Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Musical Phasing

(Note: this is a work in progress...keeping it public to motivate me to finish it!)

When I first started studying classical music, there was a period in time when I got pretty obscessed with phasing, largely influenced from the early musics of Steve Reich. Over the course of several years I analyzed and practiced the process of musical phasing to the point where it could be explained and executed fairly succinctly. I felt this process of simplification was necessary in order for the technique to be used within an improvisatory context, since trying to perform Violin Phase or Piano Phase in whole proved to be quite a challenge. Phasing on simplified 1-3 note patterns made learning the technique much easier and much more pleasurable to learn, and I've used it as the model in which I teach this technique to other people.

For a while (maybe even now?) I was known as the "phasing guy" since I would pretty much try to "phase" with most people I improvised with. The nice thing about the technique was that since it was an auditory phenomenon rather than a type of stylistic practice, I was able to teach and perform the exercise to people outside of the classical music realm. I've also used the technique pretty extensively even in my own piano solo performances as well -- phasing between the right and left hands work pretty well, for the most part.

It may at first be helpful to listen to the two pieces to get an idea what the effect sounds like:

In both works, 12-beat patterns are used as its original material, which is then "phased" through the act of speeding up one pattern while the other pattern holds still. Phasing requires at least two voices, which requires either two instrumentalists or a polyphonic instrument of some sort that would allow for a right/left split between the two hands. (Which usually means a keyboard of some sort -- octave splits provide a pretty good approximation of phasing between unison patterns.)

The basic idea behind phasing is that there are two (or more) performers playing the same thing, which is then phased by having one of the performers "pull ahead" of the group by slightly increasing their tempo. The resultant effect is that, depending on the type of patterns you use, you get new harmonic and rhythmic combinations out of the process despite originating with identical types of material.

So, phasing with 1, 2, and 3 notes:

1-Note Phasing

On an audible level, phasing on 1 note may sound fairly tedious and unremarkable, but it's useful in that it highlights what's exactly happening between the two patterns. One person (or one hand) plays one note over and over at a steady tempo, then the second person joins in. As one person begins to "pull ahead" of the other, then the notes start to go out of sync with eachother. There may be moments where the feeling is that the two patterns are in syncopation with one another, and this is normal. What the phasing process does, on its most basic level, is create a microscopic sycopation between the two patterns, which then resolves back into playing together back in tempo. An example:

[recording example -- will get on this]

Granted it's not the most exciting thing in the world to listen to, but this exercise tends to be immensely helpful for musicians -- it demystifies the technique to an understandable level, while at the same time giving the ear something to latch onto as the process unfolds.

2-Note Phasing

Phasing with two notes is just like phasing with one note, only that there's two notes instead of one...well, OK, that's stating the obvious. The thing to listen for in this exercise is the new pattern combination that emerges out of the phasing process. As with the 1-note example, the first person chooses a 2-note pattern which is then replicated by the second, which is then "phased" by the process of one person speeding up slightly.

The difference here is that because there are two notes, the new pattern combination that emerges from the process will produce new harmonic combinations that becomes immediately audible to the ear. Probably better to listen to the recording than a long-winded explaination:

[recording example -- will get on this]

So, it starts on the 1)unison pattern which then moves to the 2)second pattern that comes out of the phasing process, then back to 1)unison. Still sounds very clinical and mechanical, but as with a lot of fundamentals, that's just how it goes.

3-Note Phasing

Patterns with three notes and above start to become more interesting to listen to, since the process begins to form into a progression. For 3-note patterns, there will be the 1)unison, 2)second pattern, 3)third pattern, then back to the 1)unison again.

[example 3 -- coming soon!]

Phasing can be a somewhat of a bewildering experience, since it tends to go against most of our intuitions about how rhythm and repetition works. I've heard people equate it to auditory hallucinations, since it "produces" notes and rhythms that previously didn't exist. The trick is not to let the disorientation get to you and just allow for the patterns to naturally phase in and out. At times you may end up skipping a pattern or 2 or lose track of where you might be, but that is OK -- the main goal is to acquire the feeling of what it feels like to depart and lock back into different types of pattern combinations.

