Improvisation Etude 1 - any pitched instrument(s) : digital copy
Test out your improvisation chops! For pitched percussion instruments, this etude explores the use of pitches within an E lydian scale to construct a pleasing piece of music in ABA form. Left hand gestures are given throughout. This etude will be included in my upcoming book on how to freely improvise. Try it with a group too.
"Our goal with these sessions was to use improvisation as a means to develop chamber music skills. Before each piece, we set a goal for a performance technique we wanted to emphasize. For example, we would set out to pay close attention to ensemble balance for a piece, or to focus on group phrasing.
In the first video, the technique of choice was cueing. We set out to lock onto cues, both visual and aural, as a means to trigger musical change. Throughout the piece, we had moments of sudden group shifts and moments of gradual progress. If this were a composed piece, we would spend rehearsal time assigning cueing roles. We wanted to use this same strategy in an improvised setting."
"For the second video, we decided to work in groups of two or more players to create a unified texture within the piece. As we began improvising, hockets started to emerge and this directed much of our playing. Groupings ended up changing very frequently, but our ensemble listening focused on fitting into one another’s parts."
I highly encourage everyone to go take a listen to what this group is up to. They are a great group of dudes that can really play and I hope they continue to make music together for a long time! Check out this feature with Vic Firth, which was recorded and shot by Evan Chapman!
Welcome to part two of my session with guest, Jaren Angud! (if you haven't checked out the first part yet, you can do so by clicking this link). Since I have already covered how to get started improvising on pitched instruments during post 3, this post will be directed at applying those concepts while also touching on the subject of group improvisation.
When you improvise with other people, you must be an active listener. The more you process what is happening around you, the more possibilities for music-making will be available. It is the same reason why chamber and Jazz combo musicians work without a conductor. If everyone is listening to one another, you don't need one!
Once you are able to truly listen and play, choices must be made.
If someone is...
-Staying up in the high register, go lower to free up some of those frequency levels
-Playing staccato notes/dead strokes, you have a choice to follow that texture or do the complete opposite (rolls, full resonant strokes)
-Playing at a loud dynamic, you may do the same...or may not
-Using the entire range of their instrument, you may just stick to one octave
In some cases, it may be interesting to try ignoring the other people, however if that approach is applied for too long the communication of the group will be lessened.
All of the above (and more) were aspects that Jaren and I faced during these sessions. In the videos below, you will see what we did/did not do while in the moment.
In improvise 5a, Jaren and I used one chord as inspiration. We may have occasionally strayed, but it was our "home base". Some people would call notes outside of the main chord wrong. We like to think of the notes outside of our chord as color tones that build tension (see what I did there?). Once you can free yourself of the fear of playing wrong notes, you will find that improvisation on keyboard instruments is much less stressful than you think. Through building up the ability to navigate your instrument well, it will also allow you to get out of tough situations during live performances where stopping and restarting is not an option. One of my mentors used to say that professionals make mistakes too, but recover a lot faster than everyone else!
Db Lydian Scale
Sometimes by putting a limitation on what you do can cause exploration of new places. In fact, many of my own compositions were created that way. You will hear how we do this during improvise 5b. Some of the new sounds came from playing on nodal points, lifting marimba bars while playing, hitting the frame/resonators, using deadstrokes, using rolls/rudiments and experimenting with strange "bow" sounds.
Each picked one note, but didn't tell each other what was chosen
In 5c, we chose to bring back the "can" idea, where we picked words at random that guided our music-making. This time, we even show the process of picking cards on camera...so sorry for the silliness...actually I'm not. You are welcome...
Major 7th interval (G and F#)
3 minute time limit
Is anyone else motivated to improvise yet? I promise that it will bring you closer to your instrument and elevate your technical, musical and performance abilities. Let me know what you think below and feel free to share your own sessions with me through email or on social media. Do it!!!!
