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Thread: Improvising

  1. #1

    Default Improvising

    I'm at the point where I can play most any fiddle tune off a site like mandolessons.com in a couple of days, and I have quite a few licks I can throw in here and there at the end of the vocal line of a bluegrass tune. If someone gives me some notice I can work out a basic solo break. What has been happening is my rehearsed solo break never seems to get played. I start it off but end up throwing in the intro licks , or something else that works. If not as well thought out as what I've practiced, it isn't generally a car wreck. Is this how improvising starts happening? I've played scales and arpeggios from day one, and sometimes play the right arpeggios over the changes. Is it just a matter of learning a bunch of licks you can string together cohesively?

    I'm working my way up the neck too, with scales and arpeggios learning where to shift, ans also making up fiddle tune variations that take me there in order to shift in a musical context. Anything else to push my improv skills? I know, play with others a lot....
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    Default Re: Improvising

    I'm at the same junction and of little help, I do work on playing the melody and as you hear in jazz circles alot, the call and response method, so question and answer. Lots and lots of ear training

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Wow …. You are on the right track. Ultimately improv is an effort to play what you hear in your head and to allow your brain and fingers to connect to the music without conscious thought. I often use a sports analogy at this point. In baseball when the ball comes your way you have to know what to do with it. If you stop to think about what to do with it you are too late. In music you have to know where you are and where you are going within a tight time frame and within the melodic statement. Licks , arpeggios, partial scales, modes and chords are the conversational tools of the language of music. Like a spoken language there are statements you will make regularly … think or licks like that..... a paragraph would be like a chord conveying a general but specific context. Arpeggios and partial scales are exchanging ideas … possibilities within a conversation. Then you add emotion to your musical statement with technique, adding or dropping .. playing ahead or behind or syncopating the beat ……. Insofar as playing your prepared statements don't be to hard on yourself … we all get excited in the moment especially if things are going well .… as often as not when I crash and burn it is when I start thinking or listening to myself or the other players to closely ….. Play On! R/
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    Registered User Pete Martin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

    There is no "right way" to learn improv. While the goal is to be able to flow without thinking (subconcious), no player can ever do this without a whole lot of concious improv work in the practice room. Otherwise it is just moving the fingers and hoping it works. An old Jazz teachers saying is "good improvisation is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration".

    For jazz playing, I found and really like the Barry Harris method. Its the best improv teaching method I've run across (Ive seen and tried a lot). Ive done a number of videos on Barry's ideas applied to mandolin, the first one here

    https://youtu.be/1X0CefNUAl0

    You have to stick with this for a while and it is very confusing at first, but if you stay with it, you see a cool world open up to you.

    I think so highly of Barry's method, I've adapted it to non jazz improv. I've several videos in this series called Improv From Scratch. The first of that series is here:

    https://youtu.be/1_e9m-KqsBE

    Just like Barry's series, you need to follow it along for a while. It gives lots of tools you can use to construct logical lines, but leaves the specifics up to you. Because of this, everyone will sound different.
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    Default Re: Improvising

    A thought came to me the other day. I think how to improvise kind of depends on what you mean to accomplish with your break.

    You would approach improvising differently for each of these:

    -playing an alternative (and seemingly if not actually spontaneously composed) melody that fits the chords and general feel of the original tune
    -showing your chops
    -decorating the original tune
    -dramatically enhancing the drama and story of the original tune

    And other goals I am sure.

    All of them are valid and can be fun to do and to hear. But I am thinking that what you do to come up with each kind of break is different.

    I have a prejudice, but I will leave it to the experts to either verify it or to correct me. My prejudice is that the best breaks come from the tune itself, and the first step in all cases is to learn the tune. Be able to play the tune before you depart from the tune in a break.

