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Part 2- What improvisation is and what it isn't

Have you ever watched someone build a house? They start with a cement foundation for strength, add a wooden frame, drywall the walls, add a roof and the finishing details. You keep re-building the whole house adding more detail each time you pass through.

The same goes for improvisation, you start with chords from a lead sheet (the foundation), add a melody (the frame), and then you pick out some notes and rhythms that work with the chords and melody (finished house/piece).

Let’s compare improvising to painting the walls of a house. If I built 3 houses, they would all have rooms with walls. Some houses will have white walls, some will have blue walls, some will have red walls. When you improvise, you are picking your paint colour. At the paint store you have choices to make like eggshell or flat, going with a white theme or a beige theme or deeper colours. When you improvise you have the same choices, major scales or more sophisticated half dim scales? Basic chord extensions or #9’s and #11’s.

Improvisation is not playing whatever notes you feel like. It starts with a structure, and then you apply freedom within the structure. What is often missing, when teaching improvisation, is knowledge of the structure. Once you have a good foundation, you can build anything you like. Structures can be a simple as building a house with popsicle sticks, a tree house, a shed, or a full timber frame cottage.

When we learn a classical piece by reading notes, we don’t have a feel for the whole piece because we start with a finished house. If learning the first bar of the music can be compared to a corner of the house, we completely build that corner before moving to the next part of the house. How can we understand the whole concept of the house when we are lost in the details of the first corner? It’s like painting a small part of the house on the first day of the build.

It is easier to learn a piece when you start with a foundation and then add more details each time you pass through. Getting comfortable with chord symbols and the basic melody, as well as learning to improvise within that foundation helps learning to play classical music as well as jazz or pop. It increases our awareness of the musical foundation, it makes memorization easier, and it increases our appreciation of what the masters wrote when we have had a chance to improvise on the foundation ourselves.

Improvisation is seeing the foundation, grabbing our toolkit, and decorating the musical house.

(this blog is the second in a series on teaching improvisation)


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