Improv Tactics – Strong and Wrong

If you only take away one thing from this series, I hope it’s this. The biggest obstacles that musicians face when learning to improvise are fear and lack of confidence. Sure, practicing your instrument for hours can give you some confidence, but in order to truly bask in the glory of improvised music, you have to stop caring about what other people think of your playing. You must play without fear.

“I can play memorized music in front of people, but why am I so afraid to improvise?”

Improvised music is very personal, which is an intimidating thing for some people. When you play written music in front of others, you may expect them to judge your technique, or your overall ability to reproduce the song. When you improvise, you may feel as though people are judging you instead. Suddenly you feel like you have to prove yourself or impress everyone in the room. This makes you incredibly nervous, leading you to play very timidly or not play anything at all.

Does this sound like you? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it’s something that most (if not all) musicians struggled with at some point in their career. Honestly, the best advice I can give you is to stop caring so much.

“But…but…what if the people I’m playing with make fun of me?”

There are many types of musicians out there, and they will all react differently to your playing. Some may smirk and make fun of you, some may provide harsh yet constructive criticism, some may say nothing at all, and some may cheer you on no matter how you sound. Those that make fun of you clearly haven’t matured past 12 years, but those that encourage you or provide constructive feedback are the true musicians. Regardless, no matter who you’re playing with, it’s always better to play something and play it proud, than it is to squeak out a few notes with a red face of pure shame.

Trust me, I’ve been there. I’ve feared jam sessions with musicians that I thought were better than me, clammed up when it was my turn to take a solo, and suffered through countless measures of whimpy, shy notes. In the end I realized that the only way to get “better” was to just play and stop caring so much.

So what happened? Well, the walls didn’t cave in, the world didn’t end, and I wasn’t banished from the world of music as “that guy who couldn’t improvise”. Sure, I may not have have shattered any hearts or brought people to tears of joy (maybe tears of pain), but jamming with people became much more fun. If I felt like my solo was weak, I tried not to get embarrassed about it. Instead, I tried to use that as incentive to solo even more. I became excited for my turn to come around again so I could try something else.

Yes, some people may make comments or even jokes, but you have to learn how to deal with them if you want to continue with music. If someone is clearly being immature, ignore them. Hell, turn up or play louder for them. If someone is heavily critiquing your playing in a harsh and pretentious manner, try not to take it personally. Take their criticism as advice and keep it in mind, but move on.

Just remember, a vast majority of musicians won’t be jerks. Most of them will be happy you had fun and contributed and either not say a word, or provide some thoughtful and constructive feedback for you. Stick by those people, as they understand what it’s all about.

Strong and Wrong

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loud so everybody else sounds wrong”

– Joe Venuti, Italian-American jazz musician

My guitar teacher used to tell me that even if I played a “wrong” note, I should play it with confidence. “Strong and wrong”, he used to say. Confidence speaks volumes in music just as it does in everyday conversation. Besides, music is so subjective and interpretative that what may sound “wrong” to you may sound great to someone else.

So stop caring so much about the technical side of music. Stop worrying about what other musicians think of you. Get out there and play in the wrong key and trip over your own notes. Have fun with it, laugh about it, learn from it.


Improv Tactics – It’s All In Your Head

Improvisation can be a very daunting concept for beginners. If you want to play your scales faster, you can practice with a metronome. If you want to learn cooler chords, you can look them up in books (or websites). However if you want to improvise, what do you do? What can you practice? What is that “on” switch? It’s different from scales and chords because it’s almost entirely mental.

So how do you “practice” improvisation? Yes, you can practice scale patterns, but those are scale patterns. You can work on your technique, but that’s technique. Scales, chords, technique, etc, are not improvisation. They are a means of transferring your improvised ideas from your head to the audible world. You could improvise with a single note by playing that note however you like, however long you like, at whatever rhythmic pattern you like. You can create a beautiful melody off the top of your head but play it with terrible technique. Does that mean your improvisation is bad? No, that means your technique needs work.

