Musical Improvisation - Things that don't work

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Bad Ideas






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Mindless Chord Notes

A common way to teach improvisation is to have a band (or CD/Recording) play a set of chords (in jazz we call them changes ... but it's all the same) and to have the student play over the changes. The first question the student has is “what notes can I play?” So we give her a sheet of music with the notes in each chord displayed. And, we instruct “play the notes from the chords on this sheet”. The result? Students playing scales (or arpeggios) in a tedious, non-musical format.

Of course, since this is supposed to be a simple introduction, the melody is forgotten. Ummm, pardon me, but isn't the melody the most important part of a song.

I'm not sure why a number of music educators think that this is useful. Yeah, I've been there and didn't learn much other than “it's really, really hard.” And it doesn't sound all that nice. And when I question this silly scheme I'm told that I really don't get it. Yup. I don't. And I don't want to.

Oh well. Life (and the salaries of the educators) goes on.

Just Do Something

Gawd .... no!!!! Yes, some folks are thrown into a swimming pool and told “sink or swim”. I think most are pulled out later. And haven't improved their ability to float.

And the same happens to some folks learning to improvise music. Really. I'll not go on much more than to say that it's just stupid.

Written Solos

I've seen this too many times. A well meaning spouse or friend writes out a nice little solo for their dear one to play in the solo part of a performance. Of course, the dear learns nothing. The writer of the solo does ... but how to improvise a solo “on the fly” is probably not what is learned.

Transcribing Other People's Solos

You'll find that a number of “educators” will have their students listen to a recording of some famous dude (or dudette) and transcribe, note for note, the solo that was played.

Well, okay. The student is learning a valuable skill. And, frankly, it's a skill in which I wish I had more, well, skill. But, as an introduction to improvisation? Not so much. A number of things are wrong with this idea:

  • The greats did their improv in real time. And, never did them exactly the same. Matter of fact, often they weren't even remotely the same. So, at best you are looking at one example. So, we're really back to the written out solo thing.

  • The educator will tell the student that by studying how the notes apply to the underlying chord structure, one will receive insight. Okay, but I'm not convinced that the original soloist gave much thought to the underlying chords, etc. Mostly he played what worked and sounded good. And if a “wrong” note was hit (one that sounded “off”), a quick change to the next note would fix the problem.
However, the exercise is useful for the educator. It's a lot of fun (for him) to look at the student's result and give a grade. It's much like the stuff we did in school when we were supposed to figure out what a poet “meant” in a poem. Good luck with that.

Okay, let's leave the dumb stuff behind and move along to stuff that makes sense and does work.

Next: Rhythmic Variations.

And let me know if this article helps.

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