Once you get the hang of the technique it sort of becomes like riding a bike -- you never really forget how it "feels" to phase from that point on. After three notes and onward there is no significant difference in how the technique is applied, other than the fact that the patterns are longer and have more generative pattern combinations. So if you can master phasing between 1-3 notes, you've pretty much got it under your belt.

Using Phasing in a Musical Context

Of course, after getting through all of the technical stuff there's a time when you just have to make music! An older recording of the A-Tribute Ensemble's "Phasing Out":

Monday, April 27, 2009

Variations (Example 1)

As an example from a previous post here, I made a recording that shows one possible way of how to develop and vary a theme within an improvisational context:

I start off with a simple 3-note motif as the melody with some accompanying chords on the bottom. (If you were to verbalize it, it would sound kind of like "Ta-ta-taaaaa".) I play around with it for a while, establishing the idea as something prominent within the context of the music. Although the point of the exercise is to work on one's variationing(?) chops, performers really shouldn't feel like they need to rush the process -- in fact, sitting on one idea for longer periods of time may even make its transition to something else that much sweeter. It also has the added benefit of freeing the mind from having to make too many decisions at once -- in this particular example, since the theme is already decided for me, it allows me to focus most of my attention toward the harmonic aspects of the music.

Around 1:30 or so, I take the idea of "a 3-note theme" then turn it into a sequence that moves upwards. Perhaps a more skilled/anal musician might think about the original theme's interval structures and transformative possibilities and such, but in this case I just took the general idea of moving upwards 3 notes at a time then used it as an excuse to move the music toward the upper registers. Variational processes can be very structured (the music of Bach) or very intuitive ("free" improvisation) depending on the personality of the musician, although in most cases what happens tend to lie somewhere between the two polarities.

Around 2:00-2:15 I probably got overly excited and added more notes to the upward sequence. You can hear bits and pieces of 4 and 5 note sequences that helped to propel the music further up. I reintroduce the original motif around 2:20 just to keep things from getting too out of control. Some of my teachers might say that by doing so I just lost an opportunity to push things further; for the sake of this recording, however, it probably didn't make much sense to do so. Either way, there's all kinds of decisions performers have to make on whether or not they might want to "push" things further, or simply stick to an idea for a while. There's no right or wrong way to do it, although an awareness of these vantage points gives the musician the power to play with these types of tensions.

The end is a hodgepodge of thematic ideas, some from the original theme, some from the 3-note sequence, some from the 4-5 note developments -- after a while they begin to blur together and new ideas begin to emerge even if I wasn't purposely trying to do so. Coming up with new material is actually not all that difficult, so people shouldn't really feel like they need to be particularly "creative" in order to do so. Ideas really are a dime-a-dozen, especially in this day and age of the internet -- it's mostly what you do with them that creates interest.

Monday, March 16, 2009


The use and implementation of recordings have always been a controversial issue in music circles, since the technology in a lot of ways had managed to revolutionize people's conceptions of the musical experience in itself. During the Romantic and late-Romantic eras (~19th century), music establishments began to facilitate the "genius" narrative into its cultural discourse, emphasizing the "vision" and enlightened ideals of the composer over the expression of the performer. As a result, notational practices became more specific as to tailor the music towards the composer's subjective experiences and perspectives.

The invention and implementation of the recording, however, allowed music to be abstracted in a completely different way, turning Romanticism up on its head. The technology allowed music to be "captured" into a fixed form, after the fact, as opposed to notational practices in which the abstraction exists a priori. Popular, folk, and jazz musics partially owe its success (at least in terms of its commercial and influential value) to recordings, because it was largely the technology that enabled those styles of musics to disseminate into the public sphere.

With that in mind, as an improvisor I think that it is important to recognize the fact that the recording medium is largely used for two purposes -- as means of capturing a musical event, while at the same time providing a vehicle to broadcast it beyond its original context. The question of whether or not musicians should be recording their improvisations is something people have been asking themselves ever since the invention of the phonograph, and now that access to cheap and reliable recording equipment is fairly commonplace the issue has become something that musicians face on a fairly regular basis. Broadly speaking, within the world of improvisation there seems to be three main attitudes toward the recording medium:

1) Purists - Opposed to recordings on any level, arguing that performances should be live and live only. The defiant attitude against the technology usually stems from political reasons, arguing that recordings distort and filter out too many things from the live experience, as well as commodify the event in such a way that makes it vulnerable to political appropriation.

2) Documentors - Are willing to record their sessions, but with minimal or no edits. Tries to maintain the objectivity of the event as much as possible by treating the microphone as an outside observer/listener.

3) Editors/Composers - Are completely willing to edit, process, and alter the recorded material after the fact. This approach is much closer to the act of composition compared to the other two, and includes musicians such as DJs and laptop performers who use process-oriented tasks as their primary means of achieving variation.

These categories tend to be hyperboles, however, and it's rare (especially nowadays) to find people who would strongly identify themselves as being part of one of these "camps". In reality, most improvisors tend to use each approach methodically according to circumstance, although some may find themselves more comfortable doing one thing or the other as a matter of personal preference.

"Pure" improvisation tends to be good for pedagogical situations or playing with someone for the first time -- this relieves the pressure of having to "produce" something and allows the musicians to perform privately amongst themselves. The musicians can then focus more on communication, listening, and developing a relationship with the other performers rather than worry about the product that might come out of the process.

The "documentational" approach is useful for reviewing and reflecting on the sessions that had been recorded. Good or bad, how a musician "feels" after a jam session can sometimes be deceptive when compared to the actual result -- this helps to ground the experience into something tangible, so that it can be viewed from a different perspective. Many musicians have used self-recording as a way to gauge their skills and identify areas in their performances of where they might be able to improve upon.

The "editing" approach tends to find itself most often used in electronic music, where recorded samples are used as building blocks for creating larger-scale pieces. It is also used heavily in film and video productions, where improvised musics are used to "fill-in" certain durations of time, or in other cases, used as material for the mixer's whim. Samples can also be used as a basis for composed works, which seems to be gaining a lot of traction in the electronic music world at this point.

For better or worse, the presence of the recording device tends to do something to a person's state of mind, and it's fairly remarkable how drastically some musicians' playing styles change with the knowledge that they're in the midst of being recorded. It's kind of like being looked under an aural microscope, where your every move is being monitored and recorded, which can greatly increase anxiety levels for many performers.

In order to get more comfortable with the idea, it may help to remember that the recording medium is a fairly new technology and Western society has not yet developed proper "methods" of how to behave in front of a microphone as of yet. So there aren't any real "rules", per se, although there are certain physicalities that the musician has to consider if they're looking to get a clean, commercially viable recording. But if that's not really the intension of the session -- say, if you were only recording something to get a general idea of where your current skills lie -- then it doesn't really make sense to spend a great deal of time worring about the gritty details of how the recording might sound post-production.

The relationship between the musician and the recording medium can vary wildly according to the needs and long-term goals of the performer. Thinking about these things in advance can help the improvisor make intelligent decisions as to how to deal with the microphone during their performance sessions and hopefully be comfortable with it in its place. A string quartet playing something by Bartok might treat the microphone as an outside observer, while a rock band might use amplification and processing in order to vary the captured sound in itself. Ideally, if a recording device is being used, the musician should be comfortable enough with it that it becomes part of the performance itself. More details will be written about this on a later post.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Self-Expressive Improv

Eric Edberg has a good video of people interested in jumping into improvisation, coming from a classical musician's standpoint -- he pretty much reiterates what's written in the introduction of this site, which goes to show that improvisors tend to have a similar mindset, despite stylistic differences. There are no wrong notes, play what wants to be played, listen to what's going on.

Self-Expressive Improv Part 1
Self-Expressive Improv Part 2
Self-Expressive Improv Part 3

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Variation, Shmariation

Variation is a time-honored method of musical creativity – it simultaneously acknowledges the existence of something recognizable, yet attempts to vary it in some way, hinting at the possibility toward progress. Variations can often be a quick and easy introduction into the act of improvisation, as one finds that the ability to transform motifs and themes lead into possibilities of endless varieties. At the same time, variation is often one of the most difficult skills to develop within improvisational idioms, as it requires the performer to remember, recall, and alter thematic material in interesting ways, in real time, without it becoming redundant.

