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So basically... did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?

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No. I learned to improvise by learning two chords and two scales - C Major and e minor, and fully exploring all the possibilities within. (Basically, the beginning to Enya's "Watermark" in C Major.)

Then, as I got more comfortable, I started adding and exploring new territory bit by bit. My next major milestone was three chords and one scale - a 12-bar blues in C. Then I tinkered with that a lot.

I know people often say you need to learn a lot of scales and chords to improvise, but it's simply not true. You need a solid command of all your scales and chords to gig at a full-time professional level, but you can dive in and do a great deal with very little. This is what's so valuable about Weiss's approach - he doesn't bombard people with tons of material, he gives you a basic vocabulary that can serve as a strong, simple, and useful basis for creative expression.


"If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid, and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him." (John Holt)

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Originally Posted by noSkillz
So basically... did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?
No. I learnt by exploring the piano and music I was playing. This resulted in my being fluent in all keys, but that wasn't my method.


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did you guys learn how to improvise by memorizing tons of chord progressions and the scales that work with then, and be fluent in all keys?


I learned to improvise using C, G and F major chords - by exploring consonance and dissonance - and by immersing myself in a wide variety of music. As I learned more chords... my improvisation could take on new possibilities... and as I learned more and more about harmony and theory - I was able to take it further.

But I learned to improvise purely because I wanted to make music... and it didn't matter to me if my earliest attempts sounded wrong or unsophisticated. That just made me more aware of what I *did* want my music to sound like!

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I learned to improvise because of being too lazy. Same with sight reading. For about 10 years (age 5-15) I would go to piano class without having touched the piano once at home! Yet I did have some 'notable' (as it appears by my parents saying) talent, and they kept me going. I didn't study but I played anything I'd like to play, composing, etc.

My teacher was an old woman who thought that the proper way of teaching is to go through all the etudes of Czerny, so the 100 etudes of Czerny... I'd have to do about 90 of them. This is probably the reason I really can't stand Czerny, although he has a few moments! laugh

Anyways, because of my lack of interest in what I was forced to study, I would play virtually anything.

Thus I started composing.

My idea of success was twofold: Either be EXTREMELY good at what you do (piano playing) or be original (composing). No studying meant no good at piano, apparently, and thus I stuck to composition at a young age! laugh

Along with that, I picked up the guitar and started learning a few chords and a few songs. I was quite popular for that, although teachers wouldn't want to know I wanted to become a composer: "What will you be in life? A musician? how will you earn your living? What about your parents?", etc... frown

Of course all initial compositions were improvisations. Song learning was ear training for me. Combine the two, get me to a few jazz concerts (btw I DON'T do jazz, I DON'T know jazz and don't claim otherwise...), and I also picked up a few scales, a few ideas on different chords, etc.

Nowdays my improvisation comes quite easily, only it goes to rather dissonant roads, to begin with... :-/ Still unless you put me in a crowd of well experienced jazz players, I can probably follow pretty much 'anything', including jamming at music houses with guitarists! laugh (don't get me started on guitarists on this posts... oh no...)

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Originally Posted by eweiss
Originally Posted by Wizard of Oz
I am refuting Gyro because all he says is to "just dig in". Well you can't do that without knowing the process behind it or your will sound pretty bad.

Gyro says...

[Linked Image]

Just dig in!


What a perfect opportunity for a segue into a comparison between improvising as a musician and as a cook. Herewith the great Julia Child's improvisational Moussaka recipe demonstration.

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Never tried segue, taste nice?

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I started improvising some time early during my 10 years as an accordion student from age 5-15. I have never learned a lick of theory. For me it started because of boredom. I was assigned one new song per week, which I was usually able to master after 2-3 days during my mandatory 1 hour daily practice sessions. After learning the piece, I would improvise just to fill the time. And I had to fill the silence, because if I wasn't playing something, from the basement where I practiced I'd hear my ever vigilant mother upstairs yelling "I don't hear anything!!".

Another factor was that my father was also an accordionist, and improvising and playing flashy was one of the few things I did that got affirmation from him. I never heard him improvise a single time, nor my older sister who was a very good pianist. She was a much faster sight-reader than I was, but she couldn't play "Mary Had a Little Lamb" without music if you held a gun to her head. I could play by ear very well, so for me improvising and playing by ear the stuff she played on the piano was my way of distinguishing myself from her. Sometimes childhood angst can contribute to artistic skill, I guess.

My accordion teacher was a rigid purist so I never improvised in front of him. But in 1967 he had an assistant I would play for who did appreciate my improvisation, with the caveat that I did not let the maestro know what we were up to. My earliest memory of improvising is doing jazzy versions of "Hello Dolly" and "Misty" by The Association.

So now at age 55 I'm studying the piano and composing music. And whenever I play along with other musicians, whether on piano or accordion, I'm always comfortable improvising and doing creative harmony lines. I think it's just an innate ability for me. My piano teacher and 2 other top musicians who have heard what I do are baffled at how I can do it without any knowledge of theory. Sort of like the idiot savant thing, I guess.

My piano teacher is pushing me to learn theory because she thinks it will propel my composing even more. Maybe she's right, but I don't understand why.

