improvisation

improvisation

I’m a trad guitarist/mando/songwriter and can play chords all day and pick out melodies by ear with no probs, but cannot work out how to improvise. Don’t tell me to buy any more books, I now have to turf one out if I buy anymore.

Can anybody give me quick, concise suggestions?

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Listen to Toots Hibbert and let the pressure drop.

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Simple.

Don’t.

Play the tune. Improvisation in the way that it occurs in other musical forms like jazz and blues has no place in traditional Irish music.

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I’m not sure that this is the best place to come with this question, but here goes:
The trick with improvising is to hear something in your head and be able to play it. If you’re playing with others, that means understanding what they’re doing and what they’re going to do next, and having a clear idea of what will go with it. If you’re thinking of a more free-jazz sense of "improvising" (a la Keith Jarrett or the Ornette Coleman) then it’s a matter also of throwing away structures and playing something beautiful outside of the "arbitrary" structures "imposed" by rules of harmony and composition. (the scare quotes should indicate that I don’t agree with the assumptions here)

In any case, the important thing is to hear what’s happening, and to hear what will fit with it, and to play that, without having to stop to translate.
If you’re looking to play a melody line (a solo) or a harmony or counterpoint, one exercise is to be able to play back what someone plays to you, call and response style. If you have a friend who’s similarly interested in improvising, you can take turns playing follow the leader this way. This is a way to get your instrument to connect directly with your ear, and from there it’s a short step to the inner ear, to be able to play back not what you hear but what you want to hear.

If you want to "improvise" chords (ie, accompany tunes on the fly) there’s an added step: be able to hear the melody line as above, and then devise a chord progression that works.
The trick that I usually use is to build from the melody - try to hear where the melody will be, and play something that builds on that. This is more difficult to explain, but the above will be a good starting point.

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(neither quick, nor concise, but Dave’s is the only quick and concise answer to your question)

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I wish I knew. The only suggestion I have is to listen to the tunes being played by good players. Many of them change something each time around. Today I have been listening to "Rolling in the Rye Grass" which seems so simple but has quite a few possible variations.

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I like Dave’s answer.

But to answer the question, here’s what I do with my middle school jazz band…I give them the sheet music and they listen to me sing the tune. Then, they sing it along with me; then they sing it without me. Then they play it once or twice, slowly, then I take away the music.

After that, we play the tune often in unison. Eventually the kids each play the tune alone. The more familiar with the tune they get, the more comfortable they are; then will start to add rhythmic variations and syncopations a little at a time, some kids more than others. From there, it’s a short step to improvising around the skeleton they already know.

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There is packs and packs of improvisation in Irish diddley music. But though it’s not in the grand sweeping scale of moving across chord structures like in Jazz, there is as much of it.

There is some degree of melodic variation in diddley, but the majority of improvisation Is concentrated at a micro level within the subtleties of rhythmic articulations (though there is, of course cross over between these two). Where a jazz player will give out an extremely complex string of notes, they will more often than not be delivered in a machine-gun-like battering of notes all articulated in the same way. Irish diddley music is different in that while the majority of what is often described as the skeletal notes of a tune remain unaltered, the skill is in the improvisation of their articulation.

(note: I say "often" described as the skeletal notes because I dislike the analogy. It suggests many inaccurate assumptions. It suggests that without the skeleton, the tune tune would collapse in an insubstantial mass of mere flesh, but part of the skill of articulation and variation (same thing) is to suggest the flow of the tune, to give the impression you are playing the "skeletal" notes, when actually, you are not. Also, the tune is not the tune without the articulation. A listen to anyone not versed in the tradition trying to play one of these tunes without the traditional articulations is the prime example. The tunes require the subtleties of the rhythm, the accents, the twiddley diddley bits and most of all, the phrasing to make them work. This so called extra stuff is not the flesh, it is part of the sum of the music.)

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So to build on what Michael is saying, and to offer some specific suggestions for the OP, you learn to improv in this music by exploring how to articulate every note. Figure out as many ways as you can to articulate the start of every note, the middle, and the end. Then do the same thing with phrases, long and short, marking clear breaks between phrases and knitting them seamlessly together. You want to have all those options and possibilities at hand when you play a tune, and then let the tune itself and your feel for it lead the way.

