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.

A vital part of learning improv: Slow down!

The dominant culture of classical music has recently rediscovered improv after having banished it for the past 100 years or so. It’s going by fits and starts, but it’s starting to be recognized as important — in my opinion, far more important that winning competitions playing other people’s music more quickly and with less error than the other kid.

But there are still a lot of strange beliefs about improv floating around, and I either would like to dispel them, or else simply add mine to the mix, which is usually how this sort of thing turns out. It’s sort of like how software and hardware companies always respond to the proliferation of standards by publishing another standard.

What makes improv so hard (for me)?

Okay, so when I talk, I don’t need to stop and think, “Hold on, how do I make an /h/ again … ?” before I say, “Hello.” If I had to, I’d probably never manage to get an idea out, because my thoughts of meaning and what message I want to say would constantly be getting interrupted by thoughts of how to hold my mouth to make a certain sound.

This is why you need to know your instrument cold. This is why you need endless amounts of technique, so the physical nature of the device isn’t an obstacle between you and whatever it is you want to say.

This means you need years of technical training.

But that very need will get in the way of your ability to improv if you aren’t careful. In order to improv, you need fabulous chops, but the relentless process of chopification may tense you up to the point where it’s hard to let go.

You need to do a sort of 80/20 thing where for 80% of your practice time, you work on the technical junk and for 20% of the time, you just let yourself noodle around. Teachers must reinforce this. If they can’t do it themselves, then they need to learn how or else partner with someone who can, because training little primates to win competitions playing other people’s music is not the way forward. If they refuse to do it because they believe that learning to get your trill 17.4% faster is more important, get another teacher. Never fail to end a practice session with at least 10 minutes of fun and aimless noodling without sheet music, just to see what sounds come out. Pretend you’re humming to yourself. (And by the way, hum to yourself even when you aren’t at your instrument.)

Okay. On to the next obstacle to improv, once again related to the fact that I don’t have to stop and think about how to make a /b/ before saying “before.”

Suppose I did. Suppose I had to stop and deduce my way to making a /b/ sound, and by mistake a /d/ sound came out. How many words do you think I’d manage to choke out before getting totally off track because that /d/ was drowning out the /b/ I was hearing in my head? The really annoying thing is that I could probably hear what I wanted to say in my head quite nicely as long as I stayed silent, just as I can hum a very nice melody to myself but still have to go very slow and pick it out on the piano, and not without errors.

When you are still in pursuit of the ability to improv, and you aren’t there yet (as I’m not), the sound of the instrument will drown out the sound in your mind. And I’m not a fan of the “who cares, bump, scratch, and fart on your instrument and call it improv” business. I can hear much, much nicer things in my head than random noise. I want my improv to be that, not random pounding. Improvisational speech isn’t burping and lip bibbles, it’s words.

But when you are still getting in touch with how to get the sound out of yourself and onto the keyboard smoothly, the inevitable goof-ups and discrepancies in the PEBCAK area will trip you up. The sound of the instrument will drown out the sound in your head.

And I’m getting the feeling that the solution to this, as is the case with every other musical challenge, is simply to go slow. I really do think that slow practice solves many more problems than we think. If you want to learn to improv, slow down! Gradually, you’ll be able to move more and more quickly, but at first, just hear a melody and/or chord progression in your head, and run through it very, very slowly in your mind. Slow down not just your playing, but your mind in reeling out the silent improv it’s generating in the first place.

So first, get very, very, very good in your instrument. Second, always reserve time at the end of every practice session for improv. Third, slow down.

Okay, fourth: be patient.

Defending the idea of “wrong” in improv: speaking off the cuff versus babbling nonsensically

Just a little development of the idea of improvving as “speaking off the cuff” on one’s instrument. I wanted to revisit this only because it flies in the face of a lot of what people tend to think of as improv, meaning just babbling and not “worrying” about how it’s coming out.

I do think that this approach is probably needed for the generations of trained musicians who were probably made to fear mistakes like they fear death. Not concerning oneself with how it’s turning out is probably a necessary stepping stone to loosening up … but to me in fact, there is a sense of wanting it to come out right.

