I don't actually believe that Mozart had fully-formed pieces pop in his head, but he had a working method that allowed him to produce written music about as fast as if he were taking dictation. Different thing, and an interesting bridge between improvisation and composition. We know he could just sit down and improvise; it seems that his composition method was only a bit more recursive than that--it had to be. I suspect that memory played a larger role in this tradition, since holding onto musical ideas in memory would be essential in both their apparent (?) improvisational techniques, and of course in composition, where ideas have to be held in memory to get manipulated and altered any number of ways.

Still we know they improvised. What we know less about is their pedagogy for it. I think there is material on improvising chorale preludes in baroque organ performance practice, and some of that was passed down through generations of organists, but while contemporaries describe CPE Bach intoxicating his listeners with clavichord improvisations--what. exactly. did he do? We don't know, some of his keyboard music (like Mozart's) plays like a transcribed improvisation, but...? If there were pedagogy for it, then we would have insights into their approaches and methods. Anyway, it's frustrating that improvisation became less of a feature of European music in the 19th century, once composers owned their music, because the methods seem not to have been passed down. You can sell a page of music, not so much an ephemeral improvisation, and now these musicians were businesspeople. It's interesting that it doesn't become part of later 19th-century training of instrumentalists, as technique became more of a focus.

There is a marked contrast between the practice of improvisation in the European classical tradition, and improvisation in African-American traditions. There, anyone learning to play is taught to improvise right out of the gate. Start with the blues, works great. The improvisation pedagogy is built into the program, as it is in the training of musicians in West Africa. I am most familiar with the Mande people, whose professional jelis (who BTW play one-string fiddles called nyanyars--cool name!), are taught improvisation techniques ("birimitingo") alongside the rest of their training. Their methods work great. In most fiddle traditions, you learn the source material by ear from players who show it to you. Obviously, audio recording has made that a lot easier, as well as imitating more advanced players' abilities to improvise and alter the source material. If you're hungry for it, you'll learn to do it, but you'd better not mess up the dance groove.

Similarly, in various improvisation traditions from Spain and North Africa east, across Asia, a common method in formal training is to learn standard phrases, ornaments, and structure in a variety of modes, from which improvisations are made, as well as whole pieces, as you learn to play your instrument/sing. There, also, the training is built on traditional source material, learned by ear and observation. If you want to learn to improvise on Persian dastgah, you could do worse than imitating Kayhan Kalhor. Of course, he started learning to improvise from a master (as I described previously) when he was seven. Here's a nice video of him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMEjPKBvhzE

While these various musical traditions have produced great improvisers for centuries, playing an exquisite improvised avaaz in Dastgah Nava won't really help Mr. Kalhor play Chicago blues because... quality in improvisation is not based on speech patterns or whatever, it's based on your deep listening, understanding, and experience playing within the particular tradition you are engaged with. If Kalhor spent a few months in Chicago, he's probably get a handle on it in a hurry, though.

Edited: April 21, 2020, 4:33 PM · Mordy Ferber reminds me of Keith Jarrett, mainly in terms of the intellectual honesty and freedom of his playing. You can't play with that kind of freedom, though, without having mastery of the fingerboard. You don't have to be Eliot Fisk or Andres Segovia, but you need to be able to find the notes as they appear in your mind's ear.
Edited: April 22, 2020, 12:54 AM · Paul Smith, thank you so much for providing the link of Kayhan Kalhor. I am familiar with Kurdish music for many years, and always sounded jazz to me, and this great master sounds just like Coltrane in "A Love Supreme".
Edited: April 22, 2020, 7:30 AM · < The existing methods for teaching improvisation--that is, as I described in earlier comments--seem to do a fine job pedagogically. If it works, don't fix it. >
paul smith- ... And if this does not work in the right direction, then yes, this requires corrections. Here is an example :
" Anyone Can Improvise " by Jamey Aebersold

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoyF4FKyVTk

9 years ago, I carefully analyzed every minute of this video in order to visually see and study the professional approach to teaching improvisation. I will focus only on two fragments: from 48:04 and from 50: 57, clearly demonstrating the method of Aebersold,
The first fragment contains dry exercises with phrasing exercises. The second fragment is a real improvisation, exactly following the blues bop phrasing. Between these fragments NO COMMUNICATION - the second isn't based on the first! Beginning improvisers do not understand anything about this, and proceed to improvisations on scales and arpeggios, which I call the flatiron method. Then they wonder why this is not sounds like real improvisation. I am not the first to speak of this; before me there were quite a few Berklee graduates who were disappointed in CSS: I remember the name of Ed Byrne with whom I corresponded.

April 22, 2020, 11:11 AM · Aebersold represents the late-20th-c. phenomenon of the "jazz educator" in American higher education. I taught for years with these people. Yeah, mechanical, and this approach definitely has the quality of eating the recipe instead of the meal. Which is to say, NOT a traditional method of teaching jazz improvisation. Jazz is the most European style of African-American music in many ways, and as it worked its way into higher education, European-style pedagogy has usurped the traditional ways that jazz musicians learned to play, the traditionally-trained pioneers have gradually died off and we're mostly left with a lot of diligent-but-uncreative folks, trained like European musicians, who teach jazz like it was accounting. Now we have a few generations of students who think this is what jazz is. Oh well. Your complaints are valid there, but another new method is not necessarily an improvement. Seriously, you need to create some professional improvisers with your method, and you can be the new Jamie Aebersold.
April 23, 2020, 4:12 AM · I want to remind you that in the title and in the OP I did not mention jazz improvisation, but the initial stage of studying improvisation skills by beginners, stylistically not exactly defined (this does not mean that the result will not be influenced by music already heard in one genre or another, before in the field of rhythms).The process of modern teaching of improvisation is overwhelmingly, with few exceptions, focused on jazz improvisation, and is extremely academic to take pride of place in academic institutions (ivory towers), along with traditional improvisation courses in the genres of baroque, rococo, classical and romantic, which also requires study of counterpoint ( not for beginners !!!!!).
I'm not even talking about free improvisation and improv music - there are scanty number of textbooks on this subject, two of which are in my library (" Improvisation games for classical musicians" by Jeffrey Agrell and "Modern Improvisation: A Practical Guide for Piano" by Roman Stolyar).
In such circumstances, when on the one hand we are not talking about jazz improvisation, on the other hand, not about Bach's style improvisation , on the third hand, not in the Arabic or Indian style, on the fourth hand there are no clear methodologies , it remains to invent them!
I ask you to excuse me for not bringing a certificate from Hal Halper or Kenny Werner; instead, I present the results of studies with students for 48 years, after studying materials on improvisation, psychology of improvisation, pedagogy and musical psychology (there are about 40 books in several languages in my library).
I also apologize for having no desire to add another improvisation tutorial to a huge pile of existing ones (although once wrote an article in the academic yearbook, and later released tutorial " Amazing Melodica!" containing a chapter on improvisation). I am not a theorist, and I am not at all interested in titles, diplomas, grants and publications; everything is aimed at that, to promote student to the goal: to learn HOW TO IMPROVISE, not to play theory or licks !
Therefore, as a former string player, it gives me pleasure to provide completely free ideas here that have been developed over the years, and not even required thanks. But practical responses and questions - yes , even tough ; I like to solve such!


April 26, 2020, 1:27 PM · A small digression on the connection between violin and saxophone in jazz.

At the age of 34, I first picked up an alto saxophone, and it turned out that this was not a difficult instrument at all - after half a year I already played concerts and a gig. The most amazing thing was that there were no problems with sound quality, and I connected this with the previous influence of playing the violin and viola for 67 years. At some stage, I became interested in similar facts in famous violinists and saxophonists. Here are a few notable ones:

Ben Webster
Coleman Hawkins (cello)
Lester Young
Paul Desmond - as a teenager, he wanted to study the violin, but his father disagreed.
Arnett Cobb

Violinists also playing the saxophone:

Jean Luke Ponti
Didier Lockwood (Trumpet style electric Miles)
Zbigniew Namislowski (cello)
Zbigniew Seifert
Michal Urbaniak

The last three came from Poland, and as far as I know, among modern Polish jazz violinists it has become a tradition to play the saxophone.