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Quick and concise — don’t get hung up on playing each exact note. Play the ‘measure’ or ‘phrase’ or even the musical ‘meaning’ of the measure or phrase.

Expanding on that listen to different versions of the same tune. Listen to how it is played on different instruments and by different players. There is room for variation but more so than other types of music, just knowing the scales and keyes won’t work.

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Since Rolling in the Ryegrass was mentioned, start with a simple tune like that. Neilidh Boyle said that for him, most tunes break down into progressions of chords, so try working backwards along similar lines:

|ABAF DFAF|G2BG dGBG|ABAF DFAF|GBAF EDD2|

really comes down to

|D chord|G chord|D chord|D chord|

It helps if you can think in triads - D-F#-A or G-B-D for instance - and move fluidly between any of those notes at any one time.

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I have wondered about this too. Do good players invent variations on the melody, or do they simply pick and choose bits from the various settings they have encountered during their years of playing?

I would guess it’s a bit of both. The great players can do variations even on a tune that’s new to them, because they understand the meat (essence, meaning, soul, whatever) of the tune. In any case, more playing (and listening) is the only way to get there, yourself. Or so I hope.

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Well I can’t speak for "good" players, but for me, improvising in this music is mostly just playing (in the sense of tinkering) with the timing, rhythm, and phrasing—changing things up each time around. A lot of the possibilities come from the usual twiddly bits and common building blocks of tunes, just combined in different ways each time.

But I also rely on a sense of the chords behind the melody to tickle out new twists in the melody itself. In this sense, any improvisation tends to be brief and not straying too far from the melody line or it won’t fit well, won’t sound like the tune, or the tradition. You end up dancing a tight rope—seeking something fresh and surprising, yet within the fairly narrow confines of the tune and the traditional idiom.

When I play rock or blues guitar, it feels more deliberate—pick the right scale pattern (e.g., minor pentatonic) and start putting riffs together against the chord progression. I tried doing that with Irish fiddle and it felt forced and silly. What works better for me is to relax and let the tune unfurl—things bubble up freely then, often by association with similar bits from other tunes, sometimes out of nowhere. This is a lot easier lately than it was in the early years—sheer time playing tunes gives you more to play with.

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You can’t really ‘work out how to improvise’, as you put it. One famous Indian musician whose name I forgot said, ‘it is the thousand times that you played it in practise that enable you to play something differently’ or words to that effect. It is not a trick, or something you can learn in advance, it comes from inside you. You need to know the tune inside out, phrases, structure, feeling, mood, etc, and then you can modify parts and maintain the whole. It is hard to explain, but you know when you are doing it, The little changes are there to balance the tune and each other, and other players’ changes, so that the tune is living but not mutating.

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The best advice I ever got was really simple. The fella said, "C’mon Nate, you know what jazz sounds like, just ****ing play jazz, will ya?"

and its really as simple as that

you have to imerse yourself in a music to the point that what you hear in your head is that style of music, then you just play what you hear.

It just rolls right off the tongue, but it can take a little while to listen to all that music

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there are two different forms of improvisation [at least]melodic and chordal,if youstart off with melodic,try playing the tune and adding passing notes such as the sixth and the second.
base any ideas you have on the chord structures as some one else suggested,do not start doing it in the middle of a public session, practise it at home,then try putting the melody notes off the beat occasinally and putting in the note thats euither athird aboveor belowor maybe afourth below,hope that gets you started,but why not go to a jazzmusician and pay for some lessons then you will get the best improvisational advice

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Certainly don’t try to improvise in the conventional way in a session. You will almost certainly, at best, annoy people and more likely, complete drive them to distraction.

The majority of improvisation in trad is very subtle and best learned through listening extensively to different versions of tunes be great players and not looking at a tune like something that’s mapped out.

Personally. I certainly would not look for advice from jazzers. As far as the melody is concerned I would be surprised to hear of any decent trad player who thinks in any way about chords or patterns when the improvise.

Don’t just learn one version of a tune - learn every version you can find then just play the tune for a good while at home subtly letting it change but occasionally coming back to the original so that you have an anchor and aren’t aimlessly wandering.

Check the tune database here. In the comments sections many tunes have several youtube links of different players treating tunes in their own way.

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Very very nicely put, bogman.

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Hearing an interview with Neilidh Boyle left me with the impression that he *did* think of tunes in terms of chord progressions as Danjo refers to above, although the context may have been double stopping. It stuck in my mind and troubled me; left me happier taking advice like bogman’s as a guide. Was Boyle classically trained ?

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"Certainly don’t try to improvise in the conventional way in a session. You will almost certainly, at best, annoy people and more likely, complete drive them to distraction."

Thank you bogman - I was hoping somebody smarter than I was going to say that at some point.

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Shows how simpleminded I can be… I assumed in my response that this (don’t "improvise" in a session) was obvious, and that the original poster was looking for more general help.
Let me join the "me, too" brigade: magjam, please don’t "jam" at a session! At best, it’s just annoying, in the worst case you might find yourself shown the door - if you’re lucky, they’ll open it first.

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Unfortunately the "don’t improvise in a session" seems to be remarkably un-obvious, even among players who really, really should know better.

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just make it up as I go along, is that the same thing?

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Seems to be some confusion over what we all mean by the term "improvise." Improvising at a session is not only okay but the norm if what you mean by that are the subtle variations played on the fly that make a tune fresh each time around. Given that these variations are often played off the cuff (that is, not planned and pre-arranged), they *are* a form of improvisation, just within the traditional form and style.

Also, FWIW, I’ve heard Oisin MacDiarmada, John Carty, Kevin Burke, Kevin Crawford, Elliot Grasso and other good players talk about being aware of the chord behind the phrase when they invent variations. Sure, this isn’t the same as the rock or jazz approach to riffing over a chord progression, but neither does that mean that good Irish traditional musicians are unaware of the chords or harmonies behind the tune. That awareness is one reason backers can ruffle the hackles of a good melody player—the backer’s choice of chords is at odds with what the melody player hears in his/her head behind the tune.

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I don’t think there is any confusion Miss L. There is a big difference between the subtle improvising in trad to what most people see as improvising. I thought you and Llig in particular had already covered well the differences.

Of course many trad players will be aware of the chord structures. That is not what I was saying. The vast majority of ‘improvisation’ in trad requires little or no conscious thought.

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Given the original posting the choice of chords might be an important part of this discussion. Is it possible that sometimes the backer’s choice of chords is at odds with what the melody player is playing? I think I can hear the melody well enough but don’t necessarily have the harmony behind the tune in my head.

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That’s the thing Random, it a session situation if you are playing melody variations then they must fit in with what the other melody players are playing.

~

On many tunes I do hear chord structures. What I am curious about are the one’s which Llig refers to as ambiguous, "I think that strumming in general has been a positive innovation. It adds layers of harmony without (largely) smothering the melody (I say largely, because there are tunes in the tradition with deliberately ambiguous scales and tonal centres. Most strumming to such tunes removes this ambiguity, which is a backwards step. It discards)"

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I make ‘em all up.

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I agree bogman. Hope I’m not shifting gears on the thread too abruptly, by asking questions about backing.

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Bogman, thanks for the clarification. Yep, improv in this music happens with the twitch of a finger or the flinch of a bow or embouchure. It’s still "conscious thought," just not analytical thought. More like being in the zone and hearing the melody *and* a variation unfold at the same time (a split second before they’re due), and playing the variation.

I’ve played chord instruments for as long as I’ve played fiddle, so I *do* hear implied harmonies in my head while I’m hearing the melody line. I find that this helps me improvise because I can hear what notes will blend with what everyone else in the session is playing, and which notes will tweak the implied harmonies in an interesting way, and which notes will be discordant (although that’s sometimes a good choice, too). That said, I’m not analytical about all this in the moment, but after the bit has been played, part of my brain thinks "that was cool," or "that didn’t sound so good."

Also, which variations "fit" with what everyone else is playing is a subjective thing. Sessions have moods, too, and sometimes are more playful than serious.

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Random -

That’s what I was wondering. The session that I play at primarily has a whacker or two, but rarely any strummers, so I’m used to playing without it. So, when I hear a tune or learn a tune that I’ve never heard an arranged accompaniment for in the past, my mind hears it’s own chordal structure, but someone else hearing the same tune may hear something a little different. But there should always be some kind of structure or direction, rather than improvisation in the sense that it’s done it other forms of music. In my opinion, backing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s only one instrument at a time. I love guitar or zouk backing when it’s part of an arrangement moreso than in an open session, but I’m always open to quality backing at a session, emphasis on "quality" there.

I don’t know if the OP we talking more of that kind of thing rather than open improvisation. Would OP care to confirm?

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Any sort of harmonic backing places constraints on the melody player, even on tunes where the harmony seems unambiguous. Backing constrains the rhythm and timing, and can limit note choices.

It’s great fun to play without such constraints.

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Sorry for the cross posting but I think most if not all players past playing the basic tune hear implied harmonies etc. You don’t have to be a chord player.

Of course variations are ‘subjective’ but you need to be sure it’s not just only you that’s being playful, to the annoyance of everyone else. With ‘improvisation/variation/whatever’ in a trad session the most important thing is not pampering to your ego but seeing the bigger picture. (that’s not directed at yourself Miss L, in case there’s any misunderstanding)

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Yep, being inventive with the tune at a session is about *adding* to the overall sound, not detracting from it. But a session that doesn’t allow for a bum note now and then quickly squelches any playfulness and goes stagnant. Ugh.

Bogman, to your first point, as a music teacher, I find that most melody players struggle to hear the implied harmonies, especially in this music. It’s something I spend a fair amount of time on, raising their awareness, helping them listen (sometimes to what isn’t there, but can be in their heads). I agree that "you don’t have to be a chord player," but it helps, and many people without experience on a chord instrument have to intentionally learn to hear harmonies.

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Magjam
I’m going to assume for the sake of discussion that since you said improv and not variation that you are not actually talking about doing it in ITM, but more in a bluegrassy, jazzy kind of way.
So, with that in mind pay attention to the postings about chordal vs melodic improv.
You play 2 chording instruments and you can pick out melodies by ear so you have an advantage for working with both ways. A quick short cut to working with melodic variations is to start working along the lines of gregthepianotuners vocalizations. You probably actually have more ideas of what to play than you realize and a quick way to get access to that is to work with it vocally.
Listen to a short phrase, like the first few bars of almost anything, and let it be like a question. Then sing an answer to the phrase, any answer, you could probably come up with several. Do this just vocally until you feel comfortable. The next step is to practise finding what you came up with vocally on your instrument, which shouldn’t be too hard because you are already comfortable finding melodies on your instrument. You’re just finding another melody after all, but one that you made up. Repeat the process until you get faster and faster at finding what you ‘hear’ until it becomes simultaneous.
That will get you started anyway.

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Would that "famous Indian" musician be Bob Banerjee? I know him… he’s in a good band the Pittsburgh way called Corned Beef and Curry. I will say, the band isn’t Irish trad… they do a bit of everything, so don’t go look them up and then bash them on a thread on how "un trad" they are, please! He’s a master at improvisational violin and fiddle. I think some people just have that knack. Probably take someone like me a lifetime to get my toes wet!

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I don’t think Néillidh Boyle was classically trained, but, according to Caoimhín MacAoidh in ‘Between the Jigs and the Reels’, he was heavily influenced by hearing William McKenzie Murdoch in concert on a visit to Glasgow at the age of eighteen.

According to Caoimhín:

‘His early exposure to classically-trained players like McKenzie Murdoch meant that Néillidh became convinced of the need to master playing in positions. By all accounts, he rigorously practiced position-playing as well as a range of scale exercises in keys, particularly those not normally used in traditional playing. Though still occupied as a farmer in early manhood Néillidh’s devotion to music was full-time. This drive to establish a livelihood as a concert performer was quite uncommon since such a profession was largely unknown within the Irish rural community.’ (p. 125)

It’s a huge shame that Caoimhín’s book is no longer available.