One method of getting started in the activity would be to play a favorite “lick” from memory, and attempt to vary it in some manner. The types of variations used can be simple and specific as to hear the result in clear terms – louder, softer, faster, slower, transposed up or down, rhythmic alterations, etc. The general rule of thumb in altering motifs is to play the same thing, but in a different way. Alterations are often done through logical reasoning or processes (augmentations, diminutions, transpositions) but this is by no means a requirement – the changes applied can also be done in an intuitive or spontaneous manner as well.

Some musicians found it helpful to record or notate some of the variations that they’ve come up for themselves – this allowed them to develop a palette of figurations that they could use as their disposal. The act of varying themes and motifs in itself is relatively simple, and given enough tries it should become very clear that coming up with original material is actually not that difficult. By thinking in the manner of a composer, the performer gains a sense of empowerment that allows them to gain a deeper understanding of how a musical work comes into being.

Group variations can also be a fairly interesting exercise as well – a motif can be given by a person, then each performer would be asked to vary it in their own way, one at a time. This can serve as a simple exercise for people to demonstrate their interpretive abilities as well as highlight their personality to the rest of their peers. As a derivative of this idea, performers can also play a game of “telephone” where the task is to vary the motif of the person sitting next to them then pass it along in a chained fashion. This requires greater amount of listening on behalf of the individual, since it requires them to respond directly to another person's playing.

If the game turns out to be like any other game of telephone, usually what comes out at the end turns out to be something totally different than what was initially said. Sometimes change happens, even if there's no intention involved.

Follow the Leader

This exercise I learned from taking a master-class with Marcus Stockhausen back in 2005. He's a very good trumpet player with an incredible ear.

The exercise itself was fairly simple -- one player plays a pitch, the second player matches them, the first player moves to another pitch, and then the second player follows. It may sound easy in concept but doing it well actually takes an incredible amount of practice and listening. (Unless you have perfect pitch, which in case it may very well be easy.) Ideally the second player should be able to follow the first person very quickly, and the audible result should sound as if it were a canon.

The task can be simplified by creating limitations on allowed notes; for instance, the two players may agree to play notes that exist only on the C major scale. This will reduce the possible numbers of interval combinations hat can be played, making the process of hearing the changes somewhat easier. This process can also be applied to non-western and non-equal-tempered scales, as long as the mode construction is agreed upon beforehand. The idea behind this exercise is to get the musician familiar with the intervals that exist in a given scale or temperament, so that they're fully aware of its melodic and harmonic possibilities.

If the exercise starts becoming tiresome, the two players may decide to switch roles and establish a new leader. Keep in mind that this exercise is very hard for most people, even experienced ones. I've had a lot of trouble with this, especially since playing the piano lets me somewhat slack on intonation and an exercise like this puts that weakness right on the spotlight. Still, when our group was doing this regularly, our ears were so honed into each other that we could immediately recognize what the other person was playing and use that to our advantage.

On the western equal tempered scale, there are only 12 notes! Sure, there's a lot of possibilities within that, but since it's not infinite, it should theoretically be possible to master all of the intervals within it. Easier said than done, of course...

Time-Based Exercises

At its root, a musical performance just exists as a duration of time – one could decide to do something (or nothing) during that period, but either way the performance is over once the duration has passed. I found it fairly useful to perform (both in individual and group contexts) improv sessions with time limitations – say, 1 minute, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, and so on. As with doing any activity, the act of playing music in itself will distort one’s perception of time – I've found it helpful to try to reconcile the differences between my personal interpretation of time passing and the objectified nature of the clock because they can often be two very different things.

As an initial exercise, it may be helpful to use a count-down timer and set explicit limitations. It is fairly difficult to intuitively “feel” the duration of a certain time limit – the timer can serve as a tool to guide the performer, similar to the idea of using a metronome to keep a steady metric beat. Eventually the improviser should gain some familiarity with the feelings of certain duration periods, and should be able to approximate the length of each session through intuition.

This exercise is really no different than how someone might plan for a speech or presentation – the presenter is given a limited amount of time to make certain points and accomplish certain things, and must keep the flow of interest going for their audience at all times despite its largely arbitrary length. Teachers are used to dealing with one hour class periods, workers with 15 minute break times, TV-producers with half-hour slots, and so on. Dealing with durational values is very much a part of life -- especially modern life -- where people are expected to adhere to certain time values – these exercises can help the improviser to come to an understanding of how to manage themselves within these structures.