My point is, don’t think that you can’t be “good” at improvising if you don’t know the most hip scales, or have the most amazing technique. Those concepts have their place, and can open new doors for your creative thinking, but in order to really start with improvisation, you have to use your own head.

Think before you shred

I’m absolutely serious when I say that the most useful way to polish up your improvisation is to improvise in your head all the time. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had melodies playing through my head constantly, melodies that I had made up. When I’m taking a walk, sitting on the subway, or grocery shopping, I sometimes entertain myself by thinking of a chord pattern and a melody to go along with it. Now, I’m not talking about composing symphonies or analyzing atonal theory, I’m talking about whatever comes to mind. Everyone gets songs that other people wrote stuck in their heads, why not your own material?

Here’s the catch. Try not to think too hard about it. The creative side of your brain will freeze in it’s tracks if the analytical side comes knocking. Don’t think of it as an exercise or a chore, just let it happen on it’s own. Maybe you heard a sweet bass line in a song recently, and you can’t get it out of your head? Good, keep it in your head, play around with it. Think of your own spin on it, let it repeat forever. This is your head and you can do whatever you want. Go ahead and remix some Justin Bieber, or come up with a hip hop version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”. No one can hear your ideas but you, so if you think it sounds stupid, why should you care?

In your head, your fingers don’t get sore, your embouchure doesn’t weaken, and your technical ability doesn’t get in the way. Think out your wildest musical fantasies. What would you want to hear if you took a guitar solo in front of 50,000 screaming fans? A violin solo at Carnegie Hall?

For me, it’s something that I can’t help. I don’t sit down on the train and think “I’m going to write a melody in my head today”, it just happens. It’s the same as getting lost in a daydream. I’m not saying that you will have the exact same experience right away, but I’m willing to bet that if you think creatively long enough, you also won’t be able to help it.

And the reason is…what?

Think about it. Your brain is the source of all improvisation, so it only makes sense that you should start there. All the scales in the world won’t do you any good unless you have improvised music running through your head. Someone who aces AP English can still flunk out of Creative Writing. The idea is that you will eventually have thousands of new ideas flying through your head constantly, so that when it’s your turn to blow people’s faces off at a jam session, it’s just a matter of unleashing those ideas with the scales and chords you’ve been drilling.

If you have any thoughts, opinions, criticisms, or questions on the matter, feel free to comment or shoot me an e-mail. If you like where this series is going, please subscribe to keep updated. Happy thinking.

Improv Tactics – Introduction

I’ve finally realized that the only way for me to keep the blog up-to-date is to write smaller posts, and post more often. My habit of writing posts long and detailed enough to be their own book chapters has led me to produce one lengthy post every month or two (same with my videos, but that’s another monster entirely). Who would want to follow a blog that releases a post every 2 months, with the off-chance that it will be about something they kind of care about? I sure wouldn’t, and this is exactly the reason that I’m going to start breaking posts into a “series” format.

So, rather than bombard you with a wall of text covering everything about improvisation I can think of, I’m starting a series called “Improv Tactics”, which will contain posts dealing with different methods for learning how to improvise with any instrument. If you haven’t already figured it out from the title, this initial post is simply an introduction. I do plan on releasing other posts in-between this series, so don’t un-bookmark my blog just yet if you aren’t interested in this topic! Let me continue this introduction with some bold text simulating the question of a curious/confused reader.

What exactly will this series help me with?

Great question. This particular series is geared toward those of you who are just dying to “improvise” on their instrument, but have absolutely no idea where to start. After all, improvisation is arguably one of the the most difficult musical concepts to teach. Sure, you can practice scale after scale after scale, but nothing will matter unless you can think creatively (cue shameless self-promotion), and how do you really practice that?

There is no quick fix, no secret exercise, no shortcut. Learning how to improvise involves changing the way you think about music. It involves creative thinking with and without an instrument at your fingertips. Throughout this series I will convey to you the methods and thought process that worked for me. My goal is to take away that fear you get when it’s your turn to play, that sinking feeling of uselessness during a jam session, and most importantly, that boredom that strikes when you’re tired of memorizing songs.