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I’m trying to remember what Boyle said in the interview. Some thing left me wondering that he might have meant that "the chords" were there and the melody wove its way throught them. In this discussion people are refering to "implied harmonies" as if the melody is what is there and it is suggesting other things that would fit with it, but not always the same ones to different people.

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try rhythmic improvisation - its a form that can "legitimately" be used in the tradition

I don’t mean playin jig time to reels of course - just shifting the accent about a bit

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Yes, different people will hear different ‘chords’, sometimes you hear it one way one day and another the next. The thing is, the tune comes first in this music, so it doesn’t ‘weave it’s way through the chords. As soon as there is a melody though, chords can be weaved round the tune - if you wish.

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Magjam, would be grand to hear what you think of this discussion.

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Bogman, that’s a great way to think about it. Thanks for that.

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I like to break into an improvized solo every once in a while during a set. They like it so much that they always stop playing to listen.

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😉

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This thread reminded me of this clip; a good insight into the structure of Tabla. Ok not Irish but bear with me. Some things sound improvised if you’re not too familiar with them. In the same way I hum a tune to memorize it, the tabla patterns are spoken; and some of the patterns are incredibly long, some 113 phrases before repetition, but all built up from basic strokes. In spoken form, it’s stylized at speed but every syllable is a different stroke on the tabla.
The improvisation is in how YOU do it. Each stroke is strictly controlled/taught and it’s this restriction that somehow brings out the person……I don’t know how or why but it’s the same.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ALZpNazAVts

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Give the clip 1min 20 to hear the spoken stuff.

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Thank you for that link Eósaph, very interesting. At first It sounded like a typewriter! but once the spoken word stuff happened I was able to make more sense of it and the more I listened the more it kinda grew on me….

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Interesting to note that in studying the tabla, the ability to sing out what you do - as Zakir Hussein and his father do so marvelously there in that clip - is taught from the absolute beginning. There are no dots in what you just heard.
My folks started me on tabla lessons when I was small - listening to that makes me wish (again) that I hadn’t given up on it…

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That leads me on to some European traditions of story telling where there is a selection of themes and each story is based upon a theme, but is improvised and original. This is , supposedly, also an underlying concept behind the Classical Highland tradition of Piobaireachd, or ’ what pipers do’, where the ground or theme is progressively modified with a formal series of movements, embellishments. It is suggested that originally the performer had total control of his music and would improvise using the theme and set variations. Nowadays it has been codified and written down thereby , perhaps, losing something in the process.

This process of ear learning described by Jon is also the traditional way for these stories to be learned, the performer is able to keep a huge quantity of material in his/her head because its a selection of themes and concepts rather than complete stories.


……

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As always, Frits Staal’s work on orality and literacy is well worth reading in this context, although it has nothing directly to do with Irish music. And of course the upshot of all of it is - learn the tunes, not the dots.

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Miss Lonelyhearts and bogman - your clarifications regarding what constitutes acceptable "improvisation is well said. Just to clarify my take, it is one thing for an experienced player such as yourself, Miss Lonelyhearts, to improvise in a session situation. However, I rarely run into folks who understand the notion as you do. Mostly, I get the bluegrasser who thinks they can solo over the top of the A-section, or the mandolin or guitar player who think they can "vamp" the parts they don’t know. That is why, I agree so strong with bogman - best if you don’t improvise in a session.

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There is a bluegrass approach & I would still be interested in knowing if magjam is asking about improvisation in that style. If so hopefully she is getting information from a site which has more interest in that musical idiom. For the rest of us, & magjam if she is interested, bogman & Will have described variation/improvisation for this idiom quite well.
Cheers

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I like what millionyears_bc said: "rhythmic…shifting the accent…"

It’s along the lines of the phrasing. The real and only improv seems to come from that, the tinkering with phrasing.

Obviously in session situations, it’s dangerous to monkey with it too much, you don’t want to mess people up, or destroy the ensemble groove.

At the same time, how boring is it to hear a tune played the same way three times in a row, like an ABC file? That can kill any groove.

