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I always say swing is willful participation, with style, and groove. Now, if you don’t want to participate [there’s nothing it can do].  I mean, It’s not gonna make you participate. If you listen to it and say, “oh that’s noise, I don’t want to participate in it”--but if you check it out, if you listen to it, if you listen to what the musicians are saying,  then it will invite you in to it. It’s not tellin’ you stay away, it’s tellin’ you come in, come in.

--Wynton Marsalis (Ken Burn's "Jazz: The Velocity of Swing”)

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'provisional syllabus'

1 improvising plain chant
2 plain chant with drone
3 a drone with a fifth
4 two part counterpoint
5 in three parts
6 hymns --melody alone
7 hymns--elaboration of melody
8 Instant Toccata

9 Theme and Variations
10 simple but effective tricks
11 (extending) deliberately dumb ideas
12 have you tried....?
13 memory and improvisation

 Improvisation Corner columns

The following is a series of aids to beginning improvisation (aimed mainly at church musicians, and largely for 'traditional' organists, pianists, etc., although there are some overlaps with concepts discussed in some of the praise band-related articles on improvisation on the Godmusic home page. I consider it a beta version for the moment; later on I'll add some audio files with examples, and probably rework things as needed. The biggest obstacle here seems to be lack of contact with the 'student,' so any feedback would be appreciated. (michael@pianonoise.com) Thanks! And enjoy.

Improvisation corner #1 (9/1/11)

Improvising plain chant

Many musicians think that organ or piano music in church is all about taking a hymn and arranging it somehow. In which case, we are going to start in what seems to be a strange place: making up your own tune. If you are familiar with plain-chant (if you aren’t, think of medieval monks, or go find some on Youtube) you will have noticed just how effective a single-note melody can be. And that’s just what this is. One note at a time, nothing else. I’m inviting you to put your thumb on some white key (you may want to avoid B), spread your digits out into a 5-finger position (one per white note, for example, c-d-e-f-g) and create a moderately paced, a-rhythmic tune (meaning all notes are the same length, more or less).

A few guides: This will work better at the organ than the piano (it’s more effective on a sustaining instrument). Once you’ve chosen an opening note, go up to the very next one, or down to the very next one, or repeat the same note. There should be very little jumping around (up 2 or 3 notes, for example. You might want to introduce a leap here or there for variety, but it won’t sound very authentic if you do it very often). After a handful of notes (vary the number), pause briefly. Make the last note of each phrase a little bit longer than the others. Again, listen to the monks do it. You’ll get the idea.

More hints: musical ‘gravity’ is formed by having a central pitch---a keynote. Your thumb rests on the one you’ve chosen. Experiment with having phrases that end (close) on that pitch of ‘finality’ and those that do not. However, modern music theory didn’t exist at this point, so don’t try to make the notes do what your 21st ears tell you too exactly—be open to things that sound a little strange. But above all—listen to yourself! Notice what you like and what you don't. See if you can repeat any of it.

Between now and the next Improvisation Corner (in two or three weeks), try this exercise about 10 times for a couple of minutes each time you do it (for example, whenever you first sit down to practice).


Improvisation corner #2 (9/28/11)  

improvising plain chant: part two

We’re not going to add very much to what we did the last time. But notice how sometimes a very small change can be very effective. This week I want you to add a drone. If your right hand thumb rested, say, on an A, then put your foot (or your left hand) on an A an octave or two lower and leave it there for the entire improvisation.

Another thing I’d like you to try is to add a note (or two) to the right hand’s melodic range immediately below your thumb note. You can also expand the upper range, going as high as an octave from where you began (say, A to A).

Don't worry about whether the results sound 'good.' The first barrier students often encounter is that they become very self-conscious about what they are doing right from the start, and this keeps them from continuing to learn and to grow. Remember, no one is listening, and not everything you (or I, or anyone else) make up will please you. Listen and learn. Keep searching around until you play a short phrase you like. That will inspire you to go on. Also, if you like what you did, repeat it—whether it is the last three notes, or the whole phrase.

And while you are at it, relax and enjoy the sounds! Plainchant can be very stress-releasing and meditative.


Improvisation corner #3 (10/16/11)  

improvising plain chant: part three

This is our last exercise involving plain chant for a while. And the only new thing I want you to do at first is to add a fifth to the drone you were using last time. In other words, if you were improvising with your right hand thumb on a A, your left hand would be playing an A on octave below it. Add an E to that. You are now playing the interval of a fifth.