These exercises have practical applications as well, especially when working with multimedia or multidisciplinary projects. Often the director or producer will require the musician to create something of specific length, and this is tends to be non-negotiable in most contexts. Being able to improvise music of an approximate length very quickly greatly reduces the time involved in the editing process – if 5 minutes of music of a certain mood is required, then an improviser might perform something that roughly matches that length. The clip then can be put to use with relatively minor editing processes, saving a great deal of time for both the musician and the producers involved.

Key Modulations

Jazz improvisers are used to looking at music in terms of chords and modes – by looking at the common notes between each chord they gain an understanding of how to navigate melodically through the changes in harmony. In classical music such examples can be seen in composers’ treatment of the idea of key modulations, where the tonal center of the mode gradually shifts from one key to the next.

The simplest (and usually the most commonly found) modulation within western tonality is a key modulation from the tonic to its fifth – C Major to G Major, for example. When playing within a key it is important to understand what notes exist within it – for C Major, CDEFGAB, while G Major, GABCDEF#. The popularity of the dominant modulation lies in the abundance of common tones between them, allowing for relatively smooth transitions from one key to the next.

At first it is helpful to play strictly within one mode to get the feel of how it sounds in its own context. (In this case, in strict C Major or strict G Major.) The task then becomes to modulate from C Major to G Major in the smoothest possible fashion. When attempting to bridge them together, it is important to pay attention to notes that exist out of the scale – the transition from C Major to G Major will produce a new note, the F#, which will initially sound “wrong” to the ear.

A significant reason why many of the composers of the past are remembered today lies in their ability to modulate from key to key with as little perceived dissonance as possible. Often it is the ability to take the audience to another place without them necessarily being aware of it that gives music its influential power – this is an effect that can also be achieved through improvisation if done carefully. Whether playing individually or with a group, the improviser should have a fairly good idea of what key they are playing in, when the key center is shifting, and when it has shifted, even if they may not know exactly when. Initial attempts may be awkward and may end up sounding forced, but with enough practice these bumps can eventually be smoothed out. (As reference, one might study Bach inventions as examples of these modulations happening within notational practices.)

A shift from the tonic to a key a tritone anyway is usually difficult because of the lack of common-tones between the two keys (C D E F G A B -> F#G#A#BC#D#E#), but can bridged together by making pit-stops through other key areas (CDEFGAB -> ABC#DEF#G# -> F#G#A#BC#D#E#). In tonal music, the idea of “dissonance” can often easily be replaced by the idea of “distant” – it’s not that the relationship between C major and F# major is necessarily “dissonant”, but only “distant” in the sense that it takes a longer route to get there.

Using the same principal musicians may be able to learn how to modulate from any key to any key, or from any mode to any mode. These exercises can also be utilized in non-western and non-equal-tempered structures, as long as the common-tones are clearly understood. (Personally I've become fairly attached to the idea of modulating between the "white" and "black" notes on the keyboard, using keys like G and C minor as a bridge between them, but that's just me.) The basic idea of the exercise is to acknowledge the similarities and differences between modal constructions, then attempt to move in between them. These techniques are especially helpful in cross-cultural or polystylistic musics where an inter-leaving of modality becomes an important function – one might notice common intervals between the modal constructions of non-western and western scales, for example, which would allow a musician to invoke more than one style in a simultaneous fashion.

Here is a fugue improvisation done by the A-Tribute Ensemble done in the key of G minor. Chris (cello) starts us off with a theme that the rest of us imitate. After some minutes of doing that, we eventually modulate to D major -- it's not clear exactly where we "landed" into the next key, although by 1:30 it's pretty clear that we've modulated into somewhere new and by 1:45 we've made a collective decision to go back to G minor. It seems like in this particular case, we didn't feel too comfortable in the new key!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ABA Form

The A-B-A ternary structure is the foundation and the most commonly seen structure in western music. It posits the general idea of “starting somewhere, going to another place, then coming back”. The structure is commonly used because it tends to remind people of certain situations that might come up in life – from home to work, back to home; leaving one’s town and out into the world, then coming back with a perspective renewed. The “A” section usually symbolizes some sort of attachment to something stable – one’s home, one’s individuality, one’s ideology – while the “B” section investigates its relationship to the idea of change.

