Reply To: Improv, creativity, and a podcast that helped me understand the process better
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I was always terrified of improvisation, I just couldn’t work out how it worked because when I tried to do it I always failed. I was completely hit and miss; some notes sounded good, others terrible, I just didn’t understand how to do it and concluded that there is a secret musical ability required. But in my head I could come up with something, or even hum something, or sing in harmony to a song, I just didn’t know what I was doing. I understood some musical theory, and that chords are important, and scales, but I’ve never had it explained to me how it all works. My brother showed me the circle of fifths, but when he started to explain it I just went cross eyed.
I needed a scaffold, as well as a context to learn how to improvise. A motivation recently is I’ve started playing with a ukulele club and the only thing that they have are the chords with the words. For me to play along (to some songs that I was completely unfamiliar with) I realised I had to learn what notes were in each chord and that gave me the initial scaffold and focus for playing along. I began by harmonising using the chord notes on the violin, and then being able to work out the melody by ear. When it came to an instrumental, I began to mix chord notes with melody, and sometimes it would sound good. But I still was not confident because I still didn’t really know what I was doing to make it good.
I realised that I need some theoretical knowledge and I recently started an online course with Christian Howe, who cleared up some of my misconceptions. I didn’t understand that the chords that are played in a song are chosen because they share the same notes in a scale. I thought that if you went from a C chord to a G chord, that you were shifting from a C scale to a G scale, so I would suddenly throw in a F#! He also goes into detail about the role of chord notes, and scale notes and how they work together in the song, and how voice leading is used to transition notes from one chord to another so it doesn’t jar the ear. He explains it well and provides scaffolded activities that allow you to create music with in a given chord progression. Understanding how a song works has helped me become more confident being creative over the same chords, because there are parameters.
So, expanding on your maths analogy, you can learn your times tables (equivalent of musical scales) by rote and it will help you with solving basic maths problems (or playing and reading someone else’s music), but to recognise the patterns in times tables, and relationships of numbers (or scales and their relationships with chords) suddenly it allows you to create your own music and be confident to experiment using the structures that are there. Improvisation is not just ‘making up’ music, it is playing with patterns within parameters. I just needed someone to point that out. I like cooking, so another analogy is that we can follow a recipe to recreate the exact replica of someone else’s meal, or, as we get more confident in the kitchen, we are able to adjust flavours and ingredients to make a version that suits our tastes.
I’m on a journey of discovery because of this; I decided to see if I could find patterns in scales, and realised that knowing the whole step and half step patterns of a major scale are helpful to learn, and I was able to play with scales up and down the fingerboard. If you would have said to me a year ago that I would voluntarily spend 2 hours playing scales, I would have said you were mad, but now I’m starting to see their relevance and relationships. On that day I also discovered that the strings on a violin are a fifth apart, which is like a visual reminder of the circle of fifths, that I’m also starting to see the purpose of!
On that note, better head off and cook dinner!