Simon Reich on Improvisation: Part 2

Improvisation – Jump In!

Guest post by Simon Reich  (pictured)

The amazing thing about improvisation, in my experience, is the fact that inspiration and output can come no matter how I am feeling.

In fact, some of the best tunes I have composed have been when I am feeling down and compromised. The flip side to this is that when I am happy, the creative juices still flow! So in essence, nothing need hold you back from a productive improvisation.

As mentioned in the previous article, armed with your skills of scale and chord understanding it’s always the right time to start noodling around the keyboard and find a gem waiting to be unearthed. Sometimes it starts with a chord progression, other times a melody.

When I was quite young, I remember hearing certain tunes and feeling a funny tingling sensation in my stomach. This became my yardstick for great chord progressions. If I could make myself feel those “butterflies in my tummy”, I’d done it!

You are your own best guide to what sound good, so trust your intuition.

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear – Jack Canfield

“Chapters” in the story…

So let’s say you’ve come up with a chord progression you like. Now’s the time to add a melody or break the chords with arpeggios or other devices to separate the tune up and give it some variety.

When I feel satisfied with a main theme, I usually go in search of other segments or “chapters” to give the tune an interesting story to tell. (If playing repeating chord progressions or long ambient piano tunes is your thing and you derive joy from it while improvising, then this is not a criticism of you, it’s just that my particular love is melodic and various movement based tunes)

In popular music, a song may be broken up into an intro, verse, chorus, bridge, lead break and outro, so I also like to segment my improvisations into chapters. This can often be a hard thing to find. After discovering a main theme easily, you may need to work a bit harder to find accompanying chapters to sit alongside it.

I have often felt that great tunes or songs are let down by inferior supporting chapters of music, so it’s always good to fish around for strong sections throughout your tune. Don’t be afraid to ditch things if they are not “working”.

Keep trying!

As in brainstorming meetings, ideas of all kinds, including the weird and wonderful, are thrown into the mix and can then start a string of ideas forming in your head.

If one particular section of improvisation is not “working” for you and you move on to keep trying other options, you may find the bit that didn’t “work” before has now created a springboard to another reformed idea, and so it is with this form of composition, searching and eventually uncovering gems are part of the fun.

Arriving at a final product is great fun, but the road up that mountain to the summit, is for me, the source of my natural highs.

Having been an improviser for most of my life, I do like to complete tunes in one sitting, but as you start out, or have your own personal approach, you may wish to prepare and compose different sections over time. So come up with a main theme one day and when revisiting that theme a little time later, you compose other pieces of the jigsaw.

I know this is a lot of advice to be taking in and applying, but it’s only theory – and mine at that! The really important thing is to let go and let the whole experience flow. If it’s hard work and a bit of a drama, calm yourself down, or just take a break. Relax.

I remember once watching a documentary about robots and their progression through history to the present day. At one point, scientists wrote a program for a robot to build a tower of wooden blocks. They knew they had failed the moment the robot started building the tower with the top brick. The robot kept seemingly “dropping” bricks in the exact location of the tower they wanted built and it then dawned on them that the robot had no understanding of gravity! The one thing they assumed as “second nature” to themselves, they had neglected to tell the machine. In the same way, I am sharing a tutorial about a fairly “fluid” and personal type of subject and it’s entirely possible I’m leaving out the one small thing that may be integral to your “ah-ha” moment with improvising.

So the bottom line is, jump off this page and onto a keyboard. Reading about riding a bicycle is one thing. Having someone tell you how to do it, could also prove frustrating. The actual learning process begins on the actual bike!

Falling off is also an aid in learning. It spurs you on to try harder or alerts you to minor correction to “tweak” your eventual mastery of the two-wheeled contraption. It’s a fact that scientists still don’t know how to explain or quantify riding a bike…

This is why I love improvisation. It can’t be quantified, everyone approaches it in a different way, the results are widely varied from person to person. At times it has a spiritual quality to it. It’s fun – and as I stated in the preview of this series, it’s a great natural high!

So go ahead, dip your foot in the pool. The water’s fine!

Simon Reich

Simon is a pianist and award winning composer from Victoria, Australia.
Further information : Simon Reich Music
Simon is a regular contributor to Pianodao.

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