“GIVE ME AN A!!!!!” - A Beginning Pathway Towards Improvisation
Give me an A!!!! Give me an E!!! Now go to Bb – Oh yes and by the way make them musical notes, and at whatever length you want! – What am I talking about? - ‘The Art Of Improvisation’ – to quote the title of my book with play-a-long CD about this very subject. Improvisation…..
Hello readers. I have been away from my desk for a lot of this year, so I am very happy to be writing for you all again. I have had the pleasure of working on a couple of films, which we shot in the beautiful South Island of New Zealand. I saw and experienced some beautiful things, which inspired me to end up composing some music I am proud of. Meantime, Mary, our great editor-leader has asked me to write about Improvisation – and “How To do it – think from the beginnings….. How did you start Michelle?”
Actually I would answer back “It’s all about the approach”. Mary, I think you mentioned that many people from a classical learning background have difficulty with this area of music, and some people even fear this subject. I believe some international music examination houses even require Improvisation to be part of the curriculum, and this apparently terrifies some people – both teachers and students. SO – my aims are to eliminate this fear, and to offer and give some helpful suggestions.
What is Improvisation?
For me, it is about playing notes on my instrument, with what ever I have in either my hands, or using my voice, and creating music with notes I make up. In the end I guess one can call this composing. And the other approach is to be playing a tune, any melody from any piece of music – classical, blues, pop, rock – whatever - and ‘mucking’ with it.
Okay so what is the magic formula? And how did I start?
Well, my story is simple. Before the days of television, we would have family sing-alongs. Our family was not really gifted with instruments, but most of us had a voice. There would be times we would sing together, and we would harmonise. Be it the Celtic in our blood maybe – (Irish and Scottish), but we were all able to choose notes within the tune of the song and create chords – basic harmony. As an adult, I have studied Non-Western Music, and have noted most cultures have this gift.
My history continues very simply – I always wanted to play the flute – fast forward to when I had my first - albeit a broken down one from the school I attended - at the age of thirteen. At about the same time I discovered a Jazz Flute Player called Herbie Mann, and bought my first album by him.
One night I was in the lounge by myself, listening to this record on our old Gramophone. (I may have written about this story before but never mind – it was a life changing moment). One of the tracks Herbie was playing was the old gospel song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”. He started with the tune and then – after the first verse, which he performed with a lot of Rubato, he went into a ‘Groove’ – he just “let rip”. I listened – stunned – and I then thought – “I can do that!!!!”
So I did...
HOW did I know what to do?
As I suggested, I guess the path had been set for me by our family vocal sessions. Start with a tune and then divert from the actual melody note, but work within the harmonic and rhythmic structures.
Think of a note – and hear it in your head. As I said – Give me an A - play it as a Semi-tone – and hold it with a pause over it. Then play it as a couple of minims. Experiment with both the tones and volumes you are using. Then play it as crotchets – and then quavers, and then semi-quavers. Remember I said start with an A – but - you could move to any note and do the same exercise.
Okay – so what we have been doing, or rather playing, is a bunch of A’s .
Now let’s focus on a tune we all know. I think many of us started playing flute with the book “Tune A Day”. In that book are many simple tunes in the Key of G. Funnily enough the track I was initially inspired by - “Swing Low…” was in G. It is a very good key to work with, in my opinion, when starting out. So is A Minor.
I am sure we all played ‘Frère Jacques’ and ‘London’s Burning’, when we were beginners. So let’s think again as beginners. – Frère Jacques starts with 3 notes ascending and then back to the root note – twice. Then the tune continues up the scale – see below – this particular version is in the key of F.
Okay – so look at the tune – hum it to yourself, and while humming it in your head play it and other notes around it. See the following of a quick little ditty I wrote as an improvisation to a verse of Frère J.
And there you go.
Oh yes, and the other thing about improvising is to play your creation in other keys. Walk away from the music and play your version of Frère Jacques in Bb, or G or E. Remember, The Art Of Improvisation comes from practicing scales and getting comfortable with your instrument in all keys.
Good luck and enjoy yourself. More next time on this subject.