Developing my Improvisation


It’s been a while since my last post.

For a month or so now I have been gradually making my way through ‘Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music’, by Derek Bailey.

I’ve also been thinking very hard about my own practice as an improvising musician and trying to develop and improve upon my approach to the discipline.

I had found myself in a bit of a rut, attending a weekly improv session at the Cube, but never really contributing, and never taking anything away. I felt that my abilities had reached a bit of a plateau.

(What’s worse is that although I wasn’t contributing, I would still be playing – in other words, simply adding noise.)

In his book, Derek Bailey offers some analysis of a variety of genres associated with improv, and also interviews musicians from those genres.

One thing that I have found particularly interesting is how musicians make use of ‘frameworks’ upon which an improvisation will be based.

As a rough example, Flamenco can be divided into a subset of styles, with each style dictating a structure for the piece, including a tempo, time signature and rhythm. (This is my broad understanding at least).

This framework will help to guide the performers in their improvisation.

As well as taking guidance from the framework, performers will also follow cues from the lead vocalist in the ensemble, mirroring their melodic or dynamic embellishments, and creating spaces in the arrangement for their performance.

Derek Bailey also discusses how performers in other disciplines will use notated arrangements as a basis for improvisation – instead of following a notated score verbatim, performers will use it give a general direction of a piece, or as a structure to work around and against.

With some of these ideas in mind, I have started working on some of my own techniques and approaches for improvising.

One of these is to attempt to mirror what other performers are doing.

I’ll listen carefully to what the other performers are playing and try to pick out a melody. I’ll then attempt to repeat this melody back to the performer.

If I can accurately pick up and perform the melody, then the next step will be to try and embellish the melody, or perhaps to invert it and try and turn it in to something new.

Often I’ll struggle to pick up the melody, and will instead happen upon something that fits against the melody, which can also be a nice result.

I’ve found this technique works particularly well when the other performer picks up on what you are doing and starts to work their melody around yours, resulting in a ‘musical conversation’.

The other thing I am working on is developing my own framework for improvisation. It’s great to just begin playing and see where it takes, but often it might be 15 – 20 minutes before a solid idea emerges, and another 30 minutes to explore the idea.

What I’d like to do is come up with a framework that can allow an ensemble to pick up an idea much more quickly, and produce more consistent results, but without stifling the improvisation.

This I am finding to be more tricky, although I am currently experimenting with the idea of providing performers with short notated sections – perhaps 3 – 4 sections consisting of 5 – 6 note melodies.

Performers could use these sections as a starting point before moving onto something else, or as an area to explore in detail.

Finding the balance between structured content and space for free improvisation is proving to be tricky.

I hope to record some examples soon.


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