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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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July 26, 2012 | Jazz like you speak

We've mentioned the analogy of the use of vocabularies in discussing improvisation before, but legendary east coast multi-instrumentalist Aaron Weinstein does a magnificent job outlining this concept in this 90 second video excerpt from the Jacob Burns Film Center's "Jazz Sessions" last month. It really is a poignant concept in so many ways.

Video link: Aaron Weinstein Explains Jazz Improvisation in 90 Seconds

Musician's don't pull things out of the air. We create conversations using words embedded deep in our subconscious using rules we learned at a very young age. We play with crossword puzzles to develop our vocabulary just as we learn new chords and flex them in a jam session. We (mentally) play "Wheel of Fortune" filling in missing words in sentences for prizes when we reprise licks from the treasure chest other musicians. We check the Thesaurus for that better word like we drill a new arpeggio for a more impressive melodic motif.

We vaguely recall learning "subject, predicate, noun, verb, preposition" and the proper rules of speaking or writing in sentences. In elementary school, we got hung up on these rules, only because we hadn't yet developed these skills. Now we hardly consider the terms, but we engage them every day. Maybe we question whether or not a participle is dangling, just as we contemplate a m7b5 chord that doesn't progress to a V7. Still, we need to perfect the craft with the goal that the capacity can and ultimately will be intuitive.


Thin-slicing and Music Theory
Building a solo
Going beyond "playing."
Don Stiernberg on the "Big Picture" of improvising
Improvisation Techniques

Posted by Ted at 11:40 AM

July 19, 2012 | Tips on improvising from the Pros; David Grisman, Mike Marshall

In our April Mandolin Sessions finale, we asked a dozen of some of the industry's high profile players about their take on the creative process. Objective vs. subjective, cerebral vs. intuitive, planned vs. spontaneous, established harmonic language vs. muse, all are ends of a continuum of approaches on how to successfully improvise. This week, we'll look at Bay Area mandolin dynamos David Grisman and Mike Marshall for their take.


David Grisman

Music is an amazing language. After much study and experience, 'improvising' musicians learn to use this language spontaneously, much as we use everyday speech. The most important thing is to have something to say-- a purpose, such as:
a) Serve and respect the song or piece of music you're playing.
b) Convey emotion -- play with feeling.
c) Don't overstep your musical bounds (play what you can execute;)
d) LISTEN! If you can do all of this, then express YOURSELF! Also remember that having a large vocabulary doesn't necessarily make one a poet or even a good story teller."

(Of course, we're all aware of the Dawg's multi-decade genre generating discography and his label "Acoustic Disc" & where they will soon be issuing High Definition Downloads of previously unreleased Garcia/Grisman material, David's Warner Brothers projects and a new series of Dawg Studios jam sessions featuring Grisman with the Del McCoury band, John Hartford, and guitarists Martin Taylor and Frank Vignola.)
Mike Marshall

I think it's about balancing the two concepts of course. Dionysos vs. Apollo... It's the balance between madnessand order. Right?
Both emotions need to be fully engaged while doing any creative act. Isn't that what they say? We must study, study, study, practice, practice, practice, think, think, think. And then-throw ALL that stuff away and just PLAY. Fly off into the wilderness of our own imagination. Dream up anything we wish at that moment and just see what might happen. That joyful expression of how much we love our friends, our family, our life, the sound of the music!
No? Isn't that it?
But always fully aware, engaged, lit up. With our ears, eyes, hearts and minds alert to what might be coming at us. Responding in milliseconds to each nuance of tonal shift, rhythmic inflection, dynamic hint or creative impulse that the persons around us might be suggesting or that we might wish to see happen.
Hard? Yes. But at times... oh so natural. Oh so easy. Logical.
Is this elusive? Yes. Maybe that's what keeps us coming back.... and back... and back.

(Bay area based Mike, in addition to being one of the most stylistically versatile mandolinists on the planet, continues to tour the world, teach at clinics, and produce educational materials that can revolutionize your playing.)

Video Link: Mandolin Symposium with Mike Marshall and David Grisman (promo)

Posted by Ted at 11:44 AM

July 12, 2012 | Raking it in. Autumn Leaves Pt. 2

We last looked at the jazz classic "Autumn Leaves" Part 1 for the opportunity to take two simple one-octave scale patterns up the neck (E dorian/minor and G major) to begin to craft effective improvisation.