The phrasing is what’s key. The improv comes from the expression, or articulation of the phrasing.

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Just came from session so it’s all fresh, but there was a point where we all agreed it was crap, and it was because a pair of well worn hornpipes got blasted through in the same manner, phrased exactly the same, three times each.

It was crap because there was no ‘improv’, for lack of a better word. There was no sauce, despite all attempts to add it. Shovels of nyah were chucked to no effect. Nothing stuck.

By the third time through of the second one, the veterans were rolling eyes and standing on their heads, making faces at each other, flinging beer coasters and whatnot.

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JNE, I agree with you about bluegrassers and rockers, etc., having riff diarrhea all over an Irish session. Must be nipped in the bud.

But I still don’t like the "don’t improvise" dictum. Because improvising within the tradition and the tune is integral to this music. If anyone aspires to playing this music well, then they have to attend to this aspect. And at some point, they have to launch into it at sessions.

For me, some of the direst sessions are those where everyone sticks to the script, and all the variations are scripted. Week after week, it’s like listening to a recording, everything in the same place, over and over. Why bother? I’d rather stay at home and listen to Casey in the Cowhouse or Ceol an Clair.

With even just the basics of being able to play twiddly bits and understanding phrasing, anyone can get playful with variations. Sure, it helps to noodle through things at home. But sessions give you a point of reference to improvise from—other people carrying the tune, enough "cover" so you can discretely make some mistakes while you let fresh sounds bubble to the surface. (As Barry Foy says, sessions are where the music picks its nose.)

In my experience, most sessions that don’t tolerate playing from the seat of your pants and the occasional bum note are populated by players who can’t keep the tune going through distractions. That’s their shortcoming, and something that should spur them to improve their musicianship.

The same tune is never the same tune twice. If that’s disconcerting, then quit wasting time on the web and get to playing. 🙂

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Cross post with SWFL, but you perfectly illustrated my point. So when these endless earthquakes finally wedge Florida up against Montana, Ian, I will stroll down to your pub and buy you a pint and a plate of grilled amberjack and hush puppies.

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Ah SWFL Fiddler you made a fundamental mistake, twice is enough for the hornpipes.

- chris

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Strayaway:
>Listen to Toots Hibbert and let the pressure drop

Toots is my favourite singer by a country mile, and the Maytals my favourite band, just shading out De Dannan.

I never got over hearingt he track linked to below for the first time. I was about 15 and had taken the train to edinburgh with some mates to scour the record shops (I leaned more towards glasgow, myself but we lived midway). I picked up a Maytals compilation on reputation and this was the first trcak we played when we got home. Took me about three days to get my jaw off the floor. (And I never played the horrid insipid Aswad cover version again after hearing the original).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfxlViNAjU8


- chris

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A ha, you to, TheSilverSpear, lol glad it’s not just me.

Improvising happens all the time in sessions. When you sit down with people you don’t know or don’t regularly play with there’s an element of improvisation happening. When your playing off one another thats improvisation. Not high brow in the jazz definition sense of the term but high brow enough in terms of what makes it tradition and what keeps it that way.

As to backing, that needs to be kept as simple as possible in such situations to prevent clashing with "variation" in the melody, by keeping to the basic chords and their inversions. Showboating from any one player derails the whole process or drags it in the one direction, meaning everyone is playing to that players tune rather than sharing in the over all tune. Ego and self interest are the enemies in that situation. Just saying like……IMVHO

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I agree totally with both ML and Solidmahog. Listening to the pipering of willie Clancy he never plays a bar the same twice, he brings in notes that suit his style and instrument . As a solo player, which is the fundamental basis of trad IMO , he is free to play as he chooses .
Melodic improvisation is a trick in itself in this music . Does it work in sessions? depends on the session and the players of course , on how long they have been playing together etc. A session is when 2 or more gather together to play tunes.

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It’s true that a certain amount of melodic variation is part of the tradition, and better players tend to do it more than the not so good ones.
But I think that calling it ‘improvisation’ implies a degree of freedom that extends beyond what would be normally accepted as traditional Irish music.