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Discussions => Teaching and Learning => Topic started by: Amanda on February 23, 2018, 09:18:21 AM

Title: Improve Improv
Post by: Amanda on February 23, 2018, 09:18:21 AM
I'm curious as to whether anyone has any advice on learning to improvise, e.g. during a jam session (Bluegrass, Irish, Québécois). I know a decent repertoire of songs, but primarily "note by note" from music. Therefore, I tend to play them the same way every time, and have difficulty (though it has happened a few times nicely) in improvising solos or creating anything for that matter not written down. Any advice, or ways you personally have made improvement in it would be greatly appreciated. (:)

Thanks,

Amanda
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Anahata on February 23, 2018, 09:51:55 AM
I'd say just go to those sessions and try things out, quietly. There's nothing like practice. I like sessions as a place for learning harmonies.

Additionally (to steal ideas):
Look at written out arrangements, where you can find them (if you can read music).
Listen to other musicians who do arrangements of that sort.

For performing arrangements, I sometimes write out harmonies, other times I make something up and gradually improve it with practice. I have been known to improvise harmonies on stage, but you have to choose simple tunes to make that work successfully!
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Theo on February 23, 2018, 10:13:08 AM
It can be helpful to think about what goes on in improv as divided up into three:
 

And of course as you become more skilled you can combine these, but that gives you an easy way in.   The first is generally the easiest to do and the third the most challenging.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Stiamh on February 23, 2018, 11:17:27 AM
I would think that only one of the three types of sessions you mention would be suitable for true improvisation or solos, and that is bluegrass. I can't help you with any ideas there, because I don't know how they go about it, really. Also, are you talking about your one-row melodeon, or rather a 1½-row? I would have thought that trying to develop bluegrass improvisation on such an instrument would be making life hard for yourself.

Forgive me if what follows comes across as a rant but for good experiences at sessions it is worth knowing the ground rules.

I don't know any competent Irish musician who would attach the word "jam" to the word "session" (meaning an Irish session). People are discouraged from "jamming" - especially the type of person who doesn't know the tunes and thinks it would be acceptable to "blow" on top of the tunes others play. Now I'm sure that's not your case but there is a point to understand. You are expected not to join in unless you know the tunes, and true improvisation (flights of fancy) would not be welcome except (perhaps, just perhaps) from an exceptionally talented participant.

Québécois musicians do say "un jam" but in general the approach is similar, if a little looser, to that in Irish sessions.

What is acceptable is variation of the tune, and occasional usually very short bursts of harmony or counterpoint. Generally small variations that are compatible with ensemble playing, and of the kind that are possible when you know the tune, the repertoire and the musical language well. In Irish music, and in Québécois music too, some degree of this kind of micro-variation is expected of any good musician.

I would encourage you to work on that skill and the best way to do that is to listen attentively to good players, hear what they do, and start by slavishly copying their variations (for practice purposes - not to turn up at a session and demonstrate that you have every little nuance of a well-known player's recording of a tune down pat). That will help you understand what is possible and acceptable and soon enough you'll be able to add some of this stuff into any tune you play, and very likely stuff that you have come up with yourself.

[Edited to correct a sentence that was tripping over its own feet.]
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Jackhumphreys on February 23, 2018, 01:36:32 PM
I recently took part in a piper's workshop about improvising, with the amazing Callum Armstrong at Halsway.  I think that the same principles apply to any instrument however.

The main idea is to be aware of the chord beneath the tune at each moment, and to fit your improvised melody to the same chord.
We practiced just on two chords, e.g.  D ... C....D..., without any particular tune in mind. 

As box players we may have an advantage in knowing which chord applies at any moment: we are playing it with our left hand! But maybe we also need awareness of the notes within the chord, e.g.  D minor chord = DFA. Then we can direct our improvisation to include one of those chord notes  (Or deliberately have a clashing note on the way to a resolution.)

Callum wrote the chord notes vertically on the flipchart for each chord in the sequence, and we had to organise our impro to choose one from each of the chords on the way.