Stay tuned.

Learning an instrument – Be a musician, not a machine

Before I begin, I would just like to make a point that this is not a step-by-step procedure on how to learn any instrument in the world, nor is it a guide of scale patterns and drills to get you started. I would like to share with you my personal philosophy of learning how to play a musical instrument. Why? Because I believe that the kind of mindset you have when starting anything new has a huge impact on your speed of progression. This is my opinion of what the proper mindset is while learning an instrument, whether it’s your first or your twentieth. Like almost everything in life, this subject is full of grey areas, and not everyone may agree with what I have to say, but this is based entirely off of my own experiences and what worked for me. I am addressing this way of thinking to everyone, whether they aspire to be a singer-songwriter or an oboist for a wind ensemble.

Understand music, not just the instrument

“When I was young I took piano lessons for 10 years, but I barely remember anything”

– A lot of people

Let’s think, for a second, about what a musical instrument is. I think the first sentence of the Wikipedia page for “musical instrument” sums it up nicely:

A musical instrument is a device created or adapted for the purpose of making musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can serve as a musical instrument–it is through purpose that the object becomes a musical instrument.

The key word here is purpose. You can use any instrument to play a million scales, precise exercises, impressive drills, or even memorized songs, but the question is, can you create music? Can you stand there, alone, with no sheet music in front of you, no conductor, and no guidance, and play music that you didn’t memorize? This, I think, should be the goal in mind when learning an instrument. To be able to improvise and create music from your own head, on the spot, is one of the greatest accomplishments in your musical undertaking.

Those drills and exercises are important and serve their own purpose, but you need to keep in mind that they aren’t everything. Many of us have heard the stories about people who study an instrument for several years, only to forget everything they learned down the road. I would argue that this happened because they didn’t focus enough on the creative side of the coin. It’s like when you read several pages of a book, only to realize that you didn’t take any of it in. You know you understood each of the words, but you weren’t interested enough in the sentences they formed to retain any of the information or meaning.

So my suggestion is this: First learn to play the instrument enough to be able to produce and control musical notes. Learn how to play a couple of scales and chords (if it’s a chordal instrument, of course). You don’t need to learn every chord or scale in the universe, and you don’t need to play them at unbelievable speeds, just learn the basics so that you can begin creating music.

Think of yourself like a child aspiring to be a painter, and you have to start with finger painting. Once the art teacher shows you how to dip your hands in the paint and draw basic shapes on the paper, what do you do? Do you do it once, then say, “okay, next lesson”? No, you use that basic knowledge to go crazy. You paint blobs of color that might-sort-of-kind-of resemble a cat, little stars and circles that have no purpose or connection other than the fact that you “just felt like painting them”.  People with greater painting experience may pass it off as “just another child’s chicken scratch”, but you think it’s a masterpiece, and you had a whole lot of fun making it. It’s no different in the world of music. You shouldn’t learn the basics and say “okay, next lesson”, you should take what you’ve learned and go crazy.

Let me further explain this with my own story.

I started learning to play the guitar when I was about 11 years old. My father, also a guitar player, gave me two beginner books for Christmas and let me practice with one of his classical guitars. Every once in a while we would open one of the books and he would help teach me the basics. I learned how to play an open C scale, an open G scale, a couple of chords, a smidgen of picking technique, and a few songs that curiously resembled “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”. After I began to understand the beginner stuff, I started to just…play. I would sit in my room and mess around with the scales I learned. I would pick notes at random and play them, then try to repeat what I just did. After I discovered that my Dad owned some basic recording software, I decided that I wanted to try to record some of these ideas. Like most 12 year old kids, I didn’t have any expensive microphones and audio interfaces, but I did have a plastic camera that came with the Lego Movie Maker set.

The hi-tech camera I used to record when I was 12.

Lucky for me, this little, plastic, Lego camera had a cheap microphone built into it, and better yet, the recording software recognized this microphone as a recording device. So, I would “borrow” my Dad’s electric guitar and amp from the basement and dangle the Lego camera in front of the amp with some tape. My Dad also had a multi-effects pedal, which I used to to get distortion and drum patterns. Armed with this technology, I fooled around with recording for hours. I would turn on one of the drum loops and play over it. With no one around to hear me, I was my only critic. Eventually I recorded my very first song.

It had a repetitive, digital drum pattern, looping over and over again until you wanted to punch the speakers. The melody, also repetitive, consisted of 4, maybe 5 notes in total. The guitar tone was cringe-worthy and the recording quality was abysmal. It was amateur, sloppy, disorganized, monotonous, repetitive, and it was absolutely awesome. The thrill of creating my own song was powerful and addictive. From that point on there was no going back. I made another song, then another, then another, all equally sloppy and repetitive. I learned how to finger paint and I hit the ground running.

This gave me a reason to practice those scales, chords, and picking technique. It gave it all purpose. It’s one of the reasons that now, about 10 years later, I still remember everything I learned, I’m still playing music, and I want to try any musical instrument I can get my hands on.

“That’s great and all, but I don’t have any fancy recording software”

Right off the bat I’d say that you don’t need software to record your musical ideas. It depends what you want to accomplish. When I suggest that people record themselves, I’m talking on any level. That being said, it’s actually pretty easy to get your hands on basic recording software these days. If you have a Mac, it most likely already has Garage Band. For Windows, Mac, or Linux, you can download Audacity absolutely free. Utilize this amazingly vast collection of resources known as the Internet and just try a bunch of things out. If you have a large sum of money to spend and want to go straight for the biggest names, check out Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Cubase, Ableton, and Sonar. Some of them even have free versions of their software, so feel free to explore their websites.

You’ll notice that some software, such as Ableton, is focused more on MIDI sequencing than recording audio. This is something that I highly suggest you try to get involved in, as it is a way to easily jot down melodies in your head without needing an instrument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a melodic idea, opened up Ableton, quickly programmed the melody, saved it, and went on with whatever else I was doing. I now have a folder on my computer filled with little ideas that I can expand on whenever I want.

You can also use music notation software to jot down your ideas. If you’re a bit of a computer junkie, check out my post on Lilypond, a free text-base notation editor, and it’s partner, Frescobali. For more conventional software, check out Finale and Sibelius. Again, I have hundreds of Finale and Lilypond files, all filled with quick ideas that popped into my head.

There are countless ways to jot down your musical ideas even without fancy recording software. Do you have a cell phone? It probably has a voice recorder feature. You can also use a good-old tape deck, a webcam, Windows Sound Recorder, Ubuntu’s Sound Recorder, anything! The list goes on and on.

The reason I am so persistent about recording your musical ideas is that it worked wonders for me. It really made a world of difference in terms of developing my “ear” for music. I have come up with a ton of song ideas after looking back through my old recordings and finding some snippets that I had completely forgotten about. Think of recording music the same as sketching a drawing. Recording a bunch of little ideas is like jotting down a bunch of quick drawings in a sketchbook. You can actually hear how you’ve progressed just as you can see how much better your drawings are.

“But I don’t want to write music!”

Just to clarify, I am not saying that you are only a musician if you write, record, and sell your own music. You don’t have to strive to be the next biggest rock star or composer. If all you want to do is learn guitar and rock out to Led Zeppelin, or learn flute and play masterful compositions in a disciplined ensemble, that’s absolutely fine. However, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I believe that these suggestions can still help.

Let’s take the example of the guitarist who only really cares about playing songs by his or her favorite band.

Extreme scenario 1: They never worked on developing an “ear” for music at all. Their only option is to have the song taught to them, either by someone who already knows it, music notation, or guitar tabs found on the Internet. Once they have learned the song, they are good to go, but only as long as they can memorize it. Given a long enough time where they didn’t play the song, they might forget how to play it and have to be “re-taught” before they can play it again.

