A good improviser has something fixed at the heart of the process whether this is a set of notes, a chord sequence or a structure. Within the confines of what is fixed, improvisers have the freedom to play around with these elements.
This is often referred to as having ‘something fixed and something free’.
I wrote this back at the start of our improvisation series (CLICK HERE to read the whole post) but, is it true? To find out I asked some of our symposium contributors whether they agreed that improvisation consists of something fixed and something free?
Great improvisers don’t start with a blank piece of paper. How many times I hear the phrase: “Just play what you feel”. For an experienced improviser this holds no fear. Yet for a novice it’s too vague, too frightening. Great improvisers start somewhere and then follow their instinct, an instinct born of deep knowledge and hours, nay years, of practice – yes that is right – practice. They don’t as much play what they feel, they play what the music suggests to them. And from that they create a ‘feeling’ which changes or evolves. We might sit at the piano with a mood, and from that a musical idea emerges, but then the freedom is the ability to follow the line – to hear where the music wants to take you, and to follow.
It’s a myth that master improvisers make it all up. Everyone who improvises regularly has a knowledge how music works that helps them choose notes and a bag full of licks they can bend to fit the music setting at hand. See my earlier comments about embellishing click here
It’s a fair point. I once heard it said that if you have too much repetition (in an improvisation) the listener can become bored. Too little repetition and the listener can become alienated.
I would agree if that is said about a jamming session when musicians follow the chord progression – something fixed and then each of them would improvise – something free.
Yes, I agree. We can be so spontaneous with words because we have words to be spontaneous with! So, in this case, words are the fixed element that allow us to be free to express ourselves. So basically, in my Pattern Play approach, I am teaching my students various words and encouraging them to become fluent with them by “speaking” music with them.
Improvisation inherently involves an amount of spontaneity, but it also involves parameters. There is an element of surprise that occurs during improvisation – and yet, there is a certain amount of predictability and there is always context to what we are doing musically (for example, tempo, meter, tonal center, and/or tonality).
I agree that, in the beginning stages especially, it is useful for students to have parameters. This takes away some of the fear in those students to tend toward perfectionism, who may be more reticent to experiment at the piano. Providing parameters gives students a means of playing good sounding music and feeling successful at improvisation. This builds confidence, which leads to more experimentation and creativity.
In the Piano Safari Animal Adventures Book, we provide parameters of various types. Some improvisations include a certain set of notes the student use to improvise, such as Tree Frog in a Rainstorm. The student learns a melody and then is free to improvise on the G pentascale. Roaring Lion, Crouching Lion has a focus on form, with patterns learned by rote and then sections for free improvisations. Others review finger numbers or white key names, such as Zebra on a Playground.
All have teacher accompaniments to provide the rhythmic and harmonic framework to make the improvisation successful. Having the structure of parameters allows students to feel safe while also having some freedom to explore sounds on their own. This book is a great way to begin exploring improvisation while practicing foundational technical gestures.
Yes. Here is a quote from my book Tuning In (page 89):
Something Fixed, Something Free: Teacher and pupil choose parameters or boundaries within which to improvise. Setting parameters can, paradoxically, facilitate greater freedom: if there are no parameters players can feel helplessly lost, not knowing where to start, but if parameters are set in areas where the players feel confident, they then have the confidence to explore the parameters to the full.
The following (and any other) parameters could be set and used, one or more at a time:
- Two or three notes: C and G, or C D Eb, or G A B etc.
- Comfortable and interesting five-finger positions e.g. CDEFG (major), ABCDE (minor), GA CDE, (inverted major pentatonic), C Eb F F# G (blues)
- Scales or Keys: Pentatonic, modes (Dorian, Aeolian etc.), majors, minors, whole tone, jazz, blues, Jewish, Arabian etc.
- Single note accompaniments: Alternating tonic and dominant; open strings; four note ostinato (repeated) patterns for example in C Major: C, E, F, G or C, F, A, G; descending chromatics; down a fifth, up a fourth until the lower tonic has been reached.
- Alternating melody and accompaniment with two players: Players take turns to improvise a melody and play a simple held note or ostinato accompaniment. For example, the first player could improvise a melody for eight counts and then play the accompaniment, while the second player first plays the accompaniment for eight counts and then improvises a melody.
- Chords: Open fifth and open sixth chords e.g. CG and CA in C major. Chords I, IV and V7 in comfortable inversions e.g. CEG (I), CFA (IV) and BFG (V7) in C major.
- Chord progressions: I, I, V, I, or I, VI, IV, V, or II7, V7, I , or the twelve bar blues, or selecting a four chord progression from the piece of music that the pupil is studying.
Yes – totally. ‘Something fixed’ is the melody (but only as the basis for the improvisation), tempo and chord progressions of the piece. ‘Something free’ is the notes, rhythm, dynamics, articulation… Of course that’s not always the case, for example, in jazz, we often use chord substitutions, which are alternatives to the harmonic progressions, but that may only be for a bar or two and then we’re back to the original chord structure.
A fixed idea or stimulus can often be the springboard for the unleashing of imagination in any of the arts. For instance, a stimulus could be visual, such as a picture or a pattern; it could be a melodic fragment or a rhythm, or even an emotion or idea.
I love hearing it said like this. When there are too many choices, we often find ourselves unable to make decisions and that’s definitely not what we want when we are improvising. Stravinsky said: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution”.
I find this true in composing, but it’s especially true for children when improvising. When we invite them to improvise on the entire piano, they often get that ‘deer in the headlights’ look. Sometimes we just say, “Oh come on, you can do it!” But the truth is that is just too many choices for their young brains and they don’t yet have any confidence that what they play will sound good or what sounds might be good together.
So a more effective way to help them improvise is to have both a ‘fixed’ part that you are contributing and a ‘fixed something for them with which to improvise. An example of this would be to have them begin to improvise with only 3 black keys.
As they are successful with that and as you can see that they are gaining confidence, inviting them to include the “other 2 black keys” (without stopping your ostinato) will show them how they can expand. Then, inviting them to expand their notes to include higher or lower ones helps them develop confidence without causing them to freeze or feel overwhelmed by all the choices.
IMPROVISATION DOES NOT START WITH A BLANK SLATE
So there you have it. The great improvisers, in whatever genre, do not start with a blank slate. Why not take some of the ideas suggested above and give them a go either for yourself or in the next piano lesson you give?
This blog post was compiled by Dr Sally Cathcart, Co-Founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers