How To Get Started With Improvisation

In this blog let’s look at how you, the online music student, can get started with exploring the world of improvisation. A topic that may seem overwhelming, mysterious, and perhaps intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. With a few tools in your music toolbelt, you can be set up for success when it comes to improvising, taking the mystery out and injecting your music experience with fun and excitement. 

What Is Improvising?

Let’s get started with defining what improvisation is. In basic terms, improvisation mirrors closely what happens when having a casual conversation about a topic. For example, let’s say that you and your neighbour meet on the street and start talking about how your day is going. This type of conversation is off the cuff, not rehearsed, but sounds polished. It doesn’t require much thinking since the questions and statements are usually things that you might have said hundreds of times. “How are you doing”, says the neighbour to you. Your response might be “It is going really well, how are you doing?”. Your neighbour might reply with “It is going great, what have you been up to?” to which you might say “I’ve been busy taking some online music lessons from Brady Arts Academy which has been going fantastic!”. The language used to talk to your neighbour is simple, understandable, and relatable to the topic of the conversation. If a third person joined the conversation they would be able to understand the context of the conversation and contribute at the opportune time. This in a nutshell is what improvising in music is, an instantaneous composition within the context of a set of parameters as defined by the participants of the music. 

What Improvisation Isn’t?

Improvisation typically isn’t a random act. An improvised solo can sound “in” or “out” depending on choices made by the improviser. There is an emotional component as with any music, but there is a point where the listener may be aware that some choices made by the improviser sound random to the point where they might not make sense. For example, if in the conversation with your neighbour you talk about the weather, you might start out by saying “I’ve been enjoying the sun!”. If however, you suddenly start discussing the type of laptop you have and throw in random words or sounds, the conversation might not make too much sense anymore, regardless of the emotions put into the conversation. 

Here is what this might look like in a conversation with your Neighbour: “I’ve been enjoying the sun! The HP Laptop I use has a lot of Ram. l;akjsdfoijweaofij sounds laksjdf;laksjdf noise, al;skdjf;laskdjf, farming!”. As you might imagine, the neighbour that stopped and asked how you are doing might raise an eyebrow at your answer.

Three Elements of Improvisation

Improvisation can be broken down into three elements, melody, harmony and rhythm. Depending on what instrument you play, one of the three elements might come easier to you than the others, but this doesn’t mean that working on all three elements isn’t needed or beneficial. A drummer might have an easier time picking up on the rhythmic element of the music, but a drummer might get lost in the form of a song at times. In order to find the spot in the song, if the drummer is aware of the melody or harmony it is easier to find where in the song the band is. Let’s break down the three elements and discuss how to get started working on each of the elements. It should be said that while in a theoretical sense there might be right and wrong notes, but in practicality, it is up to the musician to lay out a path in a solo that might make sense in an overall context of the solo. After all, music is about dissonance and resolution. 

Melody, something that is usually played one note at a time, is perhaps the most common element that listeners are drawn to. In a song you like, listen to the melody, the notes of the melody and the lyrics. Typically there is a structure of having a verse followed by a chorus than a different verse followed by the same chorus. As an improviser, being aware of the melodic structure of the song and the words or feel of the song can offer a direction for the solo. Let’s say that the song we want to improvise over is a blues song that is about the struggles of being a neighbour. Keeping with the storyline of the song, an improviser would likely stick to a minor (or sad) scale to keep within the context of the song. Some improvisers will use notes outside of the “context” of a song. In a theoretical sense, there is a right and wrong note, in a practice sense however, the notes that the improviser chooses can be theoretically wrong but make sense within the structure of the solo. Some say if you land on a “wrong” sounding note, the “right” sounding note is only a semitone away. If you are not familiar with note reading, check out our blog Learn Your Notes in Six Easy Steps.

Harmony on the other hand relates to chords, notes that are stacked on top of each other, that have a movement that leads us through a song in a logical order. While this blog won’t go into harmony deeply, one way to get started in the blues is to understand what the note order does to a chord. The best place to start talking about harmony is in front of a keyboard or piano. If a chord is made out of three notes, you have a root, a third, and a fifth that define the chord. The third is an important note as it defines the chord as major or minor. 

C – E – G played at the same time gives you a major chord

C – Eb – G played at the same time gives you a minor chord

Exploring the harmonic relationship between chords gives the improviser an understanding of what scales/notes are strong, weak, consonant, or dissonant over a given chord. It is the grammatical context of the words we use when writing in our mother tongue.

Rhythm on the other hand allows us to create musical ideas within the rhythmic context of the meter that the song is in. It is what makes the music choices infinite. Playing all quarter notes followed by a mix of quarter notes and eighth notes offers a rhythmic variation. Timing or feel is also important to understand. If a song follows the blues, for example, the emphasis is placed on the second and fourth beat of the bar. 

Regardless of how good of a note reader, ear player, or in-between player you are, the reality is that improvising is about using a language to express ideas. Just like learning a language, adding on one word a day means that eventually, you will be able to complete sentences, and then paragraphs. The more you know about the language the more you can express thoughts and feelings about various topics of discussion. Listening to a lot of music, musicians, and transcribing musical ideas will feed the ear. Knowing about the harmonic context of scale/chord or melody and harmony will feed the brain. Some may be great improvisers by ear, some by knowing all the theory, but those who work at the craft by developing both the ear and the mind find advancing as an improvise a rewarding and fulfilling experience.

Now that you are aware of these tools and strategies, what else can you do to help your journey to becoming the musician you want to be? Check out THIS BLOG if you are an Adult Learning to Play Music and CONTACT US for private online music lessons to fast charge your progress on any instrument.

How To Listen To Music

Listening to music is something that everyone does on some level, but to the developing musician, taking time to sit down and listen to all the elements of a song is an important developmental step. Listening to music in the background is part of everyday life. Whether you are in an elevator, vacuuming your home, or driving in your car, music has the power to elevate an experience. However, to really appreciate what music has to offer and what it is about, taking an active role in listening to music is important.

In this blog, we will explore passive versus active listening, how to set up a perfect listening space, and what to listen for.

Passive versus Active Listening

As mentioned, passive listening is when music is in the background. When cooking a meal, standing in the elevator, or taking a walk, having music in the background adds to the experience. Subconsciously there are benefits when passively listening to a piece of music that a developing musician is trying to learn. The ear does seem to pick up small amounts of information but it may take a longer time to commit elements of the music to long-term memory. 

Active listening on the other hand is beneficial to committing elements of music to long-term memory. When sitting down and making music the primary activity without any distractions, the listener can take the time to appreciate the finer points of the musical piece. This might be similar to reading a book. Imagine reading a book while listening to a movie at the same time. The reader may recall elements of the book, but likely will have gaps in the plot development because of the distraction of the movie. Similarly, when listening to music while doing other activities, elements of the music may be missed. Lyrics may not be completely understood or sections of a song may be missed. Instead of making the music a secondary activity, take the time and focus on the music. This is active listening.

Setting Up A Listening Environment

No matter how big or small the room or if you have speakers or headphones, setting up a perfect environment to listen to the music you love and want to learn is important. Much like having a corner to read a book, having a dedicated space for active listening will set you up for success in developing as a musician. Comfort is important, so make sure you are able to find a cozy spot that will allow you to stay relaxed. Minimize distractions not only from other electronics such as a smartphone but also distractions such as bright lights or other noises. If you are using speakers, it helps setting up speakers so that the full stereo can be appreciated. Sitting in between the left and right speaker, make your sitting distance similar to the distance between the left and right speaker. This will give your ear a great stereo balance. When using headphones, try out both closed and open headphones that cover the entire ear. Closed headphones will drown out more outside noises, giving you the best chance of focusing on the actual music

What to listen for?

Now that you are aware of active listening and have your listening space set up, let’s put on your favourite song, turn down the lights or draw the blinds, close your eyes and really listen to the song. Feel the meaning of every word, focus on each note that is being played. Think about the setting of the song. Is this song describing a happy or sad moment? What is the inflection of the voice like when singing the lyrics? What is the structure of the song? Where are the loud and soft moments of the song? Are there any tempo changes? What instruments do you hear? Do you notice any unexpected harmonic or rhythmic elements? Make note of these observations and see if you can figure out what is going on in the song melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. Keeping a logbook helps and becomes a great resource for practice sessions. Make note of a solo that you wish to learn more about and try to play it on your instrument during your next practice session.

Now that you are aware of these tools and strategies, what else can you do to help your journey to becoming the musician you want to be? Check out THIS BLOG if you are an Adult Learning to Play Music and CONTACT US for private online music lessons to fast charge your progress on any instrument.

What Do You Need For Online Music Lessons

The Pandemic has shown that Online Music Lessons Work, but what is needed to make sure that you get the most from your online music lessons? While there is a difference depending on what instrument you play, in general, the technology needed isn’t too expensive or complicated to set up and use. 

Let’s break this down into three steps

LIGHTS – finding a space that makes sense to have as a stationary setup for lessons

CAMERA – finding the equipment needed to make lessons as fruitful as possible

ACTION – other considerations before you log on for your music lesson

Light and Space

Looking around your home for a space that has enough room and is properly illuminated is important. Natural light is the best, but if this isn’t possible, getting some LED Ring LIght Clips for the computer will work. The main idea is that you want the instructor to see you. Make sure that as much of your body is in the frame as possible. Most instruments require attention to posture. If possible, make your practice space the same space as where you take your lessons. Having all required tools in reach during a lesson cuts down on time wasted looking for things, which gives more value and focus on what the instructor is getting paid to do, offering strategies to you to make you the best musician possible.

Camera and Equipment

When you have space figured out, the next task is to find out what equipment is needed to elevate your lessons. While it is possible to do lessons from your smartphone or tablet, these devices alone are not designed to deal with the acoustics of instruments. While there are options to purchase better microphones for smartphones or tablets, doing lessons on a computer is the better option. If you have a desktop or laptop, investing in an audio interface, a microphone, and headphones or stereo monitors is the ideal goal. 

A two-channel audio interface from Steinberg or PreSonus can cost around $150. This is a box that has inputs for microphones or instrument cables and a USB connection that runs from it to your computer. 

A microphone can differ depending on what you play, but for the most part, a Shure SM57 or SM58 would be a good choice. These microphones are the most common dynamic microphones and are found in most recording studios. If possible, having two microphones is best. This allows you to set up one microphone for your instrument and one microphone as a talking mic. Of course, if you are a vocalist or play a direct input instrument, you can get away with only one microphone. 

The last consideration is headphones or speakers. For the most part, having a set of open headphones is best. These type of headphones allow you to hear yourself which is fantastic if you play an acoustic instrument. There are various options between $100 to $300. The Sennheiser HD599SE are a great option. 

There are also package deals that will give you an audio interface, an entry-level microphone, and headphones. These can be found for around $350. You will also need XLR cables and a microphone stand which can vary in pricing but are not too expensive. Chances are you will be able to find used options.

Action and Other Considerations

With your space and equipment setup, it is time to focus on a couple of other items before starting your lessons. The first is your internet connection. If possible, go with a wired connection. This cuts down on weak signal issues and reduces the number of variables to troubleshoot if anything goes wrong connecting to your instructor. If this is not possible, being as close to your WiFi router as possible is the best plan. Also, if your home has other people using the internet, ask them if they can minimize their internet usage during your lesson. 

No matter what platform you are using, make sure you a familiar enough to be able to share your screen and participate on the whiteboard or chat. The ability to share screens is an important asset in online lessons. 

If you are wondering what apps or other digital tools are available, check out our blog on 5 Must-Have Digital Tools for Online Music Lessons

Now that you are aware of these tools and strategies, what else can you do to help your journey to becoming the musician you want to be? Check out THIS BLOG if you are an Adult Learning to Play Music and CONTACT US for private online music lessons to fast charge your progress on any instrument.