“Improv” to me means speaking off the cuff in a meaningful and comprehensible way, not just babbling nonsense and not sweating that it’s nonsense. There is definitely such a thing as good improv. Montero proves that; she is an extemporaneous orator on the piano.

Speaking casually doesn’t mean making a fart noise and a lip bibble. Nor does typing casually; I’m thinking a bit before saying what I’m saying, but I’m not really doing any nitpicking cogitation. Most of these thoughts are things I’ve already mulled on, so they aren’t even really off the cuff in a strict sense. (And Montero has said that her brain cranks out improv 24/7, so she is also ruminating all the time as well, only she does it musically. I’m not saying that she’s thought out everything beforehand — but I am saying that when you think about something all the time, it’s easier to toss something off in real time.) Speaking casually means not freaking out as much over grammar as one might if one were writing.

Generally though, a good and persuasive speaker who can string together ideas well is also familiar with proper grammar. I’ve known no people who are flat ignorant of grammar who are not also ignorant of how to construct an argument or even a story. Similarly, most improv artists also have a very, very good sense (either explicitly learned or picked up on their own) of what makes a good piece of music. Montero might not have studied music theory in a classroom, but her pieces move around in the I-IV-I-V-I-iii-ii-V-I universe very neatly. Clearly, her nonstop ruminations have given her an excellent intuitive sense of music theory and the structure of a good piece.

Anyhow, there is a difference between getting the ideas in my head out of my head and into the air with a decent sense of accuracy, and just making random clunk noises and calling it art. I really do aspire to the first. The second may foster an attitude that releases tension, but it’s not my endpoint. What I want to do is to go slowly enough that I develop a good sense of where to reach, and stop having the noise that the instrument is making drown out the noise I’m hearing privately in my head.

Not casting around haphazardly for the key that corresponds to the noise I’m hearing — not having to stop and work at making a B, as I said before — will help with that, because then, the noise from the piano can start reinforcing what I’m hearing in my head rather than dragging it off course.

Some discussion of improv — what it is, how to approach it

Enjoyed it. It’s a nice way to clear out the cobwebs, and especially when done v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, I find it’s easier to predict and follow my ear. Not infallible, but better.

Improv is so strange. I know and can hear things in my head that are very hard to translate to the instrument. It’s as if, every single time I wanted to say something extemporaneous, I had to stop and rethink, “Okay, how do I make a B again?” And that stopping-and-thinking process interrupts the flow of the speech. It’s hard to get up momentum and just let the sound ride on itself if I’m always stopping and having to think, “How do I make this sound again?” And I don’t want to do that crapo faux-improv junk when people just sort of make random cacophonous garbage without “worrying” what it’s turning out like. I can hear specific stuff in my head. I’d like to be able to speak it clearly and well off the cuff. I suppose this is why it’s useful for composers to hum to ourselves; you generally can make a sound with your throat as you hear it in your mind, although it’s still not guaranteed. And many sounds one can get out of an instrument one hasn’t a prayer of getting out of one’s throat, either because they are out of range or just far, far too fast.

I can hear something in my head, often a very complex melodic/harmonic construct, and have a hard time getting it onto the piano only because I don’t hear a sound in my head followed by my finger reaching invariably for the right key. This is not a function of “perfect pitch,” I think. Relative pitch is fine for this sort of thing, and most people turn perfect pitch into a stone idol before which they debase themselves. (Well that, and that no two people can even agree on what the hell “perfect pitch” even is.)

Hearing a sound in my head and just having my finger reach for the right key is similar to thinking the word “but” and having my lips just make the right shape for the B. If I had to stop and think before doing either, I’d never be able to speak although I might be able to write, painfully, and slowly.

This is the state I and most musicians are in when it comes to composing.

And I’ve found that going very slowly — not herky-jerky one-note-then-cogitation-then-a-second-note, but simply a slow-motion sort of one chord at a time type thing, like slow practice — helps. I can reach and find the right chord much more accurately. Without that very slow-motion play, I can hear an F in my head and reach for the Eb. I might even hit the F accurately, but then my left hand goes for an FM shape, when it’s actually a BbM chord.

