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Sage Wisdom

"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."

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March 4, 2010 | Don Stiernberg on the "Big Picture" of improvising

This week, we are "borrowing" (stealing, actually...) a segment from an upcoming Mandolin Cafe interview we coordinated with one of the planet's best jazz mandolinist and JazzMando mentor, Don Stiernberg. In editing the piece, we were enthralled by the eloquence in the master's description of the process conceptualizing music, particularly in beginning improvisation. Succinct and articulate, just like his playing. Bite size, enlightening, and delivered with the signature Stiernberg smile.

Look for the full interview to come out soon; it's a goody!

Don responds to the question, "What building blocks have to be in place before one can expect to improvise intelligently or, if not intelligently, then with some sense of a plan or approach?"

don.php.jpg"I've noticed from teaching that when we have problems, it has to be either a mandolinistic issue (Where's an Abmaj7 on this blasted thing?) or a musical issue (What's a maj7 chord anyway?) I think more of us have musical issues than mandolinistic ones. There are really great players who can play all manner of stuff but not know what any of it is! I'll stop players mid solo and ask 'How did you finger that Bbm phrase?' or 'What was that cool thing you played on the dominant chord?' and they won't know where to look. So knowing the names for things on the fretboard in addition to what they sound or feel like seems a good building block. This is less daunting than it seems: there are only four qualities of chords in all of music (major, minor, augmented, diminished) and the beautiful mandolin fretboard is laid out SYMMETRICALLY. Thank You, Lord. Learn one major scale pattern or chord shape, now you can find them all. And as you do, put the names of things in your memory too.

On the music side if you're tackling improv on a tune you'll need to know it's chord changes, tonalities, and form. As in, well there's an A section which hangs in the key of F predominantly. Then in the B section it goes from F7 to Bb, then G7, and then C7 which of course leads us nice back to the key of F in the A section. (That was "Honeysuckle Rose" I was thinking about)...

Have a 'territory' on the fretboard that corresponds to each change or tonality: 'I know these notes are good for F7.' Then you're ready to marry the mandolinistic with the musical knowledge of the tune, so you're up and running except for rhythms. NO WORRIES--try playing all one rhythm just for starters. Be able to fill the spaces with eighth notes, and if that's too hard on your chops or mind, quarter notes are fine! Fancier rhythms and speech-like playing with stops and starts will come soon enough."

Improvisation: too many choices?
Intentional Improvisation
Don Stiernberg on Mindful Noodling
Improvising: Throwing mud on the wallDiscipline... in moderation.
Thinking in Sentences

Posted by Ted at March 4, 2010 6:16 AM

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