Improvisation

Improvisation

So I’ve been playing fiddle and piano accordion for years. I can play many tunes of a few different genres of music but recently I have come to notice that being able to improvise and jam and create something out of nothing is something that is lacking. I am only able to play music that I have actively learnt and that other people have wrote. I have a lot of friends who are excellent at improvisation, and sometimes it’s so great to hear some of them just start singing and playing music about a funny song on some random thing in the room. I always really regret not being able to join in.

I have a good ear and can read music. But how can I improve my jamming/improvisation skills? I’d love to be able to make off the cuff melodies with the fiddle or know how to back any tune with chords. I have a decent understanding of music theory but could definitely do well to learn more about different chord progressions and arpeggios and whatnot. I’m not really sure anyways and I hope my general question is clear enough! Any advice, tips, types of practice, etc all very much welcome. Thank you!

Re: Improvisation

I think improvisation really comes from learning to play by ear. Improvisation, essentially, is being able to play what you hear in your head. For me, learning tunes by memorizing how they go first (like I can sing/hum them) and then picking out the notes on whatever instrument, has been the most helpful. I think this method leads to the greatest return, since you learn to immediately translate what you hear in your head to your fingers, rather than trying to go through the extra step of intellectualizing the theory behind it, chord progressions etc.

A lot of people here argue quality over quantity, but really, the more tunes you learn by ear, the better you learn your instrument, and the more proficient your ear becomes.

I have noticed, since I’ve been obsessively immersed in tunes, that lately if I happen to hear pop music on the radio, I am automatically translating the melody through at ITM lens, and sensing how it would go on the fiddle, if it were a tune. Kind of hard to explain, but I think it’s changed the way my brain interprets music.

Re: Improvisation

Try noodling around with arpeggios and little melodic riffs and devices in a blues form on the accordian. Same with fiddle, however (piano) accordian is a natural and very effective improvising machine; a simple rhythmic figure in the left hand is powerful motif, and play some simple right-hand melody or comping, patterns, whatever on top of that groove. Zydeco, boogie woogie, fats domino, professor longhair, rock ‘n roll. I’ve been into brazilian forro and such lately - get the rhythmic feel and you can easily execute effective dance music, etc, which can give you a platform to riff on. I find it inspiring. I do somewhat like this with gypsy stuff too. I love the powerful rhythmic capacity of accordian.

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Re: Improvisation

I wouldn’t really say that improvising comes from learning to play by ear. Improvising, in a sense, is a different skill. Where playing by ear is the ability to interpret what you hear and deliver it on your instrument; Improvising in the ability creatively and artistically modulate what you’re playing. Improvising is that, "playing a tune differently every time.". Ornaments are improvising. Playing an octave lower/higher is improvising. Lengthening and shortening some notes, phrases, or cadences. Leaving out or adding notes. Also, you’re not always improvising when you’re playing by ear. You can learn a tune by ear note for note, and play it note for note.

I feel that improvising comes from understanding how the music should sound, stylistically, and playing what you want rather than playing what is written/implied/assumed. A form of composing. It’s the freedom of understanding how many different ways can you say a phrase within a tune and it still make sense. Think about comedians for example. Really good comedians don’t just recite jokes. They tell a story. Instead of reciting a verbatim telling of that story every single time, they’ll keep it fluid and alive by saying things in different ways. That way, not only do they not have to memorize the story verbatim, they have the freedom of delivering it how they feel. Here’s a real time example. I’m going to compose a short excerpt right now, and then I’m going to improvise on that excerpt.

"As I was walking through the park, the sun high, the air breezy, and birds chirping, I saw a most beautiful young woman sitting on a bench near the pond. She was reading, seemingly in perfect peace. And as fascinated as I was by her stillness, I dare not bother her."

"It was early in the afternoon as I was walking through the park. The air was cool and birds were singing. Near the pond sitting on a bench there was a lovely, lovely girl, reading. She looked as if she was thoroughly enjoying herself, so I left her alone."

I said the same thing, and delivered the same message, but in different words. I saw a pretty girl in a park.

I would say that this is why beginning backers have such a hard time. They have to literally learn how to compose a lively chord progression to back a tune. The reason why I’m comfortable saying improvising is a form of composing is because you’re reconstructing the music, composing being constructing. You’re taking something out and putting something else in. When you realize this, the door begins to open.

Now, as of how to actually improvise. Do you know how to improvise at all? Even really simple improvisations like ornaments? Do you play tunes the same way every time? Do you switch up your bowing? One great way to learn how to improvise is exposure to different playing styles. Do you learn different settings of your favorite tunes? That’s one way to really kick up your improv’ game. Slow practicing creates a space for you to create, you can commit more energy to improvising that way. Ask yourself, "what would sound good ‘here’?", and then try it and see if you like it.

You’re already skilled on your instruments and know the style, and those fluencies are the most important things when improvising. Now what you wanna do is try new things and experiment. See what sounds good and doesn’t, what you do and don’t like. It’s not as complicated as I’ve probably made it sound, it’s just that there’s a lot you can do, and a lot of different ways you can accomplish those things. Don’t be afraid to shoot for the stars, when it comes to improvising, that’s one way we learn. Trying to weird and crazy things, just to see what happens. You can do it, it just may take a little time, like all things music. Commit some time to it daily, or make it a constant focus of your practice for a little while. Listen to some good music. Expand your collection if you have to. And don’t forget to challenge yourself.

Re: Improvisation

"Ornaments are improvising."

? How so ?

Perhaps if you play _different_ ornaments each time you play the tune? Or unless my understanding of the term is somehow flawed?

Re: Improvisation

"? How so ?"

Because any variation is improvising. And ornaments are variations. Especially considering the fact that you don’t half to play an ornament in every single place where you can fit an ornament, or the same ornament. I wouldn’t go as far as to say your understanding of the term "ornament" is wrong. All the words we use have so many meanings, and these conversations can get pretty confusing between those meanings.

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My point is that we shouldn’t put ourselves in a mindset that says, "this isn’t cool/grand/significant enough to be improvising". Even the small things count. I mean, improvising in a broader sense is a collection of a lot of small things, including ornaments.

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Try messing with music you know. Where there is an arpeggio half the notes lengths and turn it into run, or add in alternate drone notes. Or turn a run into an arpeggio. Play the same tune over and over and make some changes every time through.
Change the mode of the tune and see how it sounds.
Try playing the tune and adjust to a different time signature.
Find a piece of poetry with a good rthymical structure and try to sing a tune to it. Then play the tune you sang. Then mess with it.
You probably need to spend many practice hours messing before your brain starts to adapt. There is no substitute for practice. I would not get too hung up on chord theory. If you want to learn to accompany, put a tune on repeat and just keep experimenting until you find chords that fit.

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"Try messing with music you know."

Good advice. Yesterday I had a certain Bette Midler song in my head (where did that come from?), and this morning the rhythm had morphed into 11/16, all by itself.

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In the old days here, someone would have asked "Why?"

If this is for your own private pleasure or performing in a band, fair enough. It’s not something which is necessarily that welcome in sessions but you are, hopefully, already aware of this.

As for "Ornaments are improvising.", this assertion is open to debate. There is a school of thought (Former member Llig was a great believer) that ornaments are actually part of the tune. Some argue that they should be learned along with the tune at the same time although others would advise you to just learn the "bare bones" first and add them on afterwards. Experienced players will find it much easier to learn the tune with ornaments at one go, of course.
However, as Jerome suggests, we will often add ornaments to tunes ourselves where we feel they are appropriate often subconsciously and may not play a tune exactly the same way each time. This is a form of improvisation, in my opinion, but not all "ornamentation" falls into this category.

Re: Improvisation

"This is a form of improvisation, in my opinion, but not all "ornamentation" falls into this category."

I can vibe with that, I see where you’re coming from. I don’t want us to get hung up on words. But how are you not improvising if you’re using your ornaments? I mean, Irish music is naturally a heavily improvised style. Could it be argued that ornamentation comes assumed because Irish music is improvised?

Edit: I just looked up the definition of "improvise", just to refresh my memory on its root meaning, and about the ornaments; I think I’m wrong. Or at the least, my argument isn’t 100% fool-proof. Hmm… Maybe ornaments aren’t really improvising because they are assumed/expected? Does that expectation mean it’s no longer improvising?

Re: Improvisation

Jerome,
I’d suggest that if they are your own then it could be argued that this is "improvisation" although, mostly, we are just incorporating tried and tested ideas and patterns into the music.

On the other hand, when we learn a tune complete with ornaments added already, I don’t think of this as improvisation.

Re: Improvisation

Interesting. Hmm…

Re: Improvisation

" There is a school of thought (Former member Llig was a great believer) that ornaments are actually part of the tune."

I guess I’m an alumnus as well. I also prefer the term "articulation" to ornament, because at some stage, these elements of playing are critical to the music, and not optional in any sense. If you give a recorder player (not just an elementary school kid, but a renaissance musician) a penny whistle and an Irish tune, it doesn’t sound Irish because it is not articulated correctly.

Re: Improvisation

Moreover, it’s possible to play a tune using exactly the same ornaments/articulations in every instance. Ie, not what I would call "improvisation," which implies changing whatever you play.

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Just my opinion, but I think it’s difficult to make a case for ornaments (articulations) as improvising, because the structure of a tune dictates where many of the common ornaments are used. When a note follows another one at the same pitch, it’s typical to use a cut to separate them. A lonely quarter note cries out for a roll around the note, and so on.

You may change where and how often you use ornaments in different repeats of a tune, but a lot of this is still determined by how the notes are laid out. The tune suggests how it "wants" to be articulated. Free improvisation is less structured than that.

The closest we get in Irish trad to improvising might be variations; the subtle re-arranging of the notes here and there, to keep things interesting as a tune is repeated. Liz Carroll’s extended riffing on her own compositions is a master class in that approach. Still, we don’t have the broad scope for improvisation available in genres specifically designed for it, like Jazz or Bluegrass, because the tune still has to be very recognizable from one repeat to the next. If someone has a serious interest in extended improvisation, there are other genres where you can go wild with it. Like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Afzl3A8o7vE

Re: Improvisation

In what context do you want to be able to improvise? If you can share that, maybe we can give you some more specific suggestions.

If you want to play strictly in the trad context, then I think the best thing to do is to sit next to a great trad player in a session, if you can, and just listen to what he or she does with each time through the tune. It doesn’t matter if this person is playing variations worked out in advance or improvising on the spot, each one will be new to you, and if you have a big repertoire of variations to tunes worked out in advance (that you may or may not have shamelessly copped from a few trad players you admire) then you will rapidly come up with new ones on your own. It just happens. You’ll have a more expanded idea of each tune, beyond the straight-ahead "sheet music version" and as your expanded idea of each tune grows, so will your pathways to improvisation.

If you want to become an accomplished improviser in other styles, then of course you need to put in some work and hours on the instrument! But here are some ideas to help you find a track to run on.

0 Listen to great improvisers within the styles you like and a bit beyond. My favorites are John Coltrane, Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelli and Mark O’Connor, but there are lots of them. Stretch your ears, though.

0 Put away the sheet music and just play. Explore the instrument. This is the most important thing, because even if you do all the other things below, on paper, they won’t help you much if you aren’t putting in the time actually playing!

o Get a teacher who’s great at what you want to learn to do.

0 Work out the major and minor pentatonic scales in several keys, and start with them. Get a guitar player to jam blues with you. Doesn’t have to be a trad player.

0 Start composing your own tunes. You’ll be improvising just in the process of trying out different ideas.

0 Learn how each note in a scale sounds relative to the root. How does a b3 function? A #4th? A flattened versus a major 7th? What mood does each one create?

o Apply that information to the scales from your exercise books, if you’ve used books. Or just figure it out… what is it that makes a Dorian melody sound Dorian? What is it that makes a mixolydian tune sound mixolydian? What are the key elements? How can you establish, say, a Dorian or Mixolydian mood with a single note, given someone playing chords along with you? You’ll gradually establish a tonal pallette

0 Learn great melodies from all kinds of traditions, and also the harmonies underneath them. Most (not all) improvisation happens in some kind of harmonic context (even if you’re just implying it on your own instrument)

0 Go through anything by Dowland you like and can play, and try to write out the implied or expressed chords. Once you have the knack of that, try J.S. Bach. The chorales will be a great source, but just about anything he wrote is amazing and lots of them will be very challenging.

0 Transcribe solos you like from jazz or rock or whatever. It helps if you have the chords so you can get the harmonic context.

0 Play through CHANGES, not just scales. It will probably take some time to get there. I’m still working on it after many years, though I hardly play outside of trad sessions anymore.

0 Look up melodic and harmonic variations to common progressions. Start with I-IV-Vs and ii-V7-I. Then if you like, try a cycle of Vths like E7-A7-D7-G7. You can go for years just on those three! Entire careers have been built and legends born just from these three concepts! There are books and websites out there that can jumpstart you through some ideas. One that comes to mind is Ted Greene’s "Single Note Soloing." Two volumes. I think it helps to read "Chord Chemistry" first but not necessary. There are people out there on YouTube, as well, and you can get a teacher, of course. You don’t need to learn every single variation out there, but get a few ideas under your fingers for each, and go from there.

Others can surely add some great suggestions.

But don’t get too wrapped around the axle on learning the theory, or scales or arpeggios or whatever, that you lose track of timing. This is of critical importance, in any style, anywhere, anytime, and is 100 times more important than having the hippest variations and the most harmonically #woke licks! Keep coming back to the basics!

Hope that helps you plot a road map to where you want to go! Enjoy the journey.

Re: Improvisation

This is great advice for ALL musicians! I met Jason at a session in Florida and let me tell you he is a great player and a really nice guy. His very thoughtful response is spot on.

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I tend to agree with Conical Bore that articulations/ornaments are integral parts of the existing personality of the tune rather than improvisations. The B part of the Congress Reel comes to mind, for example. Secondly, for those of you who partake in facebook and have been following Fergal Scahill’s tune of the day series, he is a brilliant example of what a great musician can to with improvisation on a traditional tune. Have a listen to his take on Lads of Laoise, for example. Also, you can’t go wrong listening to recordings of Tommy People’s fiddle playing to really soak in clever variations and improvisations of melodies within the context of a traditional tune.

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In the context of Irish trad, I like to think of things more along the lines of ‘variation’, rather than ‘improvisation’. Improvisation is a pretty wide term, which brings to mind actually manufacturing riffs on a theme, like in jazz or bluegrass. Variation in Irish traditional music can be many things, but it would almost never be fully manufactured-on-the-fly sections of tunes.

Variation might include:
* changing articulations (adding, removing, or changing ornaments),
* changes in dynamics (volume, attack, sustain, note emphasis, etc),
* subtle rhythmic manipulation (hitting a note early or late - on purpose),
* different note shaping (sliding into a note, or cutting it off early, etc.),
* adding notes (playing two notes in place of a quarter note, for instance),
* removing notes (like breathing on a flute, or letting the note before last longer, etc.),
* changing pickup notes (like coming down from above instead of up from below…)
* note substitution (playing another note from the implied chord, playing the note in a different octave, etc.),
* phrase inversion (playing a string of notes in a different order),
* changing resolution phrase (finding a different way to get to the resolution note),
* harmonic phrase substitution (changing a phrase by playing a harmonic line instead),
* different key or mode phrase substitution (changing a phrase by playing it in a different mode or key - this would pretty much only be heard in a recording, where it was planned ahead of time and all players know it’s coming…)

That’s not meant to be a comprehensive list. Just giving you some ideas as to how simple or complex variation can be.

One of the ways that you can start yourself down the path of adding variation into your playing is to come up with some variations ahead of time. Maybe break down a favorite recording and pick a few things that the player does with the tune. Figure out how to play them, and then add them to your playing of that tune. So when you play that tune, maybe you play it straight once, and then add one variation the second time through, and another variation the third time through. It’s not "improvising" at that point, but it starts getting you used to playing different things at different times, and adds some flexibility into your playing. Once you’ve started adding pre-planned variation into your playing, you may find that variations in your playing start to happen spontaneously.

Once you’ve started to develop that spontaneity, you can start to control it. And (most of) those different types of variation that I listed can become tools that you use in your expression of a tune. You become more fluent at the ‘language’ of Irish traditional music, and you can become more eloquent in your expression of it.

There are a couple other things that you can do, which really helped me develop flexibility in my expression:

First one is to play a tune you know well in a different key. This takes both familiarity with the tune and familiarity with your instrument. But it can be a really good at helping you with your mental flexibility, because you can’t just rely on your so-called "muscle memory" to play the tune. You really need an engaged brain.

