Friday, July 14, 2006

On Musical Sense and Improvisation

The extraordinary powers that musicians have still mystifies me. For example, the fingerboard of the violin is only a few inches long. Each note is only a millimeter or less away from the next. So when you consider that an accomplished violinist can play at great speed and his fingers must always be in the correct position within 0.5 mm for him to play each note pitch accurately [note out by half a tone is still discernible as out-of- tune by the human ear], it is really a wondrous feat. But this is just a technical feat.

Even more interesting is our ability to 'feel' the chord changes in a song. In a simple song with a Root chord, a 4th and a Dominant Seventh,[e.g. in C key, it is C, F and G7 chords it is usually no problem for an average musician to know when to change ]. But ask most musicians and they can't explain how they know when to change. It is just a 'feeling' and it's quite unerring in it's accuracy. Folk songs, church songs, country songs are those songs that pose no problem. But not only can I feel the changes for C, F, G7, I can feel the changes for Am, D7, Dm, E7, A7, Gm, C7, etc too. And all manner of Flats and Sharps to these chords too e.g. Em7b5 to A7 to Dm or F#m7b5 to B7 to Em. such as found in jazz standards. For substitutes I can feel when it should be Ab instead of C, or when it should be Bb or Db9 instead of G7 too. I think there is an explanation in music theory for why all these chords go together. But I know nothing about music theory and cannot even read music. It just sounds right to me.

I give up trying to analyze something like this that perplexes me. However, on the subject of improvisation, such as for jazz, I have at least tried to reflect on how I improvise. The following notes are for jazz guitar, but the principles apply in general to any instrument:

General Principles

1. See the Forest and not the Trees. See the Song and not the Chords. Ask yourself: What mood does this song evoke. How can I get into the mood?

2. The Melody is the basis for the improvisation. In fact it is the raison dÂ’etre for the improvisation (rational justification for its existence) Do not improvise for the sake of improvisation. Else you might as well practice scales.

3. Good improvisation is like walking on the edge between Order and Chaos. When you use notes that are too ‘safe the improvisation is boring. But you also cannot have tension all the time playing ‘out notes* Build up a vocabulary of useable phrases. This will be your safety net. But each time try to stretch the boundaries of predictability and safety. (may be more appropriate when you are practicing alone)

* What is ‘out’ and what is ‘in’, (what is musically acceptable) is a Cultural and Evolving thing. But if you are playing for an audience, remember what kind of audience it is, and what is likely to be their musical boundaries.

4. The song is a Journey you are about to undertake. It doesn’t matter which road or side-road you use to get to the destination, as long as you get to the destination in the same time. For example a Dominant 7 resolving to the Home key has countless ways to arrive at it. You can flat or sharp anything you like as long as you arrive back in time, safe and sound.

5. The Groove is the King. Go with the groove, for without it, you are reduced to mediocrity. Unfortunately like the Tao, the Groove cannot be taught. It must be absorbed. One way to aid absorption listen to a lot of good jazz guitarists. Observe and analyze the difference between how they play and how you play.

6. Too much Analysis is Paralysis. And it takes the Fun out of the Music too.

Tricks of the trade

7. Practice starting/ending the improvisation in different ways.

a. Descending instead of ascending notes
b. Single notes
c. Repeating single notes
d. Non-root note e.g. in C key, start on A, D, E, G, or even B
e. Start on a related key and chord tone. E.g. for C, start on Am or Em
f. Start half a tone higher or lower

8. Do not be intimidated by impressive sounding chord names e.g. G7#11, Fm7b5, C7b5b9 etc. Understand that there are only 3 types of chords: Major, Minor and Dominant 7. So, for example in a progression like C Maj 7, A7b9, Dm9, G13, just think of it as basically a C, A7, Dm and G.

9. Know at least 3 positions for each chord. So that you can migrate from one to the other effortlessly, and sound better.

10. Combine Major/Minor scales with minor pentatonic and chromatics, for a richer sound and more variety.

11. See and Remember Patterns. Did you notice that Em7b5 is like Gm6, or that A7b9 can also sound like A Diminished, or even go together with Eb9? The best way to start seeing patterns is to look at chord progressions of jazz standards. By analyzing how different composers use different chords, you can learn a lot.

12. Visualize the Fretboard intensely. Fix your eye on the current Chord you are holding, and the notes on it. See the notes of the next (coming) chord. Keep both images in your mind. Think fast and plan on-the-fly. While improvising on the current chord, anticipate the next chord.

13. Phrasing is important. For jazz, play about within the Beat. Hold back, for a microsecond, or rush in just before the beat. Use slides and bends and all the tricks of the guitarist.

14. Start simply and develop the complexity of the improvisation as you go along. Have a motif. If you find a catchy phrase, repeat it, build on it.

15. Try to have variety in your playing. Play softer, play louder, play fast, play slow, play many notes in a string, play few notes.

16. Listen to your fellow musicians, especially the drummer and bassist. Take a cue from them on what to do next. Interact with them and improvise to reinforce/complement the ideas that are streaming out from them.

17. Play Triads and all those Substitutions they teach in Theory Class. I may play them without knowing what they are called.


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