One time I was jamming on the accordion with some very good rock and roll musicians. We were playing a Steely Dan song and it occurred to me to play a section of "Rhapsody in Blue" simultaneously. It matched perfectly, at least to me. I saw some very interesting looks on their faces, and to this day I don't know if they were dazzled or horrified, or both!


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I think the number of chords and progressions and scales you learn depends on what kind of style you want to improvise, right?

If you play blues, you only have to learn 3 chords in about 3 and the blues scale.

If you play rock, you might have to learn the same amount as blues, maybe a little bit more if you want to learn modern rock.

If you want to learn jazz, your going to have to know a lot of scales and dissonant chords to improvise off of, and you must be fluent when your playing all the scale chord relationships.

If you want to improvise classical, youre going to have know pretty much everything in jazz, and your going to have to be fluent in all keys.

If you want to free improvise, jazz or classical, than you must know a lot of theory chords and scales to do it.

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Originally Posted by Kreisler
No. I learned to improvise by learning two chords and two scales - C Major and e minor, and fully exploring all the possibilities within. (Basically, the beginning to Enya's "Watermark" in C Major.)

Then, as I got more comfortable, I started adding and exploring new territory bit by bit. My next major milestone was three chords and one scale - a 12-bar blues in C. Then I tinkered with that a lot.

I know people often say you need to learn a lot of scales and chords to improvise, but it's simply not true. You need a solid command of all your scales and chords to gig at a full-time professional level, but you can dive in and do a great deal with very little. This is what's so valuable about Weiss's approach - he doesn't bombard people with tons of material, he gives you a basic vocabulary that can serve as a strong, simple, and useful basis for creative expression.


I think the number of chords and progressions and scales you learn depends on what kind of style you want to improvise, right?

If you play blues, you only have to learn 3 chords in about 3 and the blues scale.

If you play rock, you might have to learn the same amount as blues, maybe a little bit more if you want to learn modern rock.

If you want to learn jazz, your going to have to know a lot of scales and dissonant chords to improvise off of, and you must be fluent when your playing all the scale chord relationships.

If you want to improvise classical, youre going to have know pretty much everything in jazz, and your going to have to be fluent in all keys.

If you want to free improvise, jazz or classical, than you must know a lot of theory chords and scales to do it.

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I'll throw in my two cents on this somewhat old thread.

It all comes down to harmony, and not the "chord-scale" harmony that so many people are taught. The problem with scale theory as it is normally taught is that it fails to account for the fact that not every tone in a scale is appropriate for a particular harmony (chord.) You are told "use this scale on this chord)" without any discussion of which tones need to be excluded, nor which tones are important pivots.

You can certainly learn by teaching yourself to listen and play by ear, but this is the hard and slow route. A better route is the more structured one that involves:

(a) learning how to harmonize melodies (ie create chord progressions to fit the melody)

(b) learning which tones are appropriate for each chord and which tones are not appropriate.

Although those two steps are not difficult, good luck finding instructors or books that show it to you. I only know of a couple books and have never met any music instructor who will teach it.

Some people may counter that this is a non-creative approach or that it is better to disregard the structure and play what you hear instead, but that's not true at all. In fact the opposite is true. By learning the structure, you develop a stronger ear.

Some people pick this up without formal instruction by mimicking and imitating what they hear, and this is fine because what they are actually achieving the same thing, just on an intuitive, or subconscious level, without the "verbal instruction" to guide them.

Other people who are having some difficulty with that, would benefit from the approach that shows it to you, instead of you trying to figure it out on your own. Sometimes all we need is a gentle hand to nudge us in the right direction.

Most people who go on threads asking how to improvise, fall into the latter category. This doesn't mean you have less musical ability. It just means your learning process is a little different, but you can get to the same place with the right instruction.

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I started to figure out music at an early age. My godmother bought me a xylophone with a battery operated beater when I was five or so and I started picking out melodies from the TV.

When I was 12 or 13 I started playing organ and like so many back then played the blues scale for starters. I started giving that some thought and realized I could add more notes but the notes not only had to sound good but make some sense as well.

Fortunately I went to a high school where for four years I had the luxury of being a music major. Having a thorough grounding in theory makes everything so much easier.

I was a church organist when I was 15 and was forced to kill time during the service ... if you didn't improvise you'd soon run out of music. Improvising wasn't anything special in my mind, it really was just part of the job. About the same time I joined a combo and playing with others forces you to listen and copy ideas.

I met a student of Oscar Peterson when I was 17 and he impressed upon me how he worked through everything in every key. I didn't follow through on his advice until about seven years later. I then systematically worked through motifs\ideas\scales\patterns in every key and have been doing it ever since.

I incorporate improvising into my daily warm up.





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When I improvise, I usually think harmonic.

I had harmonic training (classical) as a teenager; and this helps a lot.
As a student, I also learned a little bit jazz harmonics, which broadened my horizon a bit.

Today, when I improvise, I often use a set of harmonic formulas, which I vary. And sometimes, when improvising, I come up with a theme that I later turn into a composition.


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I fell into the trial-and-error category, which, if you're okay with make a LOT of errors, doesn't take as long as you think. wink

(There is a famous business saying that goes, "If you want to be good at sales, then learn to fail faster." I think it applies.)


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The pattern play and Chord play books, really gave me some places to start, as well as starting points for styles. Which was handy.

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I just mimic what I hear and am able to decