Two steps to improv: Nursery rhyme + six notes

Okay, so this isn’t for a piano; there, we have to anticipate the chord changes, which is a pain for improv. Well, for me at least. I can improv on a piano with one hand or the other — melody, or chord changes — but doing both at the same time is just beyond me for the moment.

This is an exercise for single note instruments, on which I can improv even at such a low level of play, mostly because it’s like just using the right hand on a piano. One note at a time is like humming to oneself, a natural way to improv.

However, I know that a lot of people still have problems with it, especially if they formally studied the instrument. That may in fact be part of why I can’t do it on the piano, because I studied it formally. At any rate, if you play a single-note instrument (strings count) and would like to try to develop some ability to improv, I have an idea that seems to do nicely:

  1. Pick a nursery rhyme that you like, or a poem. Be careful not to pick one that has a tune associated with it, like “I’m A Little Teapot,” or else you may try to reproduce that tune. Pick something rhythmic, simple, and that you know by heart. “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is just fine, but just pick anything you know by heart and loved as a child.
  2. Take six notes anywhere on your instrument that you feel most comfortable — the first five notes of a major scale, plus the half-step below the tonic underneath. So if you are on a viola, you might pick the first five notes of D Major, plus the C# underneath. On brass, it would be the base Bb-C-D-Eb-F, and the A underneath the Bb.

So, you have a limited number of six building blocks, and a rhythmic framework that you know by heart. You’re ready to go.

Now, pick up your instrument and begin to recite the poem silently in your mind, and choose from between those six notes only, playing any note one per syllable in the rhythm of the poem. (My favorites are the poems by Eugene Field: “The Sugar-Plum Tree,” “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” and “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat.” I love those.)

Using only those six notes will enable you to sound good — it’s easy to make a simple melody with them, and one that sounds good. Using the poem will keep you from getting lost and give you a good sense of phrasing and rhythm, and natural places to breathe if you’re playing a wind instrument. And using a child’s poem that you love will let you connect with it emotionally free of the perfection that you may have gotten chained to after starting to study your instrument in a serious way. Furthermore, that emotion will come out of the instrument in one way or another.

Just keep at it, go slowly if you feel the need, and slowly introduce new poems. Anything is good — Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot (Prufrock would be great on a french horn, I think), Field, Chaucer. Anything.

Don’t be too anxious to Get Better™ or Gain Ground™. Just let yourself noodle and relax. This makes a nice cool-down after practicing.

So there you go, two ingredients for improv exercises:

  1. Nursery rhyme
    1. One you love and
    2. know by heart
    3. that doesn’t have a tune associated with it, and
  2. Six notes.

Give it a whack.