A student observed to me the other week the difference between having this continuous harmony sounding beneath the melody notes and just having the chant without a drone. In the case of no accompanying harmony, we are pretty free to end up wherever we want to at the end of a phrase. But add a drone, and it feels as if there is now a center of musical gravity toward which that phrase must go. The concept of resting, finality, and relative importance of some pitches over others seems to enter the picture at this point. With a two-note drone, the effect is even more pronounced.

Basically, you are reliving musical history. From about the 10th century onward, these innovations gradually (and I mean gradually) crept into music. It is hard for our ears (or our minds) to appreciate how folks would have heard things then, or to understand how they thought about them (and I'm certainly no expert in this area). But it does give us some useful approaches for diving in and experiencing melodic creation without a lot of advance knowledge. Someone once sound the best way to learn conducting is to do it, and I'm going to apply the same thing to improvisation. The only way to learn it is to do it--a lot. Do discriminate between what you like and what you don't, but don't stop playing because you 'can't think of anything good.' Often a mundane music thought can be made into a good one with just the subtlest touch. Stick with it.

As you get used to this method of making music, I want you to try a few things:
--see if you can play the same phrase twice. This requires, not just making something up, but instantly recalling what you made up so you can do it again. In the case of a short phrase, it shouldn't be all that hard. And, you'll need this skill for later, believe me!
--try 'answering' your phrases, not simply by repeating them, but by starting a note higher and playing them again (sequence). Or try playing them upside down, or backwards!
--see if you can sculpt a phrase so that, instead of simply wandering up and down, the music gradually moves higher or lower over the course of several phrases. One way to regulate this is to start a phrase on a higher (or lower) note each time, and to limit the range of a phrase or two so they don't all use every note within range.
--turn off the drone (whew!) Now that you have your left hand free, use it to imitate what the right hand is doing. Alternate phrases between your right hand and your left hand. Things are starting to get interesting!


Improvisation corner #4 (11/3/11)  
two-part counterpoint

If you are wondering when the hymn-tune arranging part comes in, just give it a couple of weeks. While for many Christian pianists that is the whole point behind improvising, I'm actually trying to do something a bit more difficult--and broader--than that. One of these major principles is to use your ear; the other is to be able to 'speak' music without having to use a pre-existing melody, like a hymn tune. But we'll spend plenty of time talking about harmonization and arranging, and playing lead sheets, when we get there. For now, the idea is to build off of that experience you had simply jumping into the pool (of improvisation) and swimming around, by adding another voice.

I want you to start by playing two notes a fifth apart (for example, C and the G above it, or D and the A above it, and so on). Now move one note at a time (slowly). You can move either the lower note or the upper note, but not both. And don't move the note more than a couple of notes away from where it was (a leap) and don't do that very often (much like when you did plainchant, above). As you play the notes, try saying the name of the interval. (counting the bottom note as 1, the distance to the top note is the interval; thus C to E is a 3rd. C to F is a 4th). The reason for this is to listen to the sounds of the intervals and experience their unique qualities. The other reason is that if you move one of the notes to a combination that is unpleasant, you'll be able to note which ones. Unlike in the previous sessions, you now have the ability to play some fairly unpleasant combined sounds; the trick is not (necessarily) to avoid them in the first place so much as it is to know how to resolve the conflict smoothly. This is a major concept in most Western music of the last several centuries, but many people don't notice until they have to create music themselves, any more than you spend much time thinking about how to put words together until you have to do it in a foreign language, or take a writing course. So if you find yourself playing two notes that don't sound good together, dare yourself to stay on them long enough to make it obvious (in other words, don't bail out at the first sign of trouble), and then decide which note you are going to move, and in which direction, to find your way back to something you'd enjoy hearing. If this seems a bit vague, it is deliberately so. This is not meant to be a series of simple formulas you can plug in to get prefabricated results (although we'll get around to that too), it is a chance for you to discover your own creative ability. And you have one, trust me. It may not be in league with your favorite composer, but you have one. If you can carry on a conversation in English, you know how to use rules to make something up on the spot. But with music, it will take time to develop. And today we are developing the ear most strongly. When I improvise, I usually can hear what I am about to play. So listen to what you are playing, experience the tension and the relaxation in the various combinations (intervals) of sound, and begin to get a sense for what interests you. The "grammar" rules will come later!