So one could improvise  to fit with a common chord sequences,  e.g.  G....C....G....D.....
or copy the jazz method of using the chord sequence behind well-known tunes (without the tune) e.g. Drunken Sailor Dm.....C.....Dm......Dm.C.Dm.......
or improvise on top of a given tune, with awareness of the chords.

I've been trying this (on pipes), taking it in turns with my piping comrade to play the tune or improvised countermelody, Very enjoyable, especially to free ourselves from written arrangements.   Easiest with obvious two-chord tunes.

Other ideas arising from this:
Noticing runs or motifs in the main tune, and aiming to play in parallel a third above,  or a sixth below.
Avoiding too many unisons with the main tune....otherwise your part may  disappear aurally.
Playing long notes when the tune has short ones, and vice versa.
Make a recording, and maybe save,  remember,  or transcribe the best impro arrangements.



Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: jack on February 23, 2018, 01:44:38 PM
Motif development.
Think of Beethoven’s fifth – duh duh duh derrrr. Just about the most famous four notes ever!
But it’s what he does next.
One: ‘displacement’
The second phrase, also duh duh duh derrrr, is in key (Cm) one notch down (but has the same rhythm).
Two: ‘sequence’
Then, there’s an ascending melodic sequence, also based on the first idea.
Thereafter a whole lexicon of transformative ideas, known as transposition, variation, fragmentation, inversion, extension etc.
So to improvise in a blues situation for example, all you need to get going is a simple three to five note melodic idea. Then develop it.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: brianread on February 23, 2018, 02:17:29 PM
I'd say just go to those sessions and try things out, quietly. There's nothing like practice. I like sessions as a place for learning harmonies.

I also see sessions as opportunities to try things out (and stop if they end up out of line).  However I have had people move away from me, I guess because they hear me not quite playing the tune.  I find endings (the last 4 bars, the last time) are often the easiest to vary and you can build up quite a repertoire of them.
I often play a third up in certain bits of certain tunes, also you can use your low notes as a sort of bass guitar, that is quite good fun.  If a piece is played through 3 times, then best to establish the tune the 1st time through, and perhaps the second as well, and try your variations only on the 3rd time through when the rest of the room has got is going well.

However I would recommend that this is all done sparingly and depends on the tune, the mix of instruments, if you are leading it, and also who you are sitting next to!

Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: -Y- on February 23, 2018, 02:49:29 PM
Amanda, were you referring to improvisation in a way similar to Eastern and Indian modal music or blues/jazz/rock, or just changing bits of the tune, similarly to what Stiamh described ? The two approaches are quite different, and, even in the first case, there are several ways to do it, depending on the style. For modal music improvisation, you could look at what Christian Maes (for instance in Les Orientales (https://youtu.be/GTD4oJY6eO0?t=9m8s)) or Youen Paranthoën (especially in Zoñ (https://soundcloud.com/z-n-klam-records/an-daou-gamirad-fidel)) did, it's quite inspiring (although it will demand a lot of effort). For Western music improvisation, there's a lot to chose from. Be it Cyril Yeterian with its Cajun/Blues/Rock mix in Mama Rosin, old time recordings of blues players like Leadbelly (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_DR0Vcb-x5g), or melodeon players that went towards jazz at one time or another (Stéphane Milleret (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dh2jDhc6nB0), Janick Martin (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xxOVNeqUvs), Martin Coudroy (https://soundcloud.com/floker/tchavolo-swing-1), to name a few).

Regarding the improvisation centred on the tune (perhaps best referred to as variation), the best choice IMHO is to listen to musicians (not only accordionists) and try and reproduce the variations they make, in order to build up a personal vocabulary. If you are already playing traditional music, it's not as difficult an exercise as sailing towards modal improvisation, so you'll be able to see a progression quite quickly. One first step is often adding ornaments, although we could all (I guess) do with a little less systematic use of these (:).
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Amanda on February 24, 2018, 11:01:38 PM
I would think that only one of the three types of sessions you mention would be suitable for true improvisation or solos, and that is bluegrass. I can't help you with any ideas there, because I don't know how they go about it, really. Also, are you talking about your one-row melodeon, or rather a 1½-row? I would have thought that trying to develop bluegrass improvisation on such an instrument would be making life hard for yourself.