    I don't think a break should be "what you do when you don't know the tune".
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  9. #6

    Default Re: Improvising

    For me, if music is about communication, then your break should say something. The original tune says something in its structure. I think a break should utilize that structure to say something different, although in jams if folks simply restate the melody I'm fine with that. That means its best to know the melody, but often tunes are called that I've never heard or never heard of (Webster as played by Django?), so I have to work with the structure. That includes the phrases, the changes and the rhythm I can use as guides to developing a new melody that speaks the message I'm trying to communicate. Sometimes that means I create a new motif along the structure of the tune but sometimes I'm just trying to capture the feel of the tune in a non rambling way. At my level, my mileage varies greatly, especially on unfamiliar tunes in unfamiliar keys. 32 bars can be a very long time to feel naked.

    But since we're trying to play music, its always about melody.
    Play it like you mean it.

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    Registered User OldMandoMan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

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    Quote Originally Posted by Br1ck View Post
    I'm at the point where I can play most any fiddle tune off a site like mandolessons.com in a couple of days, and I have quite a few licks I can throw in here and there at the end of the vocal line of a bluegrass tune. If someone gives me some notice I can work out a basic solo break. What has been happening is my rehearsed solo break never seems to get played. I start it off but end up throwing in the intro licks , or something else that works. If not as well thought out as what I've practiced, it isn't generally a car wreck. Is this how improvising starts happening? I've played scales and arpeggios from day one, and sometimes play the right arpeggios over the changes. Is it just a matter of learning a bunch of licks you can string together cohesively?

    I'm working my way up the neck too, with scales and arpeggios learning where to shift, ans also making up fiddle tune variations that take me there in order to shift in a musical context. Anything else to push my improv skills? I know, play with others a lot....
    For years I have been teaching (preaching) what I call "Improv 101" and it applies to all genres of music & all stringed instruments (obviously having different looking patterns) The home key for mandolin, guitar, banjo, & bass is always G/Em, forget the CAGED method. My two cents is "Learn this & you'll never go wrong!"

  12. #8
    Registered User OldMandoMan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

    One of my favorite sports analogies is: "Playing music with others is the ultimate team sport because everybody has the ball all the time!"

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Don't forget to use other "tools of expression" such as sliding in and out of notes,hammer on's and pull offs,glissandos,choking,vibrato,altered tremolo beats etc...once you start to utilize these on your scales,pentatonics,double stops you can add more expression to your playing...

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

    Sounds like you're doing the right things and headed in the right direction. It can be difficult to let go of your rehearsed intro licks and try something new during the heat of a song, but I think that's where the most fun is had, when you take a risk and it works. And when it doesn't work, well then you took a chance and didn't die, so that might make you more comfortable improvising the next time. And don't pause or grimace or apologize when you make what sounds to you like a mistake, but just keep on keeping on, like it was meant to be, and most folks will never even know that you "messed up."
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  16. #11

    Default Re: Improvising

    Start listening to and practicing with horn players, like Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue....
    Spruce dork

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    Default Re: Improvising

    At least some of the melody notes are in the chord tones. I typically follow the chord progression around, and try to find the melody notes in the chord patterns around the neck. I cant improvise if I don’t know the chord progression. Im no expert, but i am getting better at doing this on the fly. It also help to stay relaxed, but that is easier said than done.
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  19. #13

    Default Re: Improvising

    The key to rapidly learning to improvise is to spend a lot of time improvising. (Shocking!) I say this because many players will look for non-improvisational things to "master" before they feel like they are "ready" for improvising. It can be a form of procrastination to avoid the scary part of sounding like a child again. Learning scale and arpeggio studies isn't improvising. Learning someone else's break, from the page or by ear, isn't improvising. They can provide you with tools and techniques, but they are not creative. Learning to create is hard and you will initially be bad at it.

    Learn a few improvisational concepts and improvise the heck out them. Just one pentatonic scale offers infinite melodic options. When you can use one tool fluently, integrate a new tool into your playing. It might be a scale, or it might be a technique like sliding into a double stop. Have a goal: "Today I will craft an interesting solo that incorporates X." Start slow. Build little sections.

    The hard part for you will be learning to create compelling lines; devote the majority of your time to that. You will need to adjust to sounding crappy, at first, but that is what will free you.