Improvisation corner #5 (11/30/11)  

in three parts

Before we take a turn into more familiar territory, I'd like you to try one fairly difficult thing. You've improvised in two parts, now I'd like you to try it in three. Take an opening chord, like C-E-G, (you can split it among your two hands however you'd like) and slowly change one of the notes at a time. Spend some time listening to the new chord before going on. For this exercise, don't worry about what label to put on any of those chords. For example, if you start by moving the top note up a step so you are now playing C-E-A, I don't want you thinking about how you are playing an "a minor" chord in first inversion, unless you just can't help it because you are so fluent in theory it just happens. Rather, I want you to simply approach the chords as interesting sounds. Later on we will discuss things from a theory perspective and then I'd like you to experience the shock of recognition that comes to a native English speaker who is learning grammar for the first time: it is something new, and yet you realize that you really know it already because you have been using the language since birth even if you didn't know what a noun was. Since many of us learn about music solely through abstract principles and rules without ever just sitting down and experiencing sounds like a composer (many of whom have had some nasty things to say about theory) I'm hoping you'll do that. In other words, you are experiencing harmony as a raw, unfiltered thing. That is all the guidance I'll give, except that if you are familiar with Bach's Prelude in C which opens the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, after you have spent several days doing this exercise, get it out, and play it. Then try blocking the chords--in other words, play the first five notes of each measure at the same time to produce one solid chord. Do this all the way through the piece. Does it strike you that in some ways Bach was doing the same thing you've been doing this week, only in five parts (Bach the overachiever!)? This is the power of harmony, for those who are affected by it.


Improvisation corner #6 (12/20/11)  

Working with hymn tunes--melody (part one)

So far we haven't been doing any work with any written notes (congratulations!). This time, we're going to head for more familiar territory and finally crack open a hymn book* (whew!). One of the difficulties I've encountered with students, oddly enough, is that it is impossible for them not to play the notes, all the notes, and only the notes on the page. I'm going to try to get you to break your oath to written notes today, and I'm going to do it in the simplest way possible. Instead of adding notes, I'm going to take some away.

Just play the melody. No kidding. Ignore the other three parts. Take your favorite hymns, or just go through the book, and only play the tune. If you've never done this before, you may have a rough time ignoring the other parts, and even feel like you are transgressing somehow, so I wanted to give you a chance to get used to the idea. If you find this is not such a struggle, then you'll have to wait until next time to be really challenged. But in the meantime, here are some other things you can do:

play just the bass. Or just the alto. Or just the tenor.

Or try the tenor in octaves. Or--hey, why not?--The melody in octaves. In the bass! Or play the bass in the treble! Woah! That's crazy talk! Let's not get carried away here!

When I play a hymn during a service, I rarely play only or all the notes I see on the page. I might do that for a verse or two, but I usually add things, subtract things, change things, for variety, for support, to let the choir and congregation shine when they can, and to help when they need it, and for a lot of other reasons. The notes I see function more like suggestions than ironclad mandates. And my point here is to help you to see them this way, too: to have a more permeable boundary between the seen and the unseen, between the notes as they are given and the notes you decide to play by creative choice. Start to have a conversation with what you see on the page. Start talking back! Next time, we'll start adding notes of our own.

*note: I'm assuming a 'traditional' hymnal with four-part harmonizations of hymns.


Improvisation corner #7 (1/17/12)  

working with hymn tunes--melody (part two: elaborating the melody)

Improvisers don't just get their ideas from outer space; sometimes a great deal of what they do is a reworking of something else--variations on a tune, expounding on a musical riff they picked up somewhere; an idea from another piece of music (perhaps in the same service) with a new bent, an attempt to dramatize a story or poem or paint a picture, or just to make something more interesting or put it in their own musical language.

So today we start to alter things that already exist. In this case, taking a familiar hymn tune. Do you know any so well you can play them from memory? If not, spoiler alert, I'm going to start suggesting you do things like that. Just taking the melody line of a favorite hymn is a good place to start--it's short, you know how it goes already, you just need to transfer that information into your fingers and be able to play it without looking at the hymnal. If it takes a few days, let it. Then come back. I'll still be here.

Ok. We've got a tune. Now we're going to change it. Not radically--we're going to add ornaments to it. Consider the tune an outline, and you are going to embellish it a bit. If you are the type who thinks you're not creative, and can't do this, I'm going to come as close to giving you a simple formula as I can without actually telling you what to do in measure four.

Three things:

If you see un upward skip in your melody somewhere, say from an E to a G, fill in that space with an F. In other words, suppose you have a quarter note E followed by a quarter note G, play two eighth notes in place of the first quarter note so that you are playing the E and the F like a pair of eighth notes on the first beat, followed by the G as it appears in the music.