Extreme scenario 2: They have spent a great deal of time experimenting with the scales and chords they learned and have a much better understanding of how song structures work. Thus, they have a well-developed “ear” for music. They can listen to the song, decipher the structure, and figure out how to play it on their own. They can even play along with the song during their first listen, playing chords that work over what they hear, or improvising melodies to create their own guitar solo over it. No memorization is necessary as it only takes them seconds to teach themselves the song.

In both cases, the guitarist is able to learn the song, but which of these scenarios sounds more fun? Sure, to a beginner guitarist the second scenario sounds like a dream too far to reach when they first start, but what I’m saying is that if you strive for scenario number 2, you will have a much more fulfilling experience with music. If your idea of learning an instrument is memorizing song after song after song, without diving deeper into what the instrument can be used for, you are destined for the first scenario. I believe that the suggestions I have given in this post will help you achieve the second scenario.

Now let’s consider the flute player.

Extreme scenario 1: They never worked on developing an “ear” for music at all. They have mastered their ability to sight-read music and have perfect technique, but they can only play music if it’s put in front of them. They can’t function without music notation telling them exactly what to play, when to play, and how to play. Being told to play with “more emotion” means nothing to them.

Extreme scenario 2: They have spent a great deal of time experimenting with the scales they learned, building their own melodies, and have a much better understanding of how song structures work. This makes learning their required music much easier and more enjoyable. Their playing is most likely more relaxed, as their brain is focused on what is happening musically, rather than being an emotionless computer. They can still play with perfect technique and sight-read better than anyone else, but now they are more in-tune (pun intended) with what is happening while they play with an ensemble. They hear what is going on and understand exactly what they are contributing as a musician.

Again, both scenarios result in the musician playing the required part, but the second scenario is more inviting because it sounds like they are having a much more fulfilling experience.

“So…what exactly are you suggesting I do?”

Let me summarize my points to give you a better idea of what I’m suggesting.

– When learning an instrument, go beyond the systematic exercises you are taught. Don’t learn them and move on, learn them and create with them.

– Jot down these creative ideas by recording them. Think about making your own musical sketchbook. This will help you see your progress, develop your ear for music, and give a greater purpose to the mundane exercises you’ve been working on.

– Remember that regardless of your ultimate musical goals, thinking creatively will help speed up your learning process. It makes music fun and fulfilling.

Would you rather buy a fish or a fishing pole?

This entire subject is something that can be discussed endlessly. I can go on and on, further expanding on how to think more creatively, discussing my opinion on the best way to start improvising (something I may post on in the near future), but for my own sake (and yours) I think I’ll end this post and leave you with one old question.

Would you rather buy a fish, or would you rather buy a fishing pole?

Think about it. Buying the fish is the easy solution, but it only feeds you once. Buying a fishing pole is a greater initial expense and you have to learn how to use it, but once you do you can catch as many fish as you want. This can be translated into the music world. Learning songs without being musical and creative is possible, but at the cost of the time it takes to learn and memorize each one. Learning how to be musical and creative gets you the fishing pole. The big initial expense here is having to go beyond just learning scales, chords, and technique. You have to put additional effort into understanding them, experimenting with them, and playing without being told what to play. Learning a song because you understand it musically is as fulfilling as eating a fish that you caught yourself.

I hope this post helped someone out there. If you like what you read, be on the lookout for expansions on this topic in the future. Until then, happy playing.

The Emotion Behind Chords and Scales

I’ve always wondered why certain chords and scales evoke certain emotions. What is it that makes a minor chord “sad” sounding and a major chord “happy” sounding? How can a combination of musical notes actually affect us emotionally? It is one of those topics that never really comes up because it is so engraved in our brains. No one ever sat me down as a kid and said, “when you hear a major chord you will feel happy, but once you lower the third of that chord, you’re gonna cry”. It was almost as if I naturally associated those chord qualities with those feelings.

For now let’s focus on major and minor chords, as these are the most common and the easiest to associate with emotion.

Take a listen to these two melodic lines.

Example 1:

Example 2: In example 1, an A major chord is arpeggiated, leading to a D major chord. Example 2 uses the same melody, but now minor chords are being used. Think about what emotion you feel as you listen to them. Does either one make you happy? Sad? Enthusiastic? Shameful? Envious? Enthralled? Sympathetic? Hungry?

Alright so maybe you don’t experience anything too deep from these two tiny, simple melodies, but if you are like most people, you would classify example 1 as “happy” and example 2 as “sad”.

The question then arises, why? Please note, I understand that this topic has been studied and discussed amongst people who have done far more research than I have. I am simply stating what I am aware of and theories that seem plausible to me.

We’ve heard it before:

This is the first theory that pops into my head, but it seems to bring up more questions than answers. Simply put, we attribute such emotions to certain chords and scales because those particular chords and scales are used in songs we’ve heard that evoke a certain emotion. In other words, we hear songs that are about sad subjects, most of which utilize that minor sound, and therefore associate the minor sound with sadness. However, why was the minor sound chosen for those songs in the first place? This is similar to the “chicken or the egg” scenario. Did minor chords get the sad stigma because they were used in sad songs, or were minor chords originally chosen for sad songs because those chords already sounded sad by themselves? Perhaps it is something that slowly evolved over time?

It’s all in the notes:

As another theory, we can examine the notes that make up the chords themselves. Could there be a link between the actual intervals contained in the chord and our emotions? (Warning: Haters of music theory should only skim this segment)

In its simplest form, a chord is composed of three notes played simultaneously, which is also known as a triad. These three notes include the root, some sort of 3rd and some sort of 5th. By altering the 3rd or the 5th, we can make four different qualities of chords. The four qualities are major, minor, diminished and augmented. A major chord contains no alterations to the 3rd or the 5th. A minor chord is made by lowering the 3rd by one half step. A diminished chord is made by lowering both the 3rd and the 5th by one half step. Finally, an augmented chord is made by raising the 5th of a major chord by one half step.

Let’s focus on the difference between major and minor. We will simplify things by using C major and C minor as examples.

C major is composed of the notes C, E and G. C to E is a major third and E to G is a minor third. If we look at C minor, which is composed of C, Eb and G, we will find the opposite. C to Eb is a minor third and Eb to G is a major third. Both contain a major and minor interval, but they sound like completely different chords due to where those intervals are placed. The third can essentially be viewed as the center point of the chord, which can be why it has such an effect on the way the chord sounds. Take a look at this visual representation.

As you can see from the clever picture, both chords contain the same amount of “space”, but if we focus on the positioning of the notes with respect to the lowest note, the major chord just looks more…confident than the minor chord, which looks almost droopy. Could this actually have anything to do with the common emotional association of each chord? Perhaps not, but it is thought provoking none-the-less.

Of course once we begin talking about chord inversions, this theory gets a little more complicated. In fact the visual diagram of a first inversion C major triad would look shockingly similar to the root position minor triad shown above. So surely it cannot only be the shape of the chord. Perhaps it is the shape PLUS a specific combination of intervals. This leads to my next thought.

By the way, if you know nothing about music theory but are dying to learn about it, check out my basic scale theory post!

Your brain + frequencies:

Without getting too technical and drowning this page with numbers and graphs, I’ll just generalize this theory. Could it be possible that the actual combination of frequencies in major and minor chords actually trigger these emotions in our brains? In other words, could the combination of notes in a minor chord generate a frequency which, after being processed by our brain, naturally triggers a negative emotion? I would like to point you to another site that discusses the link between sound and emotion:

Wisdom of Sound

The idea that sound, be it as specific frequencies or as music, can effect a persons health is a science in itself. Just ask anyone in the field of music therapy.

Since I’m too lazy to continue I meant for this post to be only a small taste of the matter, I think it’s time for me to stop writing. I’m sure I’ll come back to this topic more than once in the future. Hopefully people will get involved and express their own knowledge and opinions on the subject, giving me more content to discuss in future posts. I didn’t even begin to talk about how the most commonly used chords and scales differ depending on what part of the world you’re in. That puts a whole new spin on the topic.