4thFFcP_Em.jpg 2ndFFcP_G.jpg

Hopefully, you took the time to work the FFcP patterns for these into your fingers, and feel some degree of comfort playing out of open position. It's great if you have some backing tracks (or an accompanying instrumentalist) to start to break out of the patterns and experiment with some soloing. This is where the rubber meets the road with the FFcP exercises. Out of the lab and into the field...

Scales vs. Licks
We've talked about two distinct approaches to improvisation, one using the framework of scales, the other using licks or motives from other songs and moving them around the fretboard. There's a viable school of thought that spending time transcribing and analyzing other artists' work to get into their heads for these sound nuggets, and begin the process of recreating your own licks. We think both approaches are necessary in optimal creativity. The scale approach can give you efficient, map like access to the "right" notes, but at the risk of sounding sterile or clinical. The "lick" approach gives great material, too, but leaves you dependent on others for material, and can leave you stuck endlessly repeating the same material.

We've worked up something that's a little of both, and cover it in the book "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin." For example, the "ii V7 I" patterns roll out the classic cadence and offer increasingly complex licks based on the scale. Pardon the hard sell, but this is a compelling reason alone to acquire the book, since it covers all four FFcP patterns in both major and minor keys. For now, we'll give you a taste, and you can even apply this material to "Autumn Leaves."

Take a moment to play through these, and see how they might be your own personal starting point to jamming with this terrific tune.

Download two page PDF: pdf_sm.gif E Minor ii7b5 V7 i 4th FFcP

Minor ii7b5 V7 i 4th.jpg

Now see what you can do with these measures for your own experimenting. Note the progression of starting notes in each of the four sections of the exercise--it helps you get away from always beginning your solo with the root of the chord.

You might even want to dig up an online backing track:


Four Finger Closed Position FFcP
Dorian/Minor FFcP Studies
ii7b5 V7 i Minor Patterns
Improvisation Techniques
New to JazzMando: Dorian/Minor FFcP!
Minor Blues: Fresh patterns

Posted by Ted at 6:56 AM

July 5, 2012 | Raking it in. Autumn Leaves Pt. 1

We love music theory. It's a great tool for looking under the hood and exploiting beneficial shortcuts to creating and understanding music. We use it in even in our "mechanical" approach to the fretboard, our movable FFcP system. You've probably noticed we've inserted intervals (3rds, 4ths), some arpeggiated chords, and some passing/approach tone drills in the system. It's finger coordination but if you've been listening while you play, there's some heavy subconscious aural training going on, too.

Still, theory is no good if you don't apply it. We want to go out of the lab now and into the field with the jazz standard, Autumn Leaves and show you a simple way to apply two FFcP patterns to this classic.


Without altering with any sophisticated substitutions, you can trim this down to just two patterns based on two keys. The whole song is in only two keys, E minor, and it's relative G major. We'll draw from two finger patterns to come up with the one-octave field of notes to harvest. The idea is you can go back to the Dorian/Minor FFcP drills, pick up the 4th FFcP in D minor and move it up a couple frets to E minor. Your 4th finger starts the pattern on the 9th fret.


Before you start playing the tune, drill the 4th FFcP in this key for awhile. Take a few days even, until you are comfortable with it.


The next thing would be to take a 2nd FFcP incarnation of the G scale by basing the one octave field with the second finger on the 5th fret. Note, you aren't moving hardly at all from the E minor. Work it similarly until it becomes second nature, reviewing what we created for Bb in the FFcP Introduction series.

When you feel solid on this you're ready to start applying the new found scale intuitive proficiencies to the actual song. Below is a color coded interpretation of where you would use the FFcP patterns, the pink shows where you'd use G major, the blue would be E minor (dorian).


We don't want to go too deep in the semantics of raised 6th and 7th in the minor scale, other than to say when you're using the Dominant Function chord B7, you'll probably be rasing the D to a D#. This is where the chord/arpeggio part of the drill can help out. Trust your ear--it will tell you what to do.

This is where the rubber meets the road, theory to real life. We're still at a point where if this is all you do, grab scales and play drills, your improv will sound like scales and drills. It's a starting point.

Next session, we'll look at applying the FFcP to some licks.

Four Finger Closed Position FFcP
Dorian/Minor FFcP Studies
ii7b5 V7 i Minor Patterns
Improvisation Techniques
New to JazzMando: Dorian/Minor FFcP!
Minor Blues: Fresh patterns

Posted by Ted at 1:03 PM

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