As an improvisational exercise, what consists of “A” and what consists of “B” can be largely arbitrarily chosen, although it may gain more of a personal significance if the materials were selected according to the improviser’s background and tastes. This personalized approach may not be appropriate when playing within a group, so something more generalized may prove to be more effective in larger sessions. The selection could be something as simple as “A – short notes” and “B – long notes” or “A – loud” and “B – soft”; almost anything can be used as long as the materials are distinct enough from each other.

The important aspect of the exercise is to actually hear and feel the music modulate from one state to another in real time. The distinctions between A and B are made only to have the lines blurred through a greater understanding of causality. This is an experience which is very difficult to replicate with notated music or imitations of recordings, due to the fact that performers often focus on the individual notes so intensely that the perspective on the overarching structure becomes lost. Perceiving structure in notated music usually requires the performer to have an extensive knowledge of music theory, but these improvisational exercises allow the musician to establish an intimate relationship with the form much more quickly.

If the improviser so wishes, they may experiment with other variety of formal constructions – ABABA, ABCBA, rondo, ritornello, fugues, theme and variations, concertos (with cadenzas!), flow-charts, process forms, or whatever else may come to mind. (More of these will be added to the blog as time goes on.) These guidelines are good as solo exercises but it is recommended that it also be attempted in group sessions as well, as the dynamic is considerably different when the transitional speed from one section to the next becomes a matter of group consensus rather than individual judgment.

Here is one example of our group (The A-Tribute Ensemble) doing an session in ABA form. Melinda (violin) starts the A section with something melodic, then contrasts it with a chormatic B section, Chris (cello) uses the plucked sounds as his A and bowed sounds as his B. I (piano) decided to introduce a theme played in harmony in my A, then contrasted it with a B section that sound a lot more disjunct and angular.

Although we were all doing different things at the same time, since we largely moved from each section to the next as a group, it gave the session a level of coherence that everyone could hear. And when the group collectively goes back to the A, there's a feeling of relief and resolve -- as if returning to something familiar.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Reflection and Improvement

Since there are technically no "mistakes" in improvisation, it often becomes difficult to assess the quality of each jam session, and/or if what had transpired was "successful" or not. While some greatly appreciate the open-endedness and the endless possibilities that the process has to offer, others find themselves frustrated with the activity's lack of clear objectives and eventually turn to other ideas in order to find fresh inspiration.

Both mentalities each have their respective points, but the beauty of improvisation is that by approaching music in this way, the power of goal-setting is determined by the performer themselves. If the objective for a jam session between 3 people was to play something in the key of C major, then that can be established ahead of time and performed with that understanding in mind. If the goal was to play something in an ABA form, that could be attempted as well. If the intension was to simply play and explore the resultant sounds, or break the ice between the performers, that could also be time well spent.

In my experience, the sessions that I felt was the most productive were the ones where the musicians established simple but clear-cut structures played for relatively short durations (1-2 mins). This helps the musician to quickly internalize the concepts behind the exercise and also helps them to direct their ears toward what's happening around them. As with any improvised session, the music will sometimes take a different turn from what was originally conceived, but having a place to start from tends to give its departure a stronger sense of intentionality and significance. Many or most of the ideas listed on this site are designed for this purpose -- not as prescriptions of how or what to play, but as general guidelines for musicians to direct their ears toward what they might want to play next.

We now have access to cheap and easy to use recording technologies which makes the process of assessment a much easier task. It is recommended that, at least in the beginning, musicians record everything they play during these sessions and determine if the outcome matches what they originally intended. If they're performing with other musicians in a group, talking about what had transpired is also extremely helpful since it allows for the individual to gain additional perspectives of the same event.

It could be argued that the overall goal of improvisation is to eventually get to a point where musician's intensions (theory) are in complete correlation with their actions (performance). Outcomes will vary depending on background, experience, and skill level, but there is a certain integrity and "trueness" to a musician's output when their ideas are completely synchronized with their instrument. Regardless of style or medium, this is something that everybody can achieve if the will to do so is there, and it is this type of directness that tends to speak to audiences on an emotional level.