Forgive me if what follows comes across as a rant but for good experiences at sessions it is worth knowing the ground rules.

I don't know any competent Irish musician who would attach the word "jam" to the word "session" (meaning an Irish session). People are discouraged from "jamming" - especially the type of person who doesn't know the tunes and thinks it would be acceptable to "blow" on top of the tunes others play. Now I'm sure that's not your case but there is a point to understand. You are expected not to join in unless you know the tunes, and true improvisation (flights of fancy) would not be welcome except (perhaps, just perhaps) from an exceptionally talented participant.

Québécois musicians do say "un jam" but in general the approach is similar, if a little looser, to that in Irish sessions.

What is acceptable is variation of the tune, and occasional usually very short bursts of harmony or counterpoint. Generally small variations that are compatible with ensemble playing, and of the kind that are possible when you know the tune, the repertoire and the musical language well. In Irish music, and in Québécois music too, some degree of this kind of micro-variation is expected of any good musician.

I would encourage you to work on that skill and the best way to do that is to listen attentively to good players, hear what they do, and start by slavishly copying their variations (for practice purposes - not to turn up at a session and demonstrate that you have every little nuance of a well-known player's recording of a tune down pat). That will help you understand what is possible and acceptable and soon enough you'll be able to add some of this stuff into any tune you play, and very likely stuff that you have come up with yourself.

[Edited to correct a sentence that was tripping over its own feet.]

Stiamh,

Thank you for the reply and insight. I do realise there is a difference, and probably should have been more precise in wording. I have been to specifically Irish sessions, and understand the difference in format and etiquette. However, at the "jam" sessions I attend, as they are almost collectively called here, the format of playing is almost always similar to bluegrass, in which solos are taken, and the songs often become more intricate and stylised as it goes around. A lot of people play variety of style, eg. old time, country, cajun, etc. too-I just meant for tips in variation and things of that nature in playing songs- QC, Irish, BG being most common, but specifically in format of jam session. Sorry for the misunderstanding and thank you for the advice.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Jozz on February 26, 2018, 05:43:51 PM
IMHO the best tip should be to focus on scales. If you learn them inside and out, you will have a much easier task at improv. This will improve your play as a whole in any case. Opposed to playing note by note or from sheet.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Barlow on February 26, 2018, 06:45:47 PM
Lately I have had to phone up a few banks and the like.

Well, you know that generic music they put you on-hold to...I have found it is excellent to play along to.

Santander has a nice simple ambient two?three? chord thing at the moment. The melody just seems to be based on "doh ray meh". After waiting for what seemed an age I picked up my melodeon and managed to play along to it, with a bit of counter melody and harmony. When the telephonist came back on, the music went off and I kept playing. I was going to be Mr Grumpy and say "and that is what I have been listening to for the last 5 minutes", but she just laughed and said (probably to humour me) "ah, that was nice" (first public performance for me. Even if she didn't mean it, I was chuffed).

So, how to gain a few minutes extra practice.

Not work safe (NWS). Obviously.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Steve C. on February 27, 2018, 12:54:33 PM
Or you could listen to the TOTM list.  No one plays all of the A, B and (if C) parts exactly the same.  I always start with the bog standard ABC tho, can't improvise until you know the tune "the right way". IMO.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: -Y- on February 27, 2018, 01:00:49 PM
with this discussion, I can't help but think of this sequence

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6YSdgl5n-M

(up to to first minute)
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Baron Collins-Hill on February 27, 2018, 01:50:40 PM
I think playing along with some rhythm tracks (or a willing guitarist/pianist/other chordal instrument) and spend time noodling around and recognizing notes that sound good (and bad). Just putting in the hours with your ears open for the good and bad helped me immensely.

