Artem Vovk said: May 20, 2013
Artem VovkGuitar
Boulder, CO
6 posts

In light of what some people said recently, I figured it would be a good idea to focus on improving (how pun-ny!) our teaching, instead of criticism.
How do you teach improvisation in hebdomadal lessons? I’m a purely classically trained guitarist (how rare!) and I’ve struggled with it myself. I’ve had maybe 3-4 months of lessons back in high school where I was taught some licks, but that was about it. I’ve followed some examples that I’ve seen in different camps/workshops/method books for different instruments (mostly violin), but I do not have a systematic approach for my students. I a lot of advice comes down to “just do it,” and I do not buy that. Some of my students are able to improvise very simple melodies already, but I don’t feel like I have a direction for them.
I haven’t seen that much discussion of it around here, aside from simply teaching some songs from different styles/cultures (I do not think that is enough).
So, what is you step by step approach for improvisation? How does one go from just playing one note at different times, to improvising (on) melodies in different styles?

-Artem Vovk

Kathleen Connolly said: May 21, 2013
2 posts

My guess is, improvisation is highly personal, and everyone develops a unique approach. Here are some Baroque approaches that work for me. A pre-requisite is thorough knowledge of the scale of the piece one is improvising to.

Using a given melody, see where you can fill in large intervals with scale steps. For example, using “Twinkle”, can you fill in the perfect fifth between the words “twinkle” and “little” with notes from the A major scale?

See what you can do with two repeated notes. For example, on the word “little”, two F# quarter notes, you can substitute the four note pattern in the first measure of “Allegro”. Or you can simply use G# eighth notes for a slow trill, or an A (minor third above) eighth notes, or an open A string.

On the descending “how I wonder what you are”, add turns before each descending note.

On the “bread” section, starting with E, begin with a fast, slurred, five note A major scale pattern to that E.

On the final “bread” section, begin with a fast, slurred, descending five note pattern to that A.

Use simple double stops, using open strings that fit the given chord.

For more complex music, use the chord notation over the notes. Start with having the student play the root of each chord at the point of the chord change while you play the melody. Once the student is confident in this, add passing tones between the chord notes. These passing tones will become a counter melody. After awhile, add simple harmonies to the melody, using open strings or portions of chords the student already knows.

Teaching improvisation begins with teaching little techniques like this until the student can employ these methods in creative, unique ways.

Laura said: May 21, 2013
Laura KleinViolin, Viola
Park Hills, KY
1 posts

Start with the chord stacks that Christian Howes describes on his page. This is a brilliant approach to finding the inner melodies one step at a time. He has videos that demonstrate how to develop and use the chord stacks.
Learn a relatively simple tune with I/IV/V7 progression and play the roots. Play one note per measure to start. When moving chord to chord, move to the next nearest chord tone. Gradually add more notes per measure, then non-chord tones (UN, LN, PT) until you find something you like. Instead of thinking horizontally (melody), you are working on thinking vertically and using the harmonies to direct your decisions.
You can also play with rhythms, accents, rests, syncopation, bowings, repeated notes and add ghosted notes. Play the modal scale over the chord.
Play different kinds of ornaments and embellishments (snap bowing, turns, double stops) over the melody.
Listen to lots of improvised music and write the transcriptions. When you find a lick you like, write it down. You have to learn that there are no mistakes when improvising, only better choices. That and you’re only ever a half-step away from the right note!

Jennifer Visick said: May 22, 2013
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Alice Kay Kanack has a series of books called “Creative Ability Development”—for violin, for viola, for cello, for piano etc. There is one called “musical improvisation for children” which I think is more geared towards teachers, and for any instrument. I believe the books come with CDs.

I have not used these books yet, but I have heard very good things about them, and very step by step.

Jamey Aebersold also has some ‘how to imrpovise’ books, with CDs, which are worth looking into.

Knowing the chord changes, and being able to play a scale and/or arpeggio within the time that each chord is held allows a person to know which notes are going to sound consonant or dissonant within the key or mode at any given moment.

Improvising “around the melody” can be a way to ease into it even if you don’t know all the chord changes.

Baroque ornamentation can also be a form of improvisation…

Suzuki repertoire books usually have rhythmic variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star built in from the beginning. At Suzuki institutes I’ve heard lots of creative ways to vary (i.e. create variations on) melodies found in the early Suzuki books—once a student has figured out that there are melodic/modal variations as well as rhythmic variations as well as variations by ornamentation, it’s not that big of a step to help them start making up their own variations, first with few choices, then gradually increasing those choices.

P.S. Once you have a few basics, don’t shun the “just do it” advice—if you can’t find a live band to practice with, improvising over recorded pieces can be a helpful place to start practicing. Listening to good improvisers and finding a few whose style you particularly like is also helpful.

Lori Bolt said: May 23, 2013
Lori Bolt
Suzuki Association Member
San Clemente, CA
226 posts

I’ve used Ms. Kanack’s first book for young children in my group lesson. It is for piano, but children don’t need to “know” piano at all to have fun with it. They play thier own music with the CD….each song is painting a picture or telling a little story.
For example, the first is a thunderstorm. The children enjoy creating booming thunder in the bass and rain in the treble. Very fun! I’m reminded I need to pick up next book even though we haven’t exhausted the intro book yet.

Lori Bolt

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