Improv Techniques: The Art of Improvisation
By Lindsey Berthiaume
Thursdays after school I would head down to my saxophone lesson with Jimmy Shand, who was a fabulous teacher and musician from the hey day of big band music in Toronto , Windsor and Detroit . During those lessons, we would spend countless hours working on improvising techniques, constructing chords, analyzing progressions, listening to solos and transcribing them. Much of my teenage life was spent listening to the greats of jazz and studying their contributions to music. Well armed with chord knowledge, technique and agility, the question was whether or not I would be able to use these skills in an improvised performance setting.
On the night of May 22, 1989 , I had a concert during which I was to play a publicly improvised solo for the first time. My palms were sweating, my mind was a complete blank and I was convinced that everyone would know that the jig was up as soon as I played that first lick, regardless of my relentless study. I played a solo that night and despite my nerves and amplified squawks, it was an expressive and rewarding experience. Many of my initial improv experiences were filled with anxiety and self doubt as is the case with many student musicians. The question in my mind today is how to make those experiences more comfortable and intuitive for students exploring improvisation.
A Forum of Expression
Improvising is an expression and communication in music that has been in existence for hundreds of years. It is a tradition that is known around the world from Ghanaian drumming circles, Flamenco and the tea house traditions of China . Some music genres are based primarily on this skill and use it as a form of communication to relay stories, traditions and creative expression from one generation to the next.
This age-old technique has transcended geographical boundaries and world events to become part of today’s musical tapestry in jazz the world over. Generations of people have had contact with this type of music in their daily life and, because of this close relationship with improvising, they are able to assimilate the process with ease. To be comfortable in a genre, one must be able to form a relationship with the music and give meaning to the expression in and on their own terms. It is only then that musicians are able to explore and create improvised music with freedom and honesty in their expressions. There are many roads to improvising, many directions to take to this destination. The next question is: how do we get there and which route should we take?
The key is to integrate improvising into daily life. Whether it is band, strings or a vocal program, there needs to be a weekly ritual that is low-risk and a positive experience for all. To make the situation low-risk, one has to reduce the anxiety and take out the judgmental factors associated with an “on the fly” performance. The objective and goal of an improv exercise is 100 percent participation from all, including the support of one another.
The students will benefit immensely from the creation of an atmosphere in which no one cares what they sound like while they are improvising, and there are no mistakes or bad notes; the goal is just to play intuitively. There will be cases, however, in which students remain fearful of improvising alone and I would strongly suggest that these students be coached gradually into the concepts of improv. Being pushed into a situation does not create a positive or willing association with the art and/or form. This type of pressure should be avoided as it is not a tool that breeds openness or freedom – two of the characteristics that are crucial to improvising successfully.
Case in Point
I presented at a clinic this past fall just outside of Toronto and I had the opportunity to work with a handful of wonderful high school musicians. The entire weekend we worked through repertoire, which included some jazz and classical. We finished rehearsing the jazz numbers and we discussed improvising: when to do it and how to start experimenting. The preparations of a taboo-free atmosphere had been set, the blues scale had been rehearsed and all but one student was willing to participate in improvising on the blues scale at the close of the weekend. I could see the terror in his eyes and I thought to myself, “Nothing positive is going to come out of this for him,” so I decided to let it go. Later on that night, I heard from another room the sound of a blues scale and I knew instantly who it was. I listened in for a bit and then went to see for my own eyes the transformation that I could hear. Sure enough, it was the now willing participant who had not been so willing a few hours earlier. I asked him what prevented him from improvising with the group and he replied that he felt pressure to perform well in front of the group despite the fact that this was new for all of them. He didn’t know how it was supposed to sound or what he was supposed to play and, after hearing the others, the realization came that he, too, could play similarly but had missed the window of opportunity.
Even though I had been cognizant of preparing the students for improvising from the atmosphere to the tools available to them, I failed to recognize that they may be lacking the frame of reference for improvising altogether. Without understanding the context in which they are to perform and the ability to reference this type of performance with another experience, it is not possible for students to improvise freely.
Many students may not be exposed to improvising prior to their musical activities at school. For this reason, it is important to have them listen to various improvised music genres, from the Mahavishnu Orchestra to Miles Davis and Lester Young. It may also be an opportunity and gateway to explore world music and ornamentation in which improvising is the custom, such as the music of the Bedouins and the bard singing style of the Kurdish people. The key is to create a frame of reference for them before they begin to improvise in class. Most of these students have spent their time listening to popular songs that are a maximum of four minutes long and may have trouble listening for extended periods of time. This is a skill that will need to be cultivated over time with incremental steps toward extended improvisation and increased tonal deviation. Create a frame of reference through listening to the type of music and length of music that is the desired goal of the improvisation exercises.
The best way to integrate improvising is to include it as a daily activity, if possible. The more often the students are exposed to the concept, the more comfortable they will be. You may start in a circle with a song the students all know – perhaps a nursery rhyme. Together the group will play the melody a few times through before allowing small groups of instruments (seven to 10) to ornament the melody, add rhythm or find harmonizing tones. Once the group is able to do this in large numbers, the students may feel comfortable enough to try the same exercise in groups of two and three. Eventually the group will come together as a whole and support individual students as they improvise on the melody through rhythm, harmony or ornamentation. Another exercise that can be done in pairs is “Question and Answer.” Student A plays a short melody after which student B repeats some aspect of the melody just played and adds his or her own ornamentation to the motif. This exercise can be passed back and forth between two parties or on from one student to the next across the class.
Scales, Sounds and Rhythms
Pentatonic and blues scales are the best tools for creating improvisations that contain aesthetically pleasing melodies. With these two scales, the students will benefit from a “no wrong notes possible” environment and result. A 12-bar blues built on the traditional progression of chords may be useful for those more advanced groups that are able to get into chord changes and supporting roles.
I encourage all my students to experiment and explore the various non-traditional sounds their instruments make, including multi-phonics, slides, intonations, articulation and microtones. Each student should be able to recall at least two to three non-traditional sounds on their instruments at a moment’s notice for an improvisation exercise. Also helpful is any percussion work, as it gives the students an opportunity to understand and develop their sense of time and rhythm placement. Improvising on rhythm alone is a challenge and it causes the student to reflect heavily on the role of rhythm in improvising, which will counter the belief that the notes are the primary focus of a solo.
Developing a frame of reference for improvising is crucial to understanding the form and creating one’s own creative identity. Through listening to recordings and improvising exercises in both small and large group settings, the students are able to understand how group dynamics contribute to musical cohesion.
It is best to create a low-risk atmosphere in which the students are able to explore notes, rhythms and harmonies without fear of judgment. The freedom from judgment will allow them to explore and learn quickly as there are no adverse repercussions to their explorations. Improvising can be a freeing and creative activity when the students are prepared with the appropriate tools and are able to give meaning to their own form of expression in music. It takes many years to become proficient and comfortable in this area of musical expression and is a lifelong learning process through discovery. Improvising can be fun, exciting, a great change of pace in the classroom and is a wonderful avenue for creative individual expression.
Lindsey Berthiaume has been teaching in Toronto, Canada, for the past 10 years. Her students attend local universities, high schools, elementary and middle schools, and have won positions of recognition through their diligent preparations. Berthiaume earned her B.F.A. honors degree in music performance from York University in Toronto, which has led to numerous engagements both locally and abroad in a variety of settings from cmoncert halls to recording studios. Through her experiences, she is able to address and explore performance-related issues by articulating the mental and physical processes needed to create consistent powerful performances. She is currently finishing her master’s in education at the University of Phoenix and is looking forward to sharing her experiences as a performer and educator through a series of method books for various instruments including saxophone, clarinet and flute.