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Topic: "Studies for Improvisation" Project  (Read 2190 times)

Offline bardolph

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"Studies for Improvisation" Project
on: May 04, 2005, 06:54:23 AM
NOW that I've got the filming of "thumb-over" technique launched and in development, I'd like to introduce my next project, which I call...

"Studies for Improvisation"

Background: My real goal with piano is a level of technical skill which will permit me to realize spontaneous musical ideas for the purposes of composition. I feel that an absolutely thorough command of all scales, modes, chords, arpeggios, and all the rest of the fundamental building blocks of Western music will help me achieve my aims; but the classical-performing approach does not include an improvisatory and creative component, as you all know. I therefore began to examine jazz pedagogy, but I have been unable to find what we might call the keyboard composer's equivalent of the Liszt Exercises. (I must admit that so far I have looked at only the tiniest fraction of the literature).

There are exercises and ideas scattered all around, but no really comprehensive single system or method as far as I'm aware. For example, the famous book by Mark Levine, "The Jazz Theory Book", suggest a method of practicing scales whereby one begins on a different note of the scale each time, so as not to become locked into the typical sequence. But that is all. This, for me, is the merest germ of what a complete improvisational, and hence creative and compositional, approach to keyboard study would involve.

It is my dream to create such a method for my own use, but I suffer somewhat from Scatter-Braindom and Lazishness. So I turn to the forum! Already it has proved fruitful with the Thumb-Over question; CC Chang is making video files and I have helped out a little by finding and testing ways to make them as quickly downloadable and easily viewable as possible; so perhaps others who are interested in this composition-improvisation-studies question would care to contribute in like manner?

Offline ted

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #1 on: May 04, 2005, 07:59:33 AM
My real goal with piano is a level of technical skill which will permit me to realize spontaneous musical ideas for the purposes of composition

This puzzles me a bit, Bardolph. I assume that by "technical skill" you mean keyboard vocabulary and not finger dexterity ? Certainly, assimilating keyboard vocabulary is an essential and lifelong process for creating at the piano. However, while this is necessary it is not sufficient - nowhere near sufficient. I know some people with an encyclopaedic command of, say, keyboard harmony who cannot create anything vital of their own. There is something else, amounting to a personal imperative to create. If it's there nothing else matters because other things will be driven by it and if it isn't, all the knowledge in the world will not replace it.

Further, I think to go about things in the way you describe embodies the classic Achilles paradox. Before I can improvise I must learn hundreds of chords and scales. In order to do this I must find a set of "studies" or a "course". Before I do that I must ..... You'll be so busy stopping you'll never start.

Still further, art is by it's nature infinite. To expect any sort of course, Western, Eastern (don't restrict yourself to Western music, by the way, when it comes to improvisation; you'll miss out on a lot of fun if you do) to supply more than a very meagre start is asking the impossible. It's like asking for a formula to express all formulae - doesn't exist - it can't.

What you do is build everything up at once - and nothing short of everything will ever really do. Listen acutely and widely, give everything a hearing, play pieces, get patterns of sound and keyboard into your head  - let's face it, you don't need a chord and scale book to learn all the common chords and scales in all positions - get one if you want to, there are hundreds in the music shops, but they aren't necessary.

You begin improvising right away, using whatever vocabulary you know to express what you feel must come out. It is not a serial or staged process. It is a continuous, organic development over years in which every skill and impulse feeds on every other one. Your classical pieces and formal studies feed your musical feelings which drive your improvisation. Conversely, your expanding keyboard vocabulary feeds your understanding in real time of what Chopin, Beethoven and all those people, olden day and modern, were getting at.

As for the use of improvisation to generate ideas for formal, notated composition, in principle it's very simple but the actual method is personal and has to be tailored to suit your musical personality. Some use "stop/start" improvisation and write brief ideas in sketchbooks. Some repeat the same improvisation, with adjustments, over a period of time until it crystallises into a fixed piece, which they then write out at their leisure (this is my way usually). Still others find the musical content of their playing impossible to write out at all, and leave recordings for others to transcribe, for example Morton.

I can't tell you how to get the underlying drive though. I don't know where that comes from but I don't really think it has a logical basis at all.


 
"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

Offline Nightscape

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #2 on: May 04, 2005, 08:24:27 AM
Ted is right.  If you try and do what you suggest, you will end up with a lot of theoretical knowledge, but will have no idea how to apply that knowledge (and will have wasted so much time assimilating that knowledge).  It is much much better to go about things the opposite way.  First learn how to apply the knowledge you already have to composition and improvisation.... gradually, your own mind(composition) and fingers(improvisation) will naturally branch out and seek out new "basic" materials (harmonies, pitch content) when you have exhausted the possibilities of what you already posess.  This merely requires that you have the capacity to experiment freely at the keyboard - remember, only the ear can spot a wrong note.

In doing this, you will develop your ability to compose and improvise, and simultanously expand your unconscious theoretical knowledge of harmonic vocabulary - it will contain no more or less than what you need at that point in time.

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #3 on: May 04, 2005, 10:20:44 AM
A great improviser has listened to great improvisers over and over and over and over and over again. There is no other trick to it,  improvisation is a matter of ear to hand training, not hand to ear. Which means, you don't try to make things happen by using tools of the hand, instead you make things happen by tools of what you naturally hear from within. This can only come from a lot of listening and playing by ear.
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Offline mound

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #4 on: May 04, 2005, 01:29:50 PM
 Good post Ted.


bardolph -you may want to take a look at Kenny Werner's "Effortless Mastery" as well as "Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art" by Stephen Nakmanavich (sp?)  -  both will help you to realize that to really improvise has little if anything to do with theoretical knowledge, and everything to do with your frame of mind and willingness to trust and let go of yourself.

-Paul

Offline bardolph

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #5 on: May 04, 2005, 02:35:28 PM
These responses are all extremely thought-provoking.....

Offline Derek

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #6 on: May 04, 2005, 02:48:20 PM
As you can see, bardolph, there is no one correct way or method to approach improvisation. I would say I rarely hear things in my head (except recordings of myself which are after the fact), all my music comes in the moment I am hitting keys on the piano. I start with some familiar pattern, and then break it up rhythmically and harmonically, in an almost random process. If an interesting phrase results, I remember what I played and can build upon it. Thats where it is not random. Sometimes I remember these things and can bring them back later in an improvisation. As Ted mentions, sometimes these ideas just "stick" and they start to accumulate into a composition.

My reccommendation if you wish to learn to spontaneously improvise is to start making up short, repeatable riffs in some key or other. I chose quite randomly G# Minor. Then transpose these to other keys or simply make up new riffs in those other keys. Don't expect yourself to spontaneously improvise immediately, you must allow it to come gradually. (on the other hand, you may find you start to do it right away...)

I'd like to add that when I started out, I had similar desire for a method or process by which to learn to improvise. However I've found just by doing it that all my music theory knowledge comes AFTER I've found it improvising.

And finally, it'll make the journey a lot easier if you find each little riff and experiment you do gratifying and satisfying. If you're not having fun---it'll be hard to motivate yourself. I'd say all I know about improvisation came from wanton instant-gratifcation at the piano :-)

Offline ted

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #7 on: May 04, 2005, 08:51:30 PM
Yes, Derek has mentioned the most important and obvious thing which I forgot. Improvisation is pure ecstasy - always - at any level of competence. If there were any struggle or grind about it I would just as soon work in the garden.
"Mistakes are the portals of discovery." - James Joyce

Offline lostinidlewonder

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #8 on: May 04, 2005, 11:37:40 PM
I would say I rarely hear things in my head..... If an interesting phrase results, I remember what I played and can build upon it. Thats where it is not random. Sometimes I remember these things and can bring them back later in an improvisation. As Ted mentions, sometimes these ideas just "stick" and they start to accumulate into a composition.

This process you describe requires close listening to what you are playing. To define an interesting phrase requires you to be able to hear it, the thing is a lot of people can't do this because they think it is completely about what the hands have to do. It isn't the fact, the hands may play randomly on a form, but the ear has to control it. I find giving improv students Cd's from Jazz greats and offering tools for them to reproduce what they are listening to by ear (and alter it to their liking), naturally increases their ability.
"The biggest risk in life is to take no risk at all."
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Offline Derek

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Re: "Studies for Improvisation" Project
Reply #9 on: May 05, 2005, 02:05:01 AM
This process you describe requires close listening to what you are playing. To define an interesting phrase requires you to be able to hear it, the thing is a lot of people can't do this because they think it is completely about what the hands have to do. It isn't the fact, the hands may play randomly on a form, but the ear has to control it. I find giving improv students Cd's from Jazz greats and offering tools for them to reproduce what they are listening to by ear (and alter it to their liking), naturally increases their ability.


I was under the impression you meant that when one improvises one actually "hears" a new phrase before one plays it...thats where I would differ (perhaps you did not mean that)

I do sometimes "anticipate" something before I play it, but I don't hear that anticipated phrase or passage until I play it....

Its really hard to talk about improvisation adequately, I think. Its a very internal, personal process.
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