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  21. #14

    Default Re: Improvising

    Lot's of good things said here. I fully agree that scales and arpeggios don't music make. But they can sure get you out of hopeless situations. I have no fear of crash and burn. The closer I come to the cliff without going off, the better. But it is wise to have a parachute. But I think when trying to pick out a melody, having played scales has taught my brain a lot about intervals. As I've progressed those patterns have helped me pick up fiddle tunes, and as a friend has hammered into my consciousness, start and end a phrase on the first, third or fifth of the chord you are playing over, an it's bound to sound good.

    I also think starting with a melody and gradually wandering away from it is a solid path.
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    Registered User Paul Cowham's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

    This doesn't necessarily answer your question Br1ck, but I thought it worth sharing this clip where guru Grisman talks about improv and offers (to my mind at least) some profound insights about the subject. Hope you find this as interesting as I do
    sorry, I can't get the video to embed, here is the link https://vimeo.com/244123483

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Paul,

    That was interesting. Thanks for posting.

    Regards,

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    Default Re: Improvising

    I’m new to the Cafe. Been playing mandolin seriously for less than a year, but I’ve been playing guitar for 30+years. I would say my improvising skills on mandolin aren’t quite up to par, but on guitar I’m fairly competent, confident and comfortable. All of the other posts have touched on some great points and I will reiterate some of those and hopefully shed some more light too.

    You obviously have the desire to improvise and that’s a great first step. Just remember that improvising takes constant improvement also. You need to use all of your musical knowledge and keep expanding on it. Everything plays a part. Melody, scales, modes, circle of 5ths, relative minors/majors, note intervals, chord inversions, chord substitutions, rhythm, tempo, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, double stops, tremolo. I’ll stop because I’m overwhelmingly myself! I’m not saying you have to master everything at once or even ever, but all of this stuff is foundational and can be helpful with improving your playing skills and confidence.

    Referring back to your original post, I would agree with another that having a solo worked out in advanced is not really improvising. I’m not saying it to fault you, just trying to clarify. I used to work out parts in advance when I was learning how to play a solo and I think it can be a great tool. I think your timing may get a little tripped up when it’s time to play that break when you’re in a jam context. Think of your break as a little fiddle tune. You know the notes and what you want to play, you just have to get the timing right.

    Hope this helps a little. Just remember we’ve all felt hand cuffed, been lost in a tune and survived many train wrecks.

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Well, I've never felt like I can improvise very well, and I'm always trying to get better at it. But the other day while I was practicing with a metronome, I set it at about 60 bpm (for tremolo practice) and when I got bored tremolo-ing, I played clinch mountain backstep, which is one piece that my solo is always improv, and at that speed (or lack thereof) I had much more time to experiment with different lines, as well as having the metronome to easily pick up the melody where I left off if I train wreck. It was really fun.
    Another thing I've done (especially with ukulele players) when I have another musician, is I get them to play a simple chord progression (usually Dm C, or Em D) and I just improvise something Irish sounding over it
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    Default Re: Improvising

    Quote Originally Posted by RobP View Post
    At least some of the melody notes are in the chord tones. I typically follow the chord progression around, and try to find the melody notes in the chord patterns around the neck. I cant improvise if I don’t know the chord progression. Im no expert, but i am getting better at doing this on the fly. It also help to stay relaxed, but that is easier said than done.
    This is what I often end up doing, and I'm trying to expand beyond it. I find myself fingering intervals of the chord and basing my break off that.

    I feel that's it's a crutch, and that I should be able to pick up the melody by ear and embellish it.
    Greg Fury

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    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Improvising

    Thanks, Don!

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Yes, THIS!! It ain't cheating to use the chord tones/positions as anchors for a break. Often the melody notes are in the chord tones, if not they are only a fret or 2 away from one. It really helps to know the chord progression for improvising.

    Thanks!

    Rob


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  36. #24
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    Default Re: Improvising

    I believe it is Tiny Moore that is quoted as saying " You're only one fret away from a note that will work". Arpeggios to pentatonic scales to playing the melody to playing the melody and adding or subtracting tones and syncopating...… I will always be on the journey of trying to play the music I hear in my head and practicing the tools to access it... and enjoying the journey. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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    Default Re: Improvising

    Arpeggios and chord tones are your friends when improvising!

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