In European restaurant bands from the pre-war period very often saxophonists played, combining sax with playing the violin. One of them was young Paul Hindemith.
The main idea here: playing the strings ennobles the sound on the saxophone.

April 26, 2020, 6:13 PM · Regardless of genre, probably one of the best ways to teach improvisation is just call-and-response. Initially the response matches the call exactly -- you can call this ear training. Then the response gradually becomes unrestricted, not only in what is play, but for how long. The problem is that such forms of teaching are too labor-intensive. Eventually you need to give your student an assignment that they can work on by themselves until their next lesson. Just like classical training, improvisation benefits from *some* kind of pedagogical approach.

I wish Desmond had studied the violin. Ugh -- useless sax player.

April 27, 2020, 1:25 AM · Paul, I agree with the first almost completely, although I do not see the problem in the complexity of training in the framework of the dialogue. All of my students write lessons, own records processing programs, and can extract the necessary fragments for training. I constantly use improvised dialogue in the classroom (also theatrical) ; really no problem!
Regarding Paul Desmond, judging by the combined experience of not only acquaintance and analysis of discographies, but also of professional concert and pedagogical activity since 1968, I resolutely reject your statement, not supported by any actual argument. In the group improvisation course at both the Academy of Music and the College, I always presented P.D.'s solo in Blue Rondo A La Turk as comparable to the beauty of Michelangelo's David statue.This solo is just right for exploring the theme of musical logic.
Edited: May 1, 2020, 6:00 AM · I love those. who, in addition to criticism, are ready to try something else.

https://www.facebook.com/olevine/videos/10159714606913098/

Edited: May 1, 2020, 10:07 AM · Very cool video. I enjoyed it.

I listened to Desmond's recording of BRAT with Brubeck again just now on Spotify -- for the first time in a long time. Actually I love Desmond's overall sound, his tone, vibrato and portamento. And musically he's a great match to Brubeck -- linear, West Coast, academic. And I do agree his solo on BRAT is a monument (and unfortunately Brubeck's was one of his worst). But on balance I just find all of that music to be a little too closely programmed -- stuff that works great in a textbook ("theme of musical logic") but not the sort of thing that makes you forget your troubles. One distinct possibility is that I've just heard it all way too many times.

Professor: Hear Brubeck there, at the end? That's called a "riff."
Dim Bulb: [nodding] Oh yeahhh, I hear it now.

Haha ... the next tune that scrolled up on Spotify is "Georgia on Mind" with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Now I'm feeling it! Yeah, take your time, Oscar, just let it flow...

May 1, 2020, 12:48 PM · In Desmond-Brubeck combination, each complemented the other: P.D. everything related to jazz - swing, groove , improvisation; D.B. everything related to the academic part - composition, pre-written improvisation, arrangement.
Edited: May 3, 2020, 10:53 AM · The transition from prose speech to structured improvisation can be very short; it is enough to extract from the aforesaid a segment lying on two bars of 4/4 . The gradual transformation of Billy Holiday's prosaic speech into rhythmic speech, riff and then instrumental melodic sentence :

https://soundcloud.com/jazzman1945/from-talking-till-improvising

The basic idea is this: if someone thinks that art is born behind the marble walls of the Palace of Arts, then he is mistaken - endless materials for art are scattered everywhere, anywhere: inside us, on the floor of a house, on the street in rainy weather. You just need to focus on the phenomenon, to frame it and come back to it repeatedly - like a bottle of Coca-Cola by Andy Warhol.

Edited: May 8, 2020, 3:13 AM · [Paul Smith -" I guarantee that King Oliver did not teach Louis Armstrong to play melody by imitating "[his] own voice and speech articulation."]
I recognize your superiority as a born American jazz musician, and there is nothing to argue about - I repeat what I said during the lesson to the student whose video you watched. However, what makes us equal: we both cannot know ABOUT EVERYTHING! My mention of King Oliver is taken from materials on the Internet that I read many years ago, and I don’t remember exactly where.