Step two. If you see a downward skip, do the same thing as in the above paragraph, but in reverse (G to E becomes G-F-E)

Step three. If you see a repeated note, add either an upper note, or a lower note in between the two. In other words, D to D becomes D-C-D, or D-E-D.

These are fairly basic, and really, there are several other things you could do, such as:
repeat a note extra times in some sort of peppy rhythmic gesture
trill on a note
add several notes above or below the one you are on, making sure to arrive at the next note on time, or
   don't--that is, don't worry about sticking to every note in the melody; a few of them might actually be replaced with your ornamental notes. If you do this frequently enough, the original tune will start to become unrecognizable, but you may have created a new tune.

We'll be doing more with this in the weeks to come. Remember, you are still playing a single note at a time with only one hand (although, if you feel like adding a drone or something for harmonic interest, I won't stop you). Something else that we will be doing over the next several weeks is getting to know every key from the inside out. Instead of simply playing a D major scale, or a Bb major scale, you will begin playing around making tunes in those keys so your hand really gets comfortable with how they feel, and how to 'think' in those keys on the fly. This will take some time (I'm thinking of trying a key a week, and going in circle of fifths order). If you find your inability to do this right now is interfering with your being able to add notes to tunes in the current lesson, try picking a tune in C major so you don't have to think about which notes have to be sharped or flatted. We'll be getting to that over time.

Have fun.

have a listen.


Improvisation corner #8 (2/10/12)  

Instant Toccata

If you've made it this far, congratulations! Being able to stick with learning anything for an extended period of time is too big a challenge for many of us, and the lure of instant results gets in the way of real, sustained progress because people think that if they can't play up a storm right away it's just not worth it. All of those single-note melodies and slow moving chord progressions just aren't that flashy.

Well, surprise! This time you're going to learn to create an entire piece of music in about five minutes. And it will probably sound about as good as much of the music that comes out of a lot of those church organ magazines or collections of organ pieces from the church publishing houses. Which means that if you learn to do this sort of thing well you will save a lot of money and practice time. It also means, incidentally, that there are a lot of people making money writing out things that are not that hard for people to make up for themselves. Your congregation may well be impressed, and you ought to be proud of yourself. But it's not like you are going to climb Mount Everest. This is only lesson #8!

So here's the deal. We're going to take the hymn "O, for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" because it works particularly well for this sort of thing. First play the hymn tune alone. It's in the key of G in our hymnals, so next, I want you to play it in the key of C. (which means you start on a G). This will actually make the rest of the procedure easier, and, incidentally, get you to transpose a little.

Next, we take a pattern of 4 sixteenth notes , say G-down to D-C-D_back up to G (although you can make up others) and repeat that pattern over and over. Now you are going to play the hymn tune in the left hand and the repeated pattern in your right.

Cool, huh?

Unfortunately, that only took about 20 seconds. So what do we do next. Here are some possibilities for the next verse:

Flip the hands around. Play the hymn in the right and and upside down version of the pattern
(example) in your left.

What next? How about one of the following:

Add a drone (note: you can do this by strategically stomping on a low C in the pedal at various times throughout the piece for a little thunder).

Play the
melody with ornaments as we did in lesson #7.

Play just the
outside voices (soprano and bass) as shown in the hymnal.

Play harmonies to go with the melody, for instance, follow the melody up and down in thirds.
(example) This can be done in both hands for more sound, and moving in the same direction is always easier than going in different directions. You don't really need to think about what the names of the chords are; just do it. It's not as hard as you think.

After a few verses, you may want some relief from the tune. Here's a simple way to make a short transition section: take the third phrase (G-G-E-E-C-C-A-A) and make a short sequence out of it. This means you will first play just what I've shown you, and then repeat it starting a note lower (or higher) as in (F-F-D-D-B-B-G-G), then repeat again starting the chain a note lower again (start on a E) and then once more on a D. Then you can tack on the last phrase of the hymn, and go straight into the last section, which I would make identically to the first thing you did with the patterns in one hand and the tune in the other to give balance to the piece and a sense of purpose. Otherwise your efforts might sound like somebody who didn't really know where they were going. Improvisation done well does not sound aimless; it is really a high compliment if your congregation can't tell whether you are making it up or playing something that has been written down from memory.

Some other hymns you can try:
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty (D-B-G-F#-G-B) 5 notes to a beat pattern
All Creatures of our God and King (F#-G-F#-D-B-D) 6 notes to a beat pattern; or BG-GD-GD-BG (4 note pattern)
Lord of the Dance, with a dominant trill throughout