This is another reason why it’s so much easier to improv and noodle on that damned viola. One note at a time is much, much easier. I can just play that F and let the ear of the listener fill the correct chord in without having to define it. I think it’s also easier because, on the piano, the location of each note is sort of removed from the physics of the sound itself. You could, if you wanted to, put the notes on a piano in any order, really. But on a viola, their spatial relationship to one another is exactly the same as their relationship in the ear. I think it’s more intuitive to reach 2/3 of the way up a string to make a fifth then to reach across the arbitrary width of a couple piano keys to do the same thing. I’m not sure, though. It seems that way to me.

Anyway, that slow-motion practice thing seems to help for improv because it lets me really pay attention to what my mind is hearing, instead of trying to reach for the corresponding keys and having that (probably wrong) sound drown out what’s playing in my head. I think I’ll stick with it for a bit and see how things end up turning out. I’m just not in a mood for anything else anyhow, and this is enjoyable.


What the hell am I doing in Dorian?

And so much for noodles. All I have to do is sniff out one interesting idea, and I get completely obsessed with running it to ground, and eff the noodles.

(I think. I think I’m in Dorian. I don’t even know! And why is an Ab sneaking in there?)

Noodles for breakfast

So I improv way better in the morning. I guess that makes some form of sense. In sleep, the mind softens and gets a little more malleable around the margins. That makes it easier for it to assume a new shape upon wakening, before daily experience and habit cause it to solidify into a familiar shape again.

I’m wondering if I can — meaning, if I would be willing to — get up a titch earlier in the mornings and just do a little free association on the thing before going to work. I love sleep. I mean, I seriously love it. I need to find out if I’m willing to forgo even a half-hour of sleep in the mornings to sit at Sweetums and poke around. I haven’t even hooked the speakers that came with it up yet, so it’s headphones-only for now; no one need be disturbed. And since I love sleep … well, we’ll see how dedicated I am to this.

If I’m unable or unwilling to drag my lazy ass out of bed to do this, it will be a weekend experiment, and take much longer. If I’m not a total slob in the morning (and I wouldn’t bet the retirement on it), then I’ll give it a pop.

So the Noodle Incident has decamped …

… and attached itself to the Monster, see below:

A plate of noodles

I’m not sure why, whether it’s because I have no perfectionism on this instrument, because it’s sustaining, because of the inherent lightness of the keys, or something else entirely, or all of the above in some linear or nonlinear combination. I just know I am having fun improvving on this thing, and that I can see myself doing this for some time, possibly long enough and intensely enough to become good at it.

I’m not including pedalwork yet, though. I have no pedal technique and will probably have to just woodshed at it (and some finger technique as well, since the thing does work differently in many ways than a piano). Before I gain pedal technique, I can’t use them in the improvisations I’m churning out.

However, once I do gain some thoughtless ability on the pedals, I look forward to adding it in.

I don’t want to keep calling it the Monster, by the way. “Tiny” is a possibility, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I’m going to have to mull this. It may not need a name; I’ve never felt the need to name a piano. Maybe Sweetums, like that gigantic monster-Muppet.

Various and sundry

1) The individual finger-sustains are slightly easier now since I had a minor revelation that I needed to think of them as a succession of multi-finger configurations, and not just a single still 4th finger, and the others moving. So it’s not steady 4, with 2-3-2-3-5-1-5-1 but 4/2, 4/3, 4/2, 4/3, 4/5, 4/1, 4/5, 4/1. Don’t know how else to explain that, but there you have it.

2) The five-sharp thing continues to progress technically, even if I can’t figure out where it’s headed. This has been a harder one since, similar to that C#m thing I mothballed, I don’t know where it’s headed going into it. It’s so hard to write things when you don’t know where you’re headed. I do adore this piece, but I think I’m going to have to figure out an endpoint before I keep going, or else I won’t know when I get there. The only reason I escaped that requirement for the CM canon-y thing was because … well, I knew it was a canon-y thing. I knew it would just go around and around until I got tired of it, adding complexity and then peeling it away. Which happened. I had a map in mind, even if I didn’t have a coda in mind.