The Mentality of an Improvisor

Being that improvisation is largely a spontaneous activity, to think that such an act could be "taught" to someone by another person may initially seem absurd or even self-contradictory. After all, how can you teach someone to be spontaneous?

Classical musicians are used to their teachers giving them etudes to practice, and these exercises are designed to improve or add to the musician's skill-sets. Learning how to improvise, however, cannot be thought of in the same way of learning an instrumental or compositional technique. It's the act of doing something in itself -- more of an attitude or mindset that one gets into while creating music, rather than something that can be explained in terms of its specifics.

If the above sounds complicated and hard, it helps to remember that children improvise all the time with tremendous ease. They will hit things, blow things, pluck and strum on anything they can find, even without anyone telling them to do so -- this is largely because they haven't developed the inhibitions and self-conscious mental blocks that naturally develops as a result of entering adulthood. They have yet to make a distinction between art and life, and aren't afraid to express their creativity in a spontaneous and honest fashion. In many ways, improvisation exists as a way for musicians to revisit the state of mind that they used to have when they were younger -- towards the curiosity, directness, and expressiveness of the child.

So the most important thing to do in any given session is to simply relax and play what comes to mind. Since there are no mistakes in improv, there should be no fear of making them, or playing anything that may sound unusual, inordinary, or even accidental. In a sense, "teachers" of improvisation are only there to bring out what already exists in the student, in an environment free from the threat of retribution. Each session can reflected upon in its own terms rather than pitted against the idealized state of a notated score, which tends to make the activity an uplifting experience, regardless of outcome.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Improvisation Exercises for Musicians is an adaptation of an earlier paper, Pedagogy in Improvisation, a work that started as a documentation of improvisational exercises found within classical, contemporary classical, and "non-idiomatic" (or sometimes called "free") styles. The purpose of the original work was to create a practical list of exercises and activities for musicians, especially for those within the classical medium whom the opportunity to participate in improvised musics tended to be rare. Since then, the project has expanded in scope and have begun to incorporate methods and techniques from jazz, pop, rock, and many strains of musics from around the world. Many of the methods listed here are also adaptations of ideas found in composition and musicology, as an attempt to bridge the gaps that exist between theory and practice.

As such, this project will be partially intellectual, partially practical, partially analytical, partially pedagogical -- but always with the intent of creating a unified methodology that integrates aspects of theory, performance, history, and aural training. In music classes these skills are normally taught separately and students often have trouble understanding how they relate to one another. Improvisation can, however, enable the musician to do all of those things simultaneously, allowing them to connect the dots and refine their skills in a holistic sense. At this point in time there has been enough research done on the matter to substantiate the argument that improvisation can be a useful tool toward improving one's musicianship -- and it seems very likely that it will become a commonplace activity in the near future.

It is, however, also common for musicians to express frustration with improvisation because it lacks the directive quality that notation provides for its performers. Improvisation can sometimes overwhelm the musician with so many possibilities and choices that they lose the ability to make decisions and are left paralized. The exercises listed here are designed to address these concerns -- while some musicians are naturally predisposed toward playing "freely", others may be more comfortable improvising within defined parameters that give the sessions direction and structure. Over time most improvisors find a healthy balance between freedom and structure, tailored to their personality and skill level. It is usually within this process that the activity becomes a form of self-reflection which allows musicians to gain a greater awareness of their own tendencies and preferences.

As any good improvisor would argue, the primary and most important objective for any jam session is active listening. Regardless of style, if musicians are listening to one another interest is automatically generated for both performers and audience alike. The exercises listed here may suggest activities for musicians to do, but at the same time it should also direct their ears toward certain ideas which allows it to become an ear-training method as well. The list of exercises here have been collected over the course of several years, from workshops, classes, lessons, and meetings with musicians involved in the art of musical improvisation, and it is hoped that the list would continue to grow into something substantial.

If anybody has anything to add to this list, please do share! This is an ongoing project and there is plenty of room for outside contributions. ryant at ryangtanaka.com (Send your name, email, and website if you would like to be credited.)