March 29, 2010

Improvisation 101

I’ve had music teachers and adults compliment me on my interaction with students, saying that I have a good way of teaching improvisation. I don’t take a lot of credit for it. It reminds me of the Jon Hendricks story talking about Count Basie being interviewed by the English journalist, who said “Mr. Basie, you seem to play with a great deal of economy of notes.” And Basie said “I can’t play no mo.” So perhaps there’s an advantage to not having your head filled with too much theory because it doesn’t cloud your thinking and you can see the forest AND the trees.

In this case, the forest is creating the improvised melody. The trees become all those scales, licks, phrases, enclosures, modes and ideas that can be applied, and that can be of use, but applied too early they only tend to obscure the forest, the idea of creating a melody. That’s why I think it’s a good idea when working with a kid who seems to have any interest at all in improvising, you work with a scale and a little call and response, and then THEY give the call and YOU respond, and all it is is a little rhythm. Then divide the rhythm between two different notes, and then three different notes if you want, where we set a beat and we make up little phrases from the scale we’re working on. This is not a jazz exercise per se. Sometimes we’ll do a march beat and we’ll be in a G scale for example. Play any notes in the G scale, let’s play something people could march to. Or let’s do a waltz — let’s play in 3/4.

I had a recent conversation with a music teacher who was about to retire, as he had been teaching nearly thirty years. This conversation made me realize how some basic things may not be a part of a person’s teaching arsenal. Though he may have played music for a long time, it was a revelation to him that I simply told him that on the flute when he is improvising he could play an E flat against a C chord. His comment was “yeah but that’s dissonant, because the C chord has an E.” I said, no, that’s the blues, that’s what makes blues sound like blues. His honest reaction was “wow, that’s really interesting.” Even though he played in a jazz group, he didn’t know that.

He also had numerous questions regarding a microphone and its proper use on the bandstand. He was surprised to learn that a microphone does not make you sound better, it only makes you sound louder. He didn’t seem to believe that. And that is an arguable statement. Because a microphone connected to all the possibilities (reverb and sound enhancement) can make you sound better, in a way. But you still are amplifying the sound you put into it. And if you put in a lousy tone, a tentative tone, an unconfident tone into a microphone, it will make that unconfident tone a loud unconfident tone.

School districts who hire me tend to have me return year after year to work with groups of kids. I often do guest spots before the audiences in the evening when I perform with the school bands. One particular administrator likes to call on me to do something a cappella before the audience. Every year I try to do something different. One year I played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” one year I did “St. Louis Blues,” and this is always on solo saxophone. I always arrive at the stage with very little pre-planning. I do some thinking about it, but I’ve learned to trust my own instincts and rely on observation and intuition during the day or leading up to the event. A recent night started out where the music teacher had some other guest, he had a fairly good band that was there who was traveling through the area. They played a little thing for the kids and then they were going some Q & A. They were asking the kids about their listening habits. One guy asked junior high kids if they had ever heard of Louis Armstrong. One girl raised her hand and said yes, he played trumpet and he sang “What a Wonderful World.” They were glad to get that answer. So I registered that, and then I had a long break between the afternoon and the evening performance. The kids who I had seen at the same school last year, who I had been able to spend the day with, a whole year later these kids had remembered the little blues lick that I taught them a year ago. Not only had they remembered it, but they had taught it to the grade that came in this year, who I had not seen the previous year. It wasn’t a hard melody, but the fact that they remembered it a year later and taught it to the other kids, and recognized that they could put it into this arrangement they were doing called “A Bunch of Blues,” because luckily it happened to being the same key. But they recognized they could play this melody in the middle of this chart and it fit. And they asked the director’s permission to use what they called “Monk’s Blues,” and they did. So that was a rewarding moment.

In the evening, I decided to play “What a Wonderful World,” for the audience and I verbally related some of these things to the audience before I played it. I played it by myself. The room had a nice sound, a sort of “gym reverb.” I milked the song, but with the words in mind as I played it. I think it worked very well. Afterwards a grandfather came up to me and wanted my autograph and said it was the most beautiful rendition he’d ever heard of the song and how special it was. Then the kid who had originally answered the question about Louis Armstrong came up and she was thrilled that I had done that. I told her it was prompted by what she said, and I said that I shared her enthusiasm for the song.

In a session for prospective Arts in Education teaching artists (TA’s). I decided to do a little exercise that on one side of the page it says “TA work is…” and on the other side said “TA work is not …” and encouraged them to put down some obvious things. TA work is not an opportunity for you to display your technical prowess on your instrument … TA work is challenging … I put down TA work is rocket science, and I also put TA work is NOT rocket science because I feel you can apply the same concept to improvising. It certainly is hard, but the hard part is figuring out how to learn all that stuff but forget it. It helps to know it, but you need to figure out ways to transfer it and filter it into language and concepts and activities that display the ideas rather than talk about it. And it’s not about exclusive language of your discipline. It’s about being able to share your joy, fascination or insight about something with others who don’t share it but could share it, but you have to figure out a way to make it palatable, to make it and safe for them to experiment with and user-friendly. It’s the same with improvising. You have to create a safe environment for people to try things and teach them the idea of a mistake changes from one kind of music to another, that mistakes can be dealt with, and that mistakes are not your deadly enemy.

5 comments:

  1. My memories of studying improvisation with you in the late 70s:

    C Jam Blues
    So What
    Swingin Shepherd Blues.

    Still have the notebook with your theory lessons and handwritten lead sheets.

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  2. Hey Bg,
    Thanks for the comment. I recall the VVS days fondly. We made some great music. Do you still have the album the band made?

    Question: If you do C Jam Blues in B flat is it still C Jam Blues?

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  3. I do have a copy (and I think that my dad still has 5 or 6 copies, unopened -- he should auction them on eBay). Played it for my son not long ago -- he's been playing alto for 4 years, just started taking guitar lessons a few months back. He still doesn't understand why no one at his school knows any of the music that gets played in our house... We've been listening to a lot of Mwandishi-era Herbie Hancock lately. Training him to appreciate Fender Rhodes and bass clarinet!

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  4. Translation to above comment: Article very good ~ thanks!! …

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