And the organ continues to be facilitative of improv, which is a lot of fun. It’s a nice way to unwind for a bit after I’ve focused on those sustaining exercises.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to do this more thoughtlessly, but …

… for now, this thing is really, really, really facilitative of improv. The lightness of the keys, the fact that I have little baggage associated with “getting it right,” and the sustaining quality of it is enormously helpful. You can hit a “wrong” note, and then just flutter around until you realize where you are, and then act all “I meant that.” 🙂

A very large playground

And, wonder of wonders, it has a headphone jack. Heaven. Untrammeled heaven. I’ve got the old stereo speakers that the fellow I bought it from used with it, but I think I can basically get rid of them, because I’m never going to use them. I’d like to wait a few paychecks and then go to the Rodgers showroom out here and pick up a good, small speaker setup for it, with an amp, and get a tech out here to install it and take a look at a few things. One of the Gs in an annoying place is making intermittent contact, and a few of the stop lights are out. Other than that, it’s perfect.

I almost killed the movers, though. They had to take the lid off the top to get it into the apartment. Glad I had a set of screwdrivers. I tipped them heavily.

Best of all, my cat tried to walk over the pedalboard and was unsettled because she couldn’t get her footing. She should be content to leave it alone.

I need to get a set of headphones for just it, with a good bass response. I also need to learn how to pedal the major and minor scales properly.

Asking the wrong question

Can you teach improvisation?”

We’ve spent a century in classical music squelching the ability, and now we’re asking whether it can be “taught?” It would be like going to China back in the day and finding a bunch of footbound matrons, and saying, “We’ll teach them to run!”

You probably wouldn’t be successful.

And yet, you’d be wrong to conclude that running can’t be taught. Or … you’d be right to conclude that it can’t be taught, and wrong to conclude that it can’t be done.

In an ideal world, there would be no need to teach someone to run, because they wouldn’t have had that natural instinct repressed in the first place. Some people would run better than others; we’re not all Jesse Owens. But we can all run, certainly. Even people without legs find ways to move themselves and even climb mountains should the mood strike them. (And many people with two good legs simply don’t find it diverting to do so and don’t bother.)

We’re just looking at this wrong. It’s not a matter of teaching people how to improvise. It’s a matter of getting out of the way of the natural instinct to do so. The issue arises when the virtuoso manipulation of instruments becomes so challenging that kids have to devote all of their time to learning how to manipulate them … to the point where they are told that they shouldn’t “waste time” on improvising and instead have to practice Hanon over and over.

I guess it’s another way of looking at the question of whether one can be creative and also master thumb position. Maybe if there were 42 hours in a day (and maybe if the virtuoso demands on classical musicians wouldn’t predictably expand to fill all 42 hours), one could do both. But with the demands of virtuoso recitation swallowing all available time, and with competitions being the gold standard for classically trained musicians, any child who wishes to flex that muscle has to do so against an astonishing headwind. By the time that student reaches middle age, any innate ability has atrophied, and reanimating it becomes a serious challenge — especially if they listen to the many people more than willing to proclaim that it Can’t Be Done. Even Montero’s ability only survived many long years of repression only because she had acquired it so very, very young that it had taken root far too deeply.

There are people around today who have never acquired language, most of them deaf and born in areas of the world where there was no healthy signing Deaf culture to which they could be exposed. Many such people simply do not know what language even is, nor can they conceive of it. Some very few of them can acquire language. Most get a few pantomime signs down. Others never manage it, and go to their graves without acquiring that most basic of human abilities and all of the sharing that accompanies it. Can you imagine dying in old age without even having had one of your questions answered, even something so basic as, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why do tree leaves change color?”

Would you conclude from these people that the ability to speak is something that cannot be taught? That is unnatural for the human mind, with the exception of a very lucky and very few gifted individuals? Of course not. The human brain is in fact wired to acquire speech of some kind, be it signed or spoken. The proper conclusion to reach is that, when people are free and properly nurtured, such things don’t need to be taught.

So the question becomes not whether you can teach improvisation, but how did we get into a situation where we think we need to? Sure, not everyone would be Gabriela Montero or would want to be; lots of people would be much happier chasing Owens down the track, dancing, painting, or otherwise following their own natural appetites. But out of the many people who like music and play instruments, more of us could than couldn’t. If only we’d get out of our own way.