The cards picked for performance #1:
The cards picked for performance #2:
The cards picked for performance #3:
Performance #4 was actually sparked by experimenting with the snare drum in #3. We wanted to explore long notes/the roll. This is a real example of how one session can inspire another! The more time we spend with our instruments, the more possibilities come to the surface.
I hope you enjoy this new direction of my blog and I can't wait to share all of the experiences and music with you all!!
Post three! I hope you are ready!! This post will be guided mostly by playing examples, and of course focus on keyboard instruments. Even though I am mostly using marimba and some glockenspiel, you can apply these concepts to any pitched instrument you choose.
Improvising on a pitched instrument automatically has some limitations, especially to musicians with a trained ear. This is because whether we want to or not, we think about tonal music theory. My suggestion is to once again, just play. Don't focus on voice leading, proper harmonization, notes outside of the key and instead go with what sounds good to your ear.
My intention with the videos in this post was to present you all with music that is pleasing to listen to, yet within each I have still broken more rules than I can count! I treat composition in the same way. My musical training certainly influences what I write, but my ears- through experimenting with new sounds, textures, rhythmic/melodic development and feels- do most of the work. Otherwise, like a Theory 1 voice leading assignment, you can get so caught up in right and wrong that you may never unlock the creativity of what is really possible for you. As many musicians and composers have said before me...It's time to break the rules. (Note: breaking the rules also doesn't have to mean atonality)
I like to come up with a theme or riff, whether melodic or rhythmic and play off of that first. Once an idea is in the air, I can come up with counterpoint and other development from that. This is when I definitely pull from my training. Although, sometimes even a dynamic scheme or mood you create can show what comes next. If you play a note that isn't in the key, challenge yourself to embrace the dissonance by playing it more than once, modulating to the key using that pitch, or by using it as a slight tension in the music that will redirect you back to where you began. As previously quoted in another post, "...there are no mistakes, just missed opportunities"!
Below are things to try within common musical elements as you begin to improvise your own music on pitched instruments. You'll also be able to read about what I did for each video.
Scales and Intervals
Step 1- pick a scale or interval
Step 2- try to modify the order of pitches as you play it (that includes repeating notes)
Step 3- try focusing on one or two pitches (from the scale) only
Step 4- if only using a couple of notes, experiment with rhythm or different sounds to spark new interesting aspects in your music
Step 5- try using two completely different scales at once to create new layering effects and harmony
3d uses my favorite interval of a Major seventh as the thematic element. However, I used it in open (C-B) and closed (B-C) format to provide me with more sonic tools. This was intended to be harmonically static, so it naturally allowed me to use my snare drumming background to influence the rhythm and pump up the excitement.
3e is inspired by textures within Gordon Stout's beautiful piece for marimba, "Wood that Sings". I chose to use a softer mallet in my left hand to emphasize the two different voices moving about. Most of the music that I am playing is melody vs. accompaniment, but the roles constantly switch between the hands. The central scale is Bb Major, but I took the music into G minor and F minor as well before returning back to Bb Major in the end.
3f is a short clip that uses the interval of a minor second in the right hand to provide the melody. Yes, both notes are the melody in my mind! The left hand helps maintain structure for the large scale form and provides harmonic contrast between D minor and F Major (minus the b naturals: Lydian mode)
Key or Chord Progression
Step 1- come up with a chord progression prior or improvise this as well. Remember that it doesn't have to be a progression that follows the rules. Don't limit yourself. Use parallel chords, borrow or change the tonality altogether. You should even try using random chords and play chromatic lines over it or use a progression without common notes. (If you compose your progression first, it may be a good idea to have a small whiteboard handy to write it on.)
Step2- create a melody over it... or don't
In 3a and 3c, I chose to experiment with EMaj7 and C#-7 as my chord sequence. So, much of the melodic content came from improvising over an E Lydian scale due to all of the common notes (the A# over E just adds a color that I like). I was into the sound of #4 that day, I guess. Oh, wait that's every day...
3a has more of a symmetrical chord structure in the beginning, but there are times where I borrowed chords due to unplanned notes that I hit. For instance, at some point I hit a D within E major, so that made me want to modulate into the parallel key of D major. I also modulate into an F- and Db Maj segment around the 1 minute mark for contrast. Again, that was unplanned and has nothing to do with E Maj. However, that journey is significant because I took a risk and liked the result. I allowed the music to reach me before making a decision by comparing it to basic music theory. That is the beauty of organic music making. Play what sounds good to you and if you try something and it doesn't, don't do it again!
In 3c, I did not try to keep to any particular form or texture. I wanted to have the glockenspiel and marimba interweaving throughout, but there are also times where it is melody vs. accompaniment. I'd also like to highlight my advanced video effect skills in the beginning of this one...haha
Thank you to Shannon Wood and MalletShop for making it easy to obtain this beautiful set of roundtops and the guys at Century Mallet for your amazing work! I love this instrument!!
Here are some techniques to consider while you play:
-playing on nodes
-multiple sound sources
-other instrument sounds made by frame, resonators, etc...
-computer generated effects (to be covered in another post)
Also, play off of what happens during other improvisations. 3b was created after making a "mistake" in one of my practice sessions. Note: I was using rattan mallets which have a little more rebound.
While attempting a dead stroke, the mallet head slid off of the bar and the neck of the mallet hit the side of the same bar. This sound was interesting to me because you get both a slide sound that has a subtle pitch, the sharp click from the rattan against the bar, and the actual pitch of the bar! The sharpness of the click also inspired dead strokes, which then inspired playing on the nodes. All of those less resonant sounds then allowed the notes that I let ring "pop" much more than usual, which gave me a new textural perspective to work within. Do you see how active listening can inspire this domino effect of musical ideas?
Use these ideas as a place to begin. The hope is that you will also come up with your own, which may lead to finding your voice as an artist and/or composer. Use the past to guide you, but create your own path!
Have you tried incorporating improvisation in your day yet? Share it with me!
Ok everyone, this time I would like you to start by creating a non-pitched palette. Think about a painter. He or she begins with only a few colors, but once mixed there are many options. We can do the same thing, but actually dig even deeper since our “colors” often have more than one dimension. Try to diversify your sound sources as much as possible- in other words, your instruments should not all be made of the same material. I have chosen one drum, one wooden instrument and two metallic sounds.
Experiment with each instrument and see what sounds are possible. Out of this set, I have come up with 11 or 12 independent sounds, but there will be more possibilities once mixed. There are even more possibilites when you consider mallet options. Feel free to go outside of conventional playing techniques and keep in mind that it is most difficult to express music on instruments that you don't practice every day, so don’t be afraid to just play around with "sounds" for a while.
Once you have your palette and are ready to create some music, let’s add a bit of structure. If you've checked out my first post, you’ll remember the chart that I created to help you get started improvising. We will start there too. The following two performances are based around the same one-measure theme...
However, I will vary each performance by experimenting with the style, texture, tempo and the sound choices I make.
As always, headphones are recommended!!
The next method of creation is through melodic development. You may simply choose a general direction of “pitch” and play around with that or you may try to create texture through playing counterpoint- melody vs. accompaniment. More ideas will continue to populate based on what you play ("momentary themes"). I also chose to swing this one!
The last performance plays on melodic contour, but my main focus was experimenting with a faster tempo and rhythmic density. Think Moto Perpetuo...
Now it's your turn. What will your palette look like? Please post pictures and especially videos to my social media, email me or leave a link to it in the comments!
I'm so excited to finally bring this idea to life! I've used improvisation in my practice sessions, compositions, performances and teaching for quite some time and have felt its positive effects. I hope that you enjoy your journey throughout the posts and share your experiences with me along the way.
Let's do this!
We will begin the series by focusing on how to start implementing aspects of improvisation into your own practice sessions. Throughout, we will progress into using it as a practice tool and as creative and compositional techniques.