And one thing that really helped me with expression of musical ideas was to play tunes in a different time signature. Play a reel as a jig, or vice versa. That also takes an engaged brain. On the fly, you have to figure out what notes to leave out or what notes to add to make the underlying idea of the melody stay the same. And that’s really what variation is all about - conveying the same melody in a different way…

Re: Improvisation

"I wouldn’t really say that improvising comes from learning to play by ear. Improvising, in a sense, is a different skill. Where playing by ear is the ability to interpret what you hear and deliver it on your instrument; Improvising in the ability creatively and artistically modulate what you’re playing."

In order to improvise anything, you have to first be able to hear where you want to go in your head, then you have to be able to transfer that to your instrument, and it has to happen instantaneously, hence playing by ear. You can spend years learning arpeggios, scales and chord theory, but in the end if you can’t play what you hear in your head, you won’t be fast enough to improvise on the fly. (I’m assuming the OP was referencing improvisation outside of the ITM tradition.)

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Improv, variation, call it what you like. It’s all based on a theme, motif, a pattern, a series of these. You begin by learning the basics (the tunes?) and connecting your being with them. Improvisation happens from sowing these seeds. Ornamentation is the tune when you play the tune with it; not by adding it. Isn’t that more like what llig was getting at? You can leave it out here, play it there, vary it in the repeat… it’s "all of it" the tune.

But back to the subject. Improv is blurring the lines, anticipating unexpected changes, experimenting, crashing and burning sometimes but always ready to find your way back home. Back home to the basics, back to the tune.

Have fun. Definitely, that!

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Re: Improvisation

A lot of useful information in here and I thank everyone! I should be a bit more clear though. I’m talking about improvisation generally speaking, and not just in an Irish sense. In that sense (Irish), I am well acquainted with off the cuff ornamentation and never sticking to the same slurring pattern and what have you. That stuff is fine.

To be very very specific I would love to be able to play backing chords to any song or tune that pops up on my accordion, and would equally love to be able to jam new and interesting melodies from nothing, again not just Irish music - all types of music, none specific. I know books and theory will only get you so far and I just need to immerse myself into it and just try. I’m thinking of finding some generic backing (like a guitar playing a Gmaj progression for example) and then trying to work out a fiddle melody to it. I will also try my hand at composing (been playing for years and it’s never occurred to me to do this!) and hopefully that will ignite a creative spark in me. In addition to all the wonderful advice here.

Don’t stop the discussion though!

Re: Improvisation

I wonder how you learn to shoe a horse.

Do you find and watch someone who knows how to shoe a horse and is willing to teach you how s/he does it?

Do you ask strangers on the Internet how they would shoe horses, despite their assurances they don’t know what a horse is and you should learn to swim instead?

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If you want to improvise or vary, get out of that GHB band! (Or, at least, broaden those horizons!)

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I’d go along with Jason_Van _Steenwyk and reelsweet, here.

In the end, the only way you get better at improvising, though, is by trying it yourself. Again and again and again. And again. Improvisation is like singing through an intermediary (your instrument). The ability to hear (or, more correctly, imagine) changes in your head is a necessary skill as well.

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I agree with the above. I would also start by playing a note of the chord to a song and play just the bass notes to hear the changes and play with the bass note. After you are comfortable with that, just have Chords playing in background slowly and try to play a few notes in between chords with the last note you play being the next chord note. That is improvising and will get you started hearing where the rabbit may take you. I Believe two octave arpeggios with major and minor variations helped tremendously for hearing all the different notes in a chord that will work well in an improv. You can get those in sheet music form in a book in all the different keys. After you are good at that, start listening to the drums or rhythm. That can add more fun to your improv. Instead of playing every beat, lay out the first beat, start on the second. And add short rests to your playing or adding length to other notes. Imitate the Rhythm of the drum.

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Then you can also mess around with accenting different beats or when playing with a guitar and drums doing a rhythmic riff where you are playing in open spaces that the guitar is not playing but it is more rhythmic than melodic. Which is why I think I like jigs so much. Kind of like extended riffs in my mind anyway. Dancy, very rhythmic.

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Me, I would just try singing. And play what you’re singing. Like George Benson.

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Listen to recordings of good improvisers and see what they are doing and when. You don’t have to improvise every moment of the tune. There is a US based band called Bare Necessities that plays English Country Dance music and they are noted for their improv.
Another person is Rodney Miller, American. He began improvising after the nth time he had to play Chorus Jig for a contra dance.
Remember that someone has to continue playing the melody for the improv to be effective.
Sylvia Miskoe, Concord NH USA