Other things you can try while doing the above: (In a rough order of importance to me)
Figure out what key you are playing in
Figure out what time signature you are playing in
Know or have a sense of the melody you are improvising over
Know the scale you are using to improvise
Experiment with playing notes outside the scale and see how they sound
Think about theory more in depth

One of my favorite things to do when I know the melody is to play one measure or phrase of the melody, then one measure or phrase of improv, and then alternate back and forth throughout the form of the tune. The improv can be a scale, or notes that sound good, or an arpeggio, or something that really didn't work well at all. This keeps the form of the tune in my head so I don't get lost as easily and keeps me from turning the whole solo into a complete train wreck.

If you are looking for a guitarist to play over, I have a lot of play along tracks for fairly common tunes in a variety of genres that I have made for my mandolin instruction website that are free to stream: https://mandolessons.bandcamp.com/

Thanks,
Baron
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Stiamh on February 27, 2018, 04:00:01 PM
with this discussion, I can't help but think of this sequence   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6YSdgl5n-M

 :D  I guessed what that was going to be - I had thought of it myself but didn't get around to searching for it. That has to be Harry Bradley actually playing the flute.

BTW I am sure the quote about jazz is a nod to a similar scene in another great Irish music film (as opposed to Irish-music film), The Commitments. But can't find it on YT.

Edited to add: Found it - but dubbed into Italian - it lacks something in standard Italian, without the Dublin accents!
https://youtu.be/ePYp_IvN6L8
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Tone Dumb Greg on February 27, 2018, 06:44:49 PM
How about recording yourself playing once through then playing this back in a loop on a DAW, such as Audacity and then playing along with that? I used to do this when trying out approaches to backup on guitar and mandolin. I haven't tried it out with melodeon yet, but I reckon I will.
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: boxer on February 27, 2018, 06:48:31 PM
some payers and bands seem to be able to do complex improvisations on the spur of the moment.  The ones that sound and look best will have devoted endless hours of practice to learning the "improvised" figures they use, and then to polishing the execution to such a level that it seems spontaneous.  It's nothing of the sort, but wonderful to hear nevertheless.  All we lesser mortals can do is to carry on practicing, on and on.... 
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Winston Smith on February 27, 2018, 07:10:08 PM
"some payers and bands seem to be able to do complex improvisations on the spur of the moment."

Haha! Sounds like the market traders here in Luxor!
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: boxer on February 27, 2018, 07:32:19 PM
I've paid a lot to be here...
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Chris Ryall on March 10, 2018, 12:46:55 PM
There is a lot to it … in the end the impro landscape is infinite. But there are also RULES. Both in the relation (or not!) of an improvised line to the chord «piste» that underpins it. Judicious, often generous use of silence in your music. Think BB King  ;)

And also in the way the session supports a soloist, rather than do its own thing, or worse to have several lines going on at once.  An "etiquette" that you can perceive … in any decent jazz trio. Ditto any percussion in the room needs to be sensitive: commonly an improvisor might break eg 4/4, rhythm into something ternary. The most important skill is the simplest but hardest … listening!

You have just missed the annual (29th) whole week improvisation course in Grenoble/Isère, usually 3rd week in February. It is always oversubscribed.

  https://www.stagemydriase.fr/stage-d-improvisation-musicale/

It is all in French, they tend to use DoRéMi notation for notes, and ABC for chords. There is an english language glossary to help  international visitors. There is a shorter weekend course in Ghent in November, mixed English/French and Dutch. Same leaders.

Scale (bebop, blues, #4, b9) practice is important, the more the better. Impro chords are easier: they derive from the scales in play
Title: Re: Improve Improv
Post by: Steve C. on March 10, 2018, 01:02:44 PM
Chris is right about "RULES".  A lot of which are not written down.  Well known to bluegrass and OT music folks.  Battle scars to prove. Physical and psychological.  :Ph