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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 28, 2011 | Best of JM: Sitting on the edge of their seats
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From September 24, 2009: "Sitting on the edge of their seats"
The teacher walks to the front of her rowdy fifth graders, taking her position silently midst the boisterous pre-teen pandemonium, face assuming a deadpan seriousness, as the ambient noise starts to drop from the air like wounded WWII bombers. One by one, the class members stop their activity and turn their full attention to her, some literally at the edge of their seat in anticipation of her next move.
She has their attention now, and notice she did not fight noise with even louder noise. Her twenty-five plus years experience had taught her early in her career that she could never compete with twenty-four screaming vessels of pre-adolescent hormones. This approach was not only easier on her voice and nerves, it really modeled for her class the sensitivity they would need to absorb the morning and afternoon's pedagogy. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. For her, effectiveness meant it couldn't even be a long series of sprints.
Performing for an audience is like teaching. You need their attention, and though louder/faster/higher certainly is one way of claiming it, the impact is short-lived. A church youth pastor described the phenomenon this way, "I'm continually working with a 'three-worm crowd.' You can eat two worms in front of them, but by the time you chew the third, you've probably already lost their attention." The better way, assuming you really are in an environment to get their interest (certainly in some Bluegrass jams this might be impossible), using sparseness and subtlety in dynamics is a whole lot better way of achieving audience focus. Plus, it's a much better aesthetic experience for both audience AND perfomer.
What are the elements you can use to earn their focus?
Silence: Strategic long rests can be a good thing. Giving the audience a break allows their concentration to regroup, to clean the slate. It's also an effective contrast from the "busy" you will incorporate later. Even midstream "space" gives the mind a chance to absorb all the great things you are playing.
Expression: Dynamics are a good thing. It's easy to go on autopilot and play at the same level of volume, a huge mistake for the novice. Accents, crescendos, sforzandos, all 'em Eye-talian words you learned in elementary school still mean something.
Articulations: Tremolos, hammer-ons, pull-offs, these are all the really cool things you can do with finger and pick to make the music interesting. All downstrokes make for very dull listening. Give it some spice.
In the long run, it's subtlety that commands attention. If you really want your audience to listen, you'll use it!
July 21, 2011 | Best of JM: Improvising: A three-pronged attack
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From April 3, 2008: " Improvising: A three-pronged attack"
Improvised solos can sound marvelously ingenious, or strained and sterile. The very essence of improvisation is freshness and spontaneity, but in order to be "spontaneous," you must be first equipped with the material to begin construction. The ability to play a sequence of notes is certainly a start, but what to do with this sequence is where the rubber meets the road.
We want to propose three different approaches to developing better improvisational skills. Each in their own way are great jumping off points, but the best way to solo will be a combination of each approach. Individually, they contain the components of melodic creation, but only in tandem will they start to sound like music coming out of a mature player.
We will assume you've already dived into the FFcP materials, and have at least a cursory feel for what these exercises do for your fingers and ears. Scales are at the very rudimentary end of nurturing melodic material; hopefully you're already using major and minor scales and modes to improvise. We want to go the next step and not sound like the music is coming out of scales. All of these are previous exercises introduced on the website; now it's up to you to figure out how to work them into a regimen of practice time. Our suggestion is to spend a day or three on one, move to the next for the same period, and move to the third, and rotate them. Work them in different areas of the fretboard, and most importantly, inject them into songs you are already attempting to improvise over. Keep it simple to start; you'll get better and more "subconscious" with their application as you get better.
Guide and Gravity Tones: Introduced in our April 2004 Mandolin sessions article, Critical Decisions in Improvising: 'Gravity' Notes, we uncovered the importance of identifying the "gravity" notes of the scale, the 4th and 7th notes, and the 2nd and 6th--how they pull the music along. Understanding, hearing, and communicating this pull through your improvising gives your melody a harmonic context. It drives the phrase.
Arpeggios: We must think chords as we blow through a solo; we need to "be at one" with the harmonic and vertical construction of the changes to be effective, let alone consistent with the accompaniment. Knowing where the leading tone (7th), the third and emphasizing these important tones is essential. Practicing Arpeggios is a great way to do this so that they become familiar and automatic. We have 4 different versions of 7th chords in our upcoming book, Major, Minor, Dominant, and m6 (half diminished), but until then, try a sample from the Major 7th exercise. You can map out your own for the other chords
Jazz Pentatonics: We've avoid inserting Pentatonics to the end, because so many beginning players overuse and abuse these. You have to understand why they are useful in jazz before diving in, or you never get to use them to their potential, especially if you don't have them cold in all 12 keys. There is a strong foundation here, with the root, third, fifth all so apparent, a couple of benign passing tones added. Read our thoughts on Jazzed Pentatonics and some of the jazz specific uses available. Then dig in and learn them in all 12 keys and up the fretboard.
July 14, 2011 | Best of JM: Ensemble Sensitivity; Corps playing
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From March 19, 2009: "Ensemble Sensitivity; Corps playing"
Anyone who ever played in a garage band, church praise team, high school choir, or community jam can tell you about the woes of playing with others. The good news: you get to play with other humans. The bad news: you have to play with other humans.
There are some guiding principles to effective ensemble playing and we want to offer our personal list of five. You go into a group aware of these strategies and intrapersonal dynamics, and you have a far better chance of not only keeping the group alive, you'll actually enjoy yourself.
A good corps member takes his/her turn. In street basketball, there's nothing worse than a ball hog. Sure you want your team to score lots of points, but where's the fun if it's just one "athlete" taking shots at the basket. Soloing is no different. You have your moment in the sun, and prepare yourself to lay back and support the next soloist. Enjoy your own playing, and take the time to bask in what your other ensemble members are doing.
A good corps member values silence as much as sound. Sometimes it's about laying back to support, but often it's a matter of laying out. You don't have to play all the time, and it's the surrounding moments of silence that can make your playing special to the collective ear of the audience. It can mean laying out several choruses and changing the texture of the music. It could also be allowing aural space between phrases or silence within the phrase itself. Just because it's on your plate doesn't mean you are obligated to eat it.
A good corps member knows what the other players are playing at all times. If your band is trying to cover someone else's music, listen for key textural changes. It can be noticing that the texture of the tom tom rhythm at the bridge needs highlighting, a variation of the bass rhythm after the chorus, a supporting counter melody that needs space--if you aren't listening or can't identify what the other players contribute, it's hard to know what you should be doing that's different, let alone supportive.
A good corps member understands and agrees with the "mission." More bands have been broken up by discrepancies in purpose. One seeks a recording contract, one wants to get the band to performance level for touring, one just wants to play with some friends for a few hours of socializing. These varying intentions are a recipe for disaster. Knowing and agreeing on the ensemble's collective goals is critical to the longevity of any band or ensemble.
A good corps member makes the other players sound good. Some of the best drummers are the ones you don't even know are there. All you know is the band is tight and the groove is intuitive; this is because that drummer functions to make everyone else sound good by staying out of the way, minimizing the moments of flash and stardom in return for establishing the "pocket." Every player has something to contribute to make the ensemble sound better; avoid that chronic "it's all about me syndrome."
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From January 13, 2011: "The Jazz Brain; Improv"
The TED conference videos are a fascinating resource of current information on technologies and educational philosophies. We were most intrigued by a recent January entry by surgeon Dr. Charles Limb on the impact of improvisation on the brain (or vice versa). Scanning live brain activity of a musician with an MRI reveals curious details on the electrical/blood processes in specific regions while playing memorized passages as compared to improvisational activity. Himself an amateur jazz musician, he even shows video footage of an experiment while "trading fours" with another musician.
What we found striking was the notion that certain parts of the brain become inactive in the heat of maximum heightened creativity. The area that monitors control and inhibition is passive while the region that is expressive and autobiographical increases in activity. This implies that we need to be able to "let loose" cognitively, not only losing our normal conscious inhibitions, but relinquishing control to these creative areas.
Perhaps this is why some musicians actually drool when they play...
We think the analytical approach to jazz, looking under the hood in music theory and mastery of scales is important. That aside, the next step is to be able to transcend the cerebral and make it a motor, "turn off the brain" process. As they say, "Learn your scales so well that you forget them." The cognition needs to get buried and meld with the subliminal.
Learn your FFcPs, your 'ii V7 I's, turnarounds, and your scales, but then go to the next level by making them automatic. That's when creativity can truly take over.