However, I found a mention written by Duke Ellington in his book, and this almost verbatim repeats the mentioned ideas by KO, which creates a strong impression of the long-standing tradition of African American musicians, orally stated by KO, and written by DE.

- "In Music Is My Mistress (1973), Ellington writes of a more general narrative or ‘‘story-telling’’ impulse behind the very process of creating music, arguing for the necessity in music of ‘‘painting a picture,” or “having a story to go with what you were going to play.’’ Ellington further posits that soloists could ‘‘send messages in what they play,’’ articulating comprehensible statements to one another on their instruments while on the bandstand.
The audience didn’t know anything about it, but the cats in the band did. Our stories were sometimes necessary to the composition and arrangement process, and often verbalized in language
A more vivid description of Ellington’s process of composition that intertwines music and poetics can be seen from Richard Boyer’s The Hot Bach (1944) that is worth quoting at length.
Duke, sitting at his piano and facing his band, will play a new melody, perhaps, or possibly just an idea consisting of only eight bars. After playing the eight bars, he may say, ‘‘Now this is sad. It’s about one guy sitting alone in his room in Harlem. He’s waiting for his chick, but she doesn’t show. He’s got everything fixed for her.’’ Duke sounds intent and absorbed. His tired band begins to sympathize with the waiting man in Harlem. ‘‘Two glasses of whiskey are on his little dresser before his bed,’’ Duke says, and again plays the two bars, which will be full of weird and mournful chords. Then he goes on to eight new bars. ‘‘He has one of those blue lights turned on in the gloom of his room,’’ Duke says softly, ‘‘and he has a little pot of incense so it will smell nice for the chick.’’ Again he plays the mournful chords, developing his melody. ‘‘But she doesn’t show,’’ he says, ‘‘she doesn’t show. The guy just sits there, maybe an hour, hunched over on his bed, all alone.’’ The melody is finished and it is time to work out an arrangement for it. Lawrence Brown rises with his trombone and gives out a compact, warm phrase. Duke shakes his head. ‘‘Lawrence, I want something like the treatment you gave in ‘Awful Sad,’’’ he says. Brown amends his suggestion and in turn is amended by Tricky Sam Nanton, also a trombone who puts a smear and a wa-wa lament on the phrase suggested by Brown . . .. Now Juan Tizol grabs a piece of paper and a pencil and begins to write down the orchestration, while the band is still playing it. Whenever the band stops for a breather, Duke experiments with rich new chords, perhaps adopts them, perhaps rejects, perhaps works out a piano solo that is clear and rippling, into little slots of silence, while the brass and reeds talk back and forth. By the time Tizol has finished getting the orchestration down on paper, it is already out of date ).
According to author Brent Hayes Edwards , Ellington also brings in the artistic expressions of dance and theatre into his compositional process, stating that it is not at all unusual for collaborative musicians and dancers to give each other epigrammatic or narrative clues during the compositional or choreographic process" ( Dissonance as Protest:
Interpreting the Antecedents of Barry Harris’s Concept of Movement as a Multidimensional Tool for Improvisation, Prolongation and Expansion
Dr. Brian J. de Lima
Toronto, Canada
October 2014 )

Edited: May 8, 2020, 8:24 AM · I love Ellington's memoir, too, Nachum. And I don't doubt that this kind of collaborative songwriting and arranging took place in his band. But you have to admit the guy was as good of a salesman as he was a bandleader -- unusually gifted at both.

I told my student to listen to the Eastern Mockingbird. The mockingbird sings a little riff, repeats it once or twice, as if judging it, and then moves on to something else. Is the next riff related to the previous one? We'll never know. But the point is that if an animal with a brain the size of pea can be this creative -- and in a deliberate way, then what should we be capable of?

If you want to listen to something truly inspiring, I recommend Christian Howes's podcast with Jean-Luc Ponty. Howes should get the Pulitzer Prize for that podcast.

May 8, 2020, 2:26 PM · I listened to this podcast, thanks, it’s very interesting to hear JLP’s path to creating an individual style. For 15 years playing the violin, and then on the viola, I preferred to play jazz only on the piano, and in the army on the clarinet. But when I heard his Sunday Walk, I immediately learned on the viola. At that time, everyone around me played in the style of Grappelli or Stuff Smith. The podcast interviewer made laugh a little with his question about the influence of clarinet on the style of JLP playing - he somehow didn't hear the explicit sound and style of alto saxophone, which Ponti also played.))
JLP performed at the Newport Festival just before our band; he played alone with electronic equipment on Fender violin. His tremolo was absolutely unbelievable: three quarters of the bow at the fastest pace!
Very instructive for those who want to start playing jazz after years of playing classical music; however, IMO playing jazz violin is very, very difficult, and it is advisable to start as early as possible. Gypsy violinists learn to improvise from childhood .
Edited: May 8, 2020, 7:23 PM · Gypsy jazz improv is not as sophisticated as bebop and modern jazz. That's a point Ponty implied at least twice (but, being deferential to Grappelli, not explicitly) in the Howes podcast. "Sunday Walk" also had a powerful effect on me. Some of Ponty's stuff like "Cosmic Messenger" is less appealing to me. Grappelli has his moments when playing with other greats like Oscar Peterson but I've never been his biggest fan. I enjoy Lockwood too.

I wasn't as surprised by Howes's question whether any jazz thinking transferred from the clarinet since I know from my own experience (starting jazz on the piano) there there is almost (in my case) a desperate desire for the skills developed on one instrument to translate to the second. When this does not happen, one realizes how "pianistic" (i.e., crutched) one's improv has been all along! But the plain fact is that improv on the violin is just so much more difficult because of the intonation issue. Ambiguous pitches might not stand out as mistakes quite as they would in classical music, but they erode your melodic line.

May 9, 2020, 12:45 AM · Thinking on the violin through the piano is a problem. Apparently for this reason I stopped trying to play jazz on viola. Only many years later, thanks to the saxophone, I realized that need to start from melodic intonation, and not from chords.
May 9, 2020, 11:39 AM · "Thinking on the violin through the piano is a problem." Yes, tell me about it. That's more or less what I tried to do and it was very rough going. I'm not sure I've really broken free from that or if I ever will.
May 9, 2020, 1:52 PM · I wonder if any violinist that improvises wants to improvise violinistically, until that becomes claustrophobic. So how do you get beyond that if you find you are kind of doing a series of licks by rote? By that I mean by analogy, most of the great composers were pianists, or tended towards more abstraction from a particular instrument, and then would maybe collaborate with a violinist to create idiomatic writing. I mean, Schubert and Beethoven don't tend to write stuff that lies that great under the hands, like say, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski, who have a bit more limited expressive range.

So because violin is a pain the butt, we spend so much time learning to play "violin", and then once we've "mastered" that, we can't let our fingers do the thinking for us, or else we come to a bit of a stylistic dead-end like Grappelli (who I still love btw).

Prokofiev started composing away from the piano to stretch his imagination and not be dependent on his fingers making piano music accidentally, so does that mean that a violinist tries to improvise more by singing or in their head, or other kinds of work away from the violin, and then comes back? My understanding is that Charlie Parker really drilled a lot of scales and more "technical" work for a while, so I'm not saying that we shouldn't become one with the instrument. Anyway, idle thoughts...

Edited: May 9, 2020, 2:33 PM · Man, you make me think ...
During work in the symphony orchestra, my colleague violinist and me were amusing ourselves with improvised duets during breaks, and it was completely different than jazz improvisation - classic romantic type. Now I recall that the melodies, although tonal, came out relying on an open string - the same drone, and the melody was obtained by knitting motifs and sub-motifs of a vocal type, using different melodic shmates from played classic works .I would call it tonal melodic thinking, but not chord - melodic,this is already approaching modal thinking.
If you look at the guitar, then its tuning and melodic nature are pentatonic: EBGDAE. Pentatonic chords can be played only with one- two fingers without tension, unlike triads, and especially sevenths (oh, how familiar this is from the workshops!).It is also easier to play melodic pentatonic trichords than melodic triads if it is not an arpeggio on three strings.
The tuning of violin also contains the potential of pentatonic, but with greater capabilities than a beginner’s guitar: on one string in the first position you can play 6 different pentatonic trichords (GAC, GAD , GBbC,GCD, ABD, ACD ) , and besides, it is easy to play triads and tetrachords of scales.
However, the main problem is that an academically trained violinist will push off from the piano (I don’t know if there are jazz violinists who don’t play the piano; I’ll be silent about Grappelli!). The nature of the piano is percussive - pointillistic, and every pianist is faced with the problem of how to connect two notes to make the instrument sing.
In order to avoid the influence of a keyboard instrument in improvisation, it is necessary to switch to the type of hearing that vocalists use - intonation hearing. However, the theory of intonation that appeared in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, as a rule, is not familiar to Western musicians, and as a result , the “melodic curve” takes a modest place in mastering improvisation skills compared to harmony, while rhythm in conjunction with intonation are the most important elements of music in general. African people have always known this: their main instrument is the talking drum, i.e. rhythm , articulation and intonation.

Edited: May 9, 2020, 5:53 PM ·
Does it make the learn-ed folks feel better about themselves and more superior to diminish and marginalize Stephane Grappelli?
He did play piano also. Can you do as well?
On either instrument?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHlg781uZNE

Edited: May 9, 2020, 4:27 PM · The piano is a percussive instrument but Bud Powell's name is uttered in the same breath as Charlie Parker's. You can play legato scales on the piano if you have a modicum of technique. Neither player is my favorite to listen to, but I acknowledge their influence.

Piano is my primary jazz instrument.

I don't intentionally marginalize Grappelli. I just don't like that style of jazz as well as others. I like modern jazz. Grappelli's style is much more beholden to licks and patterns and special effects like sequences of harmonics. But, a Grappelli track will always put a smile on your face. A pianist who I would describe in much the same way is Erroll Garner. Great fun to listen to, and often listed among the best pianists of his time, but there's not a lot of intellectual content to be plumbed. It really depends what you want out of music.

My family plays card and board games together, and we always have music coming from my younger daughter's phone (she is a cellist). We've listened to "The Four Seasons" dozens of times, because we all just love it, and all of the big romantic cello concertos. The other day I suggested we listen to "Hallelujah Junction" by John Adams. I had heard it on the radio the previous day and it blew me away. My family absolutely hated it. The conversation turned to the Pollack and Klee prints hanging around the house, and I'm pretty much the only one who likes those too.

By the way Beethoven is pianistic. LOL -- you just have to be as good of a pianist as he was. Liszt and his successors saw to that.

May 10, 2020, 4:13 AM · There were not mentioned artists whom you can not listen to because of personal tastes. I hate this amateur consumer approach!You can learn something from each of them , even from the bad ones. "A fool sows indiscriminately, but the wise gets the harvest" .
Erroll Garner is a fantastic example of the use of small song structures in improvisation; I listened to him a lot , and then it became very easy to play vocal and dance types of improvisations.
BTW ,everyone mentions Grappelli, but where did the name Georges Effrosse disappear?
May 10, 2020, 7:39 AM · Sorry if I'm not wise enough. I can listen to anything, but I do have preferences. And I also do not have 40 hours per day to listen to music, nor do I have the mental bandwidth to listen critically even for all of the time I spend listening. So I have to be selective. Kudos to you if you are able to listen to absolutely everything unselectively.
May 10, 2020, 10:21 AM · I really listen to anything: music from West Africa, pygmies, Ethiopian music, Arab and Persian music, Dutch polyphonists, Australian Aborigines, Tibetan monks, and much more; all this besides jazz and classical music. Only I listen selectively not between genres, but inside genres.
You may not be familiar with the concept of “polystylistic improve ”.

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