Improvisation 101

posted on #1
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Here’s a simple exercise that shouldn’t be much of a challenge. IMHO improvisation starts with you and many/most of you have an innate ability to improvise. What’s often lacking is a means of transferring that ability to an instrument.

Exercise 1
Sing “Happy birthday to you” without the words. You don’t have to have a good voice, but be aware of whether you hear in your head the correct pitch (even if your voice can’t match it). It should be obvious that you couldn’t begin to sing this simple tune if you couldn’t conceive of it in your head.

Exercise 2
Pick a random note (other than the previous one you used/sang) and sing “Happy birthday to you” again. Did you find it difficult to hear the notes after your random note? Was this easy? If yes, then congratulations, you can transpose by ear. If you had difficulty, then music and improvisation may not be easy for you.

Exercise 3
This time sing “Happy birthday to you” (without the words) at a very slow speed and add notes between that “embellish” and lengthen the tune. You can take this in any direction you like as a mournful tune, ballad, etc. Try to have a feel and story behind the notes. Easy? If yes you can improvise...simple as that! This is a basic “theme and variation” style of improvisation. It’s the first stepping stone towards a world of improvised music. You can make up a myriad of other variations for yourself.

I’d enjoy hearing back from those of you who tried this to see how many of you found it easy or difficult.
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posted on #2
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this is a cool idea Wade, but you probably know I just make it all up as i go along anyway.... :D I have had no formal musical training and I rely on my ears and feelings to write lyrics and sing..but hey, I think it works for me so far :)
posted on #3
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Hmmm that sounds like an interesting exercise Wade, but with "Happy birthday" I find it hard *not* to think of Steve Wonder ;)

To be honest, I have done this many times, especially when walking alone (which I love). I can spend hours, and it won't ever get boring. Even if nowadays I'd probably sound more like Tom Waits than like Steve Wonder :D
posted on #4
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Sounds like a whole lot of work:P
posted on #5
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A very interesting exercise! My hatred of the sound of my singing voice might make this hard for me (I can 'hear' in tune but making my voice do it is another matter entirely!).
Edited by mpointon on October 04 2018 17:28
If you make a mistake, do it again and make it look like you meant to do it!
posted on #6
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FrankieJ wrote:
Sounds like a whole lot of work:P


Wow somebody's having a hard day! All three exercise can be done in just over 1 minute.
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posted on #7
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Wade wrote:
Wow somebody's having a hard day! All three exercise can be done in just over 1 minute.


I get nervous thinking about singing :)
posted on #8
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FrankieJ wrote:
Wade wrote:
Wow somebody's having a hard day! All three exercise can be done in just over 1 minute.


I get nervous thinking about singing :)


The exercise is less about what comes out of your mouth and more about if you're hearing the notes accurately in your head. In fact, if you can hear that the notes you're singing are out of tune, it means that you know what the right sound is!!!

This is really about improvisation being a mental process that can/should start with you. There are many training programs which teach "theoretical" improvisation in which cut and paste riffs and arpeggios are used to embellish chord changes instead of your "singing voice". It's pretty easy to spot the theory types as they tend to be showy, busy, and lacking melodic or communicative ideas. I certainly don't think you play that way at all.

This is just a gentle exercise to gauge how many people can hear/sing improvised lines (my guess is most people can). It could also be a little light bulb going off for some who have only been taught the "theory" route and give them the impetus to explore other methods of improvisation.

Be brave!!!!
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posted on #9
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Singing your improvisation first has another advantage: you have to think about when to breathe... this is so totally different from "noodling" endless lines IMO :)
posted on #10
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For me hearing the right note is hit and miss, sometimes I hear the melody and sometimes I hear a complimenting harmony note, and sometimes I'm so far off I want to give up and leave it to musicians and singers that influence me the most. I tend to hear and sing a note more accurately when the music is at a lower volume but that's probably a sign of ADD, you know like being in a noisy room with several people talking at the same time and finding it hard to concentrate. I'm all for any exercise that will improve my singing or music ability. I don't know if I really want to find out that I suck at hearing notes correctly for sure though lol!:)
Edited by bluvation on October 05 2018 16:48
posted on #11
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wjl wrote:
Singing your improvisation first has another advantage: you have to think about when to breathe... this is so totally different from "noodling" endless lines IMO :)


this is a very important observation ... in my books any improvisation no matter the instrument played should respect the breathing part ! if there's no breathing there's no life ! it's a principle i always keep in mind thus the lines in my impro sounding like a brass instrument played on guitar :) well kind of :D
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posted on #12
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Hmmmm I remember you playing the big brass instrument in Steinfeld :D :D :D You sounded like an angry cow with severe respiratory issues. Muuuuuuarghh!!! :D :D :D [img]https://wloops2.r.worldssl.net/galleries/8868/files/ac23feb9cdde7788e5fd83fb3f87d061.jpg[/img]
posted on #13
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oooh yea :D this was a very interesting experience for sure ! something in between a sick old whale and the high on dope mad cow ôÔ very strange !
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posted on #14
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wjl wrote:
Singing your improvisation first has another advantage: you have to think about when to breathe... this is so totally different from "noodling" endless lines IMO :)


Good observation. And as OlivBee has hinted this is a good exercise for instrumental players that don't need breathe to play their instrument (keys, strings, percussion, etc.). Phrasing is a natural break that is about breathing. My guess is that listeners tend to "sync" to the music and breathe with the player's phrases. We seem to be hardwired for hearing in phrases, so playing with your breathing works. For singers or those of us who play instruments that require breath for the sound, it comes naturally.

There was (is?) a cello teaching style that forced students to breathe in exaggeration which forced the learning cellist to phrase with those breaths. Works well, except that somebody forgot to tell them to shut down the exaggerated breathing when recording. There's now heaps of fine cellists who have destroyed otherwise great recordings by snorting away during their playing.
Edited by Wade on October 05 2018 21:10
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posted on #15
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One thing I forgot to mention...seems some of you are uncomfortable singing. You can also do this exercise by whistling, humming, etc. As long as it's you making a sound that is directly from you.
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