The purpose of this class is to show you ways to gain a new comfort level while improvising. Without that, moving on in this series will be difficult because you will never shake that uneasy feeling.
The first thing that you should do is pick an instrument that you are most comfortable on and play! Don't worry about meter, scales, key, harmony, timing, etc... Try to think in larger scale phrasing and gestures and experiment more with color- how many different sounds can you produce on the instrument? These "colors" may be different stroke or lift types, ornaments, articulations, placement of the hand or stick on the drum, bar, etc. and more.
Don't forget that you always need to practice the foundation elements on the instruments we play. This means scales, rudiments, stroke speeds/types, etc. If your technique is lacking and then you decide to improvise in a more structured environment, your technique will still sound like it is lacking. In other words, you need to be able to make a good sound without thinking about it. Your brain will have tons of other things to focus on while creating on the fly and the last thing you want is a great idea that doesn't sound so good coming off of the instrument.
On the other hand, developing creativity on your instrument only happens when you have time to experiment and just play without the confines of music. I recommend going through your normal practice routine and then incorporating a chunk of time to just experiment. The trick is actually blocking out that time and then making a commitment to it.
This is the difficulty for those of us who are working musicians. I know myself that when I think about my weekly practice schedule it often fills up with new music that needs to be learned on top of my daily technique refreshers. I'm not recommending that you change your routine, but just try to fit an improvisation into your daily practice until you gain some confidence. Otherwise, so much time is spent on learning repertoire and techniques that simply learning our instruments and more importantly our body's limits on those instruments are not even on the radar. You can only connect the dots between the music that you play and why you express it the way that you do when you understand what is between them- YOU.
If you are still not sure where to begin, you could even start by improvising over songs. Just try to avoid playing typical drumset patterns for this particular step. Remember that the first stage is all about experimenting and gaining confidence. Once you are ready to begin a free improvisation, some structure may still be required. The following chart will give you a place to begin.
Be sure to record every session so that you can listen and watch yourself play. This is an essential part of the practice that I do because I feel that it holds me accountable for my music making like there is an audience in the room. It also is great to assess your body language as a performer because if you can sell improvised music, you can certainly sell a piece that you have studied for a period of time.
Below are examples of myself improvising using different instruments (wear headphones if possible). While recording these, I had three different goals in mind:
1. Try to take on a different character for each
2. Play musically (dynamics, creation/development of themes, phrasing...) while using conventional and non-conventional playing techniques
3. Feel and portray confidence and comfort
I also want to stress that these clips are unedited with the exception of the occasional fade out (for looks!). This music is inspired by the moment in which it occurs! In the paraphrased words of Stefon Harris in his TED Talk...there are no mistakes, just missed opportunities...
Try to practice at least one free improvisation each day on a new instrument or groups of instruments. Challenge yourself to make the style, mood and sounds you create different each time. Feel free to repeat or recreate a particular session using new instruments as well. Don't forget to record yourself every time.
Next time, we will focus on non-pitched instruments while introducing a bit of structure. Feel free to share your own improvisations based on this post by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or by becoming my friend on facebook and/or following me on instagram at the links below. I'd love to create a network of percussion #improvisers this way!!
If we are friends on Facebook, you might be familiar with my #improvise posts. It's usually a video of me improvising music at the Marimba like this...
I've always been inspired by the freedom (to an extent) that Jazz musicians have during performances and also by their ability to literally create music on the fly. When done really well, it is amazing to watch and hear!
Since my undergraduate years, I've in some way made improvisation a part of my day and practice sessions to strengthen my connection to the music that I am playing, composing and learning. I truly feel that this practice makes you a better musician because you begin to also connect with your instrument, which is something that percussionists need to work on all of the time. Think about it...we are almost always approximately 16 inches away from our instruments!! This is why we work on scales, arpeggios, rudiments, hand technique/placement etc... Then, we supplement those techniques with others like Ideo-kinetics (Gordon Stout's book that every mallet player should live by) which lends us a way to help "feel out" the lateral plane of the marimba and other keyboard instruments. All of these skills are essential to the physical aspect of playing percussion, but what I have been interested in more recently is connecting those physicalities to the ear.
The first time I really felt aurally disconnected from my instrument was while I was jamming with my brother, Ben, a jazz trumpet player. Since improvisation was so natural for him, he has had to learn a way to make a real connection to the instrument that he plays in order to allow for the music to speak. By the time he played a note I knew that he had already heard the note that was about to come out! At that moment I thought "what if there was a way that percussionists could do the very same thing?" We all do it to an extent, but do you actually audiate everything that you are playing? Do you know that if you reach a specific distance, you will hear a particular note? That is what I believe improvisation helps with because you get your eyes off of the page and begin actively listening to how you not only make sounds, but make music itself.
After all of this, I began pursuing more ways to incorporate improvisation into my daily practice sessions. (I don't mean simply improvising in between practicing either, which is also a great way to begin or end a session!) So I began to use it as a tool to learn music too. For example, I play with a contemporary music group called Glass Farm Ensemble. We often play extremely challenging music and sometimes even after spending hours with certain excerpts, I found that I wasn't able to get past the notes on the page. Presently, as I am learning this type of music, I often take the notes or rhythms like small motives and improvise around them. As I feel more comfortable in that specific musical "zone", I go back to the passage in the music and put the metronome back on. It is amazing to see what you will internalize after you eliminate the stress of playing correct notes and rhythms!
After having a lot of this down, I stumbled across and have been totally inspired by Maria Finkelmeier's improvAday project. If you don't know what she is doing with this-check it out! Her posts, to me, reinforces the fact that improvisation can be easily applied to your life and will not only help you in your endeavors, but also verify your love for playing music.
SO...after giving you all the run-down, I am excited to announce the development of my new FREE masterclass series "#improvise" that will be posted here and on my YouTube channel beginning mid-February! It will feature videos on how to begin your application process, using improvisation in compositions (have had a lot of questions on this topic), creating new compositional ideas with improvisation, active listening while improvising in groups, and much more. I will also be providing FREE etude "sketches" that I am hoping to record my own versions and have others post their own here as well.
Thanks for your time and I hope to see you there! Please email me @ email@example.com or submit the form below if you are interested.
Sorry for not updating in a while! I promise that there is a good reason. I've been working on a composition commission for Rowan University's theater department since the summer. The play is a modern adaptation of "The Bacchae" by Euripides. It will feature my original score of incidental music, improvisational sketches and culturally-inspired dance accompaniment. I'm also thrilled to be performing in my work alongside a stellar group of musicians that are on faculty at the University. The roster includes Dean Witten (percussion), Douglas Mapp (bass), Adeline Tomasone (flute), Timothy Schwarz (violin) as well as student percussionist Stephen Fleming. The show will be running Thursday (10/22) to Sunday (10/25). Pictures and hopefully recordings to follow!! Let's do this!!!!
Earlier this year my former teacher Gordon Stout invited me to perform on his recital at ZMF. I always hear great things about the festival, but had never had any experiences with it or Nancy herself. With that in mind, even though I was only in New Brunswick for one day, my experience was great! Nancy and her crew were so friendly and helpful and it was organized extremely well. Everything seemed to go exactly as planned from load in to load out, which makes the stress of performance days much easier, especially when traveling and bringing tons of gear is in the mix.
This performance was especially exciting because myself and Marco Schirripa premiered Gordon's new piece "Belly Buttons" (as you may have read in the projects section) and Gordon and I played my piece "Duo for Snare Drum and Marimba" for the first time since recording it for "Welcome to Stoutland". Here is a clip of that studio recording if you are interested!
Leading up to the performance was also fun because I was able to spend some time rehearsing and hanging out with both Gordon and Marco. Check out the pictures!
Anthony Di Bartolo is a New Jersey-based percussionist, composer, and educator.