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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."
July 29, 2010 | Cool sounds with a simple new scale
Scale degrees can be like characters in a drama. Some you feel an affinity with and like, some you'd rather avoid. Some propel the action in the story, and still others will bring a sense of familiarity--completeness and belonging. What's interesting is how they can have a different subjective impact on the audience and our scale degrees have varying personal effects on your ear.
We've mentioned the power of the 4th and 7th, the notion that in a major scale, these lead to the defining notes of the scale, the lead of the 7th to the tonic (1) and the gravitational force of the 4th pulling to the 3rd. The remaining "supporting characters" of the scale can lead you to other notes, especially the chord tones of 1, 3, and 5.
We also mentioned a delicious little scale we call the Augmented 11th, sometimes referred to as the Lydian Dominant. Varying from a Major Scale you get: 1, 2, 3, #4, 5, 6, b7, and 1. Let's look what this does "psychologically" to the music when we play solos based on it.
First of all consider what the lowered 7th (F) does in the key of G. In the key of C, the F would lead to the 3rd scale degree. You could almost say varying the note pushes the sound from the key of G to the key of C.
The raised 4th (C#) could be a leading tone (7) in the key of D. So now combined, you have a G tonal center with a sort of split personality, one that can't decide if it wants to be a C tonal center because of the F natural, or a D tonal center because of the C#.
In the end, the theory really doesn't matter. What's happening is a tense, but fun little sound you can build off of, especially in long passages of dominant chord. Sometimes restlessness and instability is a good thing. Keeps things interesting.
For now, let the personality of the sequence of notes tell its own story. But first, get to know it on your fretboard.
Last week's session was a journey up the fretboard splicing the one octave FFcP patterns. If you've already played through the exercise, you understand that a couple things make this difficult. One is just getting used to a different spacing between the frets as you move the patterns up (the spaces are narrower, in case you haven't notice), and acclimating to the difference takes practice. Still, those scale degree references are invaluable, and with enough drilling, become intuitive.
The second challenge is moving your hands up more than 5 or 6 frets without losing intensity of tone (let alone finger accuracy!). Really, the only way to master this is to isolate the shifts themselves.
We've extracted four measures out of the first key and we encourage you to spend some time on these in the frets and strings they are originally written, and later, move them around, up a string and across to the next string.
Here are some ingredients to think about when you are doing these or any other "home base" shifting:
Lay low. The closer you can keep your finger to the strings during the shift, the more efficient the movement. (Shortest distance between two points is a straight line!) Fight the temptation to lift off the strings. Be stealth.
Move fast. You really have to be consciously rapid when you change positions, even at slow tempos.
Exaggerate the sustain on the note before the shift. This does not usually come naturally, so you have to focus on the last and first note of each position change, keeping the pressure as long as you possible can.
Think where your hands are, not just your fingers. You are fixated on the frets; think big picture and notice your hands and palms, how they line up on the back of the neck.
Don't ignore the pick. All the attention on the fretting fingers can distract from a good clean articulation. Make sure you're getting a strong pick stroke and attack.
This is a lot to think about! If you master shifting at slow tempos, faster speeds will get easier. Take some time in your regular songs and literature to isolate the problematic shifts. It will be time well invested!
Think of what it is to learn to speak a language. We learn the words we need to survive, including words for food and comfort. We start with primal concepts, and then we work our way up to more complex thoughts combining these into nouns and verbs that express actions and more sophisticated needs. we learn phrases and the proper way to string them. Really, we get to the point where it's more about the string than the individual word. We get to where we aren't as conscious about how they are strung, and that frees us up to come up with more descriptive words that pack deeper meaning and communicate exponentially more powerfully. Maybe and occasional grammar correction, but by the time we are adults, we are well established in how we talk and write. It becomes very much unconscious.
Playing an instrument is like this. We learn where the notes are when starting out. Then we learn scales to more effectively string them together. We learn the conventions of major, minor, and other modes, where the half-steps and whole-steps are within the sequence, eventually getting to the point where these are automatic, too. When we tackle higher level improvisation, it's a wonderful combination of intuition and calculation, and tons of blurry stuff in between.
If you've messed around with our FFcP approach to fretboard familiarity, you've started on some building blocks that can bring huge payoffs in the future. Once these are mastered in the resident one-octave format however, it's time to REALLY expose their complex advantage not only in movability, but range. The next step is to do TWO octave scales, and not necessarily in the same area of the fingerboard.
We identify this in a Mandolin Cafe Lesson, as well as in the Getting Into Jazz Mandolin book. The idea is once you've got a basic grip on the four basic FFcP fingerings, it's time to move them around and better, connect them with FFcP patterns up and down the neck.
We've written a great exercise for you to start doing this. It's a good idea to just get these into your fingers, and work on smooth connection, making it sound like the same passage, even with a jump. That's not easy to do effectively, but the more you work at it, the more you'll be able to exploit the entire range of the fretboard. When you've messed around with this a while, try connecting other FFcP patterns, not just the scales but the arpeggios, 3rds, and 4ths while moving them to other regions of the fingerboard. Work on bridging them seamlessly, no detectable bump in sound or sustain when you shift.
July 8, 2010 | Compose yourself. Course correction.
We've gone through our series on intentional improvisation, the first being Antecedent/Consequent thinking, the second Story Arcs, and our final one is probably the least calculating, the most interactive of the three. We've conspired to entice you into "planned spontaneity," thinking structure within freeform. We're going organic.
If anyone has made a career of "mistakes" it is Thelonius Monk. Listen to his playing and his tunes. He made a true art form of playing the "wrong" note, but he always succeeded in making it sound intentional. One could argue whether it is or not, but the beauty is how he follows up the unconventional notes with calculated course corrections. Sometimes we can let the Muse wander and just play anything, as long as we can follow up with the ear (and a little music theory) with notes that put us back on track.
Try it sometime with just one note. Start in the middle of a chord progression with any random note, completely out of nowhere. It's either going to be a "right" note, one that belongs to the scale or chord, or it's going to only be a fret away from the right note. If it isn't right, follow it up with the correction.
Try it with several notes in the same context. If your notes sound intuitively wrong, follow them up with "appropriate" notes that get you back on course. The aesthetic here is allowing your subconscious take over once in a while, getting in touch with your inner Monk (or Jethro) and (only temporarily) turning your frontal lobe off. You can make your follow-up passages with science, or you can just play what your ear dictates is right.
We posted it before, but it's appropriate to embed it in this article, the notion of jazz schools teaching how to play wrong. It's a hoot, because you know it's partially true!
"The fact is, jazz is mistakes. You're playing it wrong...
Jazz is an accident. Waiting to happen. Glad to have happened..."
The second in our series on "intentional" improvisation (Antecedent/Consequence last week) holds interesting concepts parallel to dramatic writing or screenplay, the notion of the Story Arc. Simply put, you start with something serene, introduce chaos, and through the course of the script, bring things to resolution.
Of course within that big picture, you have the more intricate details of subplots and character development, but still the best writers glue all these pieces to a great big mental story board. Boy meets girl, falls in love, has to fight for her attention, boy marries girl. Within that narrative is a myriad of twists and turns, the parents are against the idea, the boy can't shape the emotional baggage and behavior-shaping of a bad childhood, a hurricane threatens to destroy the town. These are all the diversions within the larger whole.
So what elements in music do we have that create similar twists and turns when our soloing needs to recount? When you are building your improv, you can certainly use the components of gravity notes and chord tones for the "subplots" of the music. The 4th and the 7th scale degrees, the surrounding chromatic passing tones leading to chord tones, all the melodic tension we cover in music theory can bring those moments of harmonic drama. This is the "character development" of the line.
Note frequency is something to consider. The worst thing you can do is come out of the gate and immediately unload machine-gun style, all your best rapid-fire licks in the first few phrases of your solo. You need that audience "foreplay" to get them warmed up to your musical ideas, plus you don't want to save your least interesting materials for last. Build by starting with slower notes and lots of Miles Davis inspired space. Save the thick black notes energy for the middle or towards the end of your solo.
Register shifts can be a fresh way to tell a story, and it's very graphical on the fretboard. Sure you want to bounce around the frets, but for heaven's sake, the mandolin can be a very shrill instrument, and dwelling up above the 12th fret can be hard on the ears. Save it for "punctuation," spice, and energy.
Dynamics are a no-brainer. Make your softs softer, your louds louder, and find the colossal range of nuance in everything in between. Remember you draw people in by playing quietly, you pound on them playing loudly. They only want so much decibel abuse and they can start tuning you out. Dynamic variety equals sophistication.
Lastly, use recurring themes and motif tidbits. We mentioned this last week about developing antecedent/consequent phrasing. Start with a simple idea and play with it, a scene and keep coming back to it, develop it. Don't just blow.
Nobody likes a drama queen when she's overly dramatic, unintelligible, and narcissistic. Spin a clear story that works the audience, not just yourself.