Practicing Improvisation

Greetings and welcome to another Flute Friday!

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Some moments in our flute lives end up living permanently in our memories, often teaching us valuable lessons much later down the road. As a sophomore in high school, I was super excited to be selected to play principal flute in the Idaho All-State Orchestra, however, as just a simple farm girl from the sticks, I had never been in an orchestra. Intimidated was an understatement! Although the first couple rehearsals were difficult, by the last rehearsal I was feeling a bit more on top of my game – Until the conductor decided to flip the script. The final rehearsal ended with a group improvisation. The conductor narrated a story, periodically pointing at principal players to improvise a melody or play a specific part from the music by only alluding to the phrase in his story. I did not know the first thing about improvising and wanted desperately to hide under a bass drum and hand my role over to my second in command. I thanked my lucky stars every time the conductor pointed at other section leaders. I tried to listen carefully to his story, but my own anxiety closed off the sensors between my ears and my brain. Suddenly it was my turn. I stared across the ensemble to an authoritative index finger pointed in my direction. I had to improvise something but instead froze. I didn’t know the rules. I wasn’t confident without a score to rely on. I was very much out of my element. I chose instead to play one of my solo passages and he moved on to the next player. I was embarrassed and confused. What is improvisation? How do we do it? What does it mean to just play what your ears want you to play? I have never forgotten this fear of the unknown but over time I have learned to embrace the freedom of creative expression offered by improvisation. In today’s blog, I will offer a few suggestions on how to practice improvisation. Ditching the rules is not really as scary as it sounds! You might even be surprised at the music just waiting to escape from your soul.

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PRACTICING IMPROVISATION

Tip No. 1 – Improvise over a drone. The drone can be as simple as a sustained piano chord or a sustained pitch played by a friend or student. This could be quite a fun activity trading drones with other instruments such as an electric guitar or a contrabassoon. Several years ago, I recorded a video demonstrating this technique with one of my students. Check it out here: https://youtu.be/9snmnlKojV8 (sound quality is a little bunk but recorded on 2014 technology – I am also 50 pounds heavier in this video, but the demonstration is still good!).

Tip No. 2 – Improvise over a pre-prepared track. I was in a flute club meeting late last year where we worked with Walter White’s Long Tone Accompaniments https://walterwhite.com/product-category/wwshop/walterwhitelongtoneaccompaniment/#:~:text=The%20Walter%20Whites%20Long%20Tone,harmonies%20and%20steady%20pulsating%20rhythms , which are excellent tracks to improvise over because they center on two tonal centers on each track. Easy peasy! The Flute Practice also has a great improvisation track starter pack with tracks in F, G, and C major as well as D and A minor. https://www.theflutepractice.com/improvisingstarterpack Both of these options are easy, inexpensive, and very fun to improvise over.

Tip No. 3 – Pick one scale each day and set a timer. Make improvisation a super easy addition to your daily routine by focusing on one scale per day and improvise for a set time only using the notes of this scale. Remember the key cadential notes to help improvise a set of phrases (for example, know where the 4th, 5th, and 6th scale degrees are to help frame your cadences).

Tip No. 4 – Use improvisations to try out strange, unorthodox cadences from Baroque, Classical, Contemporary, and Jazz repertoire or even Pop and Rock genres. This of course will require some score analysis, but it is well worth the effort. Play only the notes of each chord at first and then gradually add a few passing tones. Lead sheets are good to use with this method.

Tips No. 5 – Use improvisation to practice using a particular type of articulation or to practice a new technique such as beatboxing or singing and playing. Because improvisation removes the rules of music, which are often a bit confining, it is easier to experiment with new concepts in a safe, exploratory environment.

Tip No. 6 – Improvise a new phrase that begins on each note of a single scale. For example, play the first phrase beginning on a G, the second phrase beginning on an A, and the third phrase beginning on a B. Continue upward the scale to end up back on a phrase that begins again on a G.

Tip No. 7 – Take a basic melody and add some improvised ornamentation to the line. Add scales and other deviations as you become comfortable straying from the main melody. Pop tunes are great for this! What is your favorite song on the radio? Look up the simple outline of the melody and create your own ornaments.

Tip No. 8 – MOST IMPORTANTLY, go with your ear and have fun! There is no right or wrong when it comes to improvisation. Play from your heart. Play whatever comes to mind. Test things out. Invent new sounds. Most of all, play what you love in the style that you love to play. What do you sound like when the rules no longer apply?

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Improvisation Resources

Books:

  • Improvisation for Flute, The Scale Mode Approach by Andy McGhee. This is a great book that includes exercises using different modes and scales. https://amzn.to/3Mdqry4
  • The Technique and Theory of Improvisation by Bill McBirnie. This is all about Jazz improvisation for those interested in trying your hand at Jazz. https://amzn.to/3sBY4C5

Videos:

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Do you struggle with improvisation? What is your favorite approach? Do any of the above tips resonate with you? Do you encourage your students to practice improvisation? How do you practice improvisation? Please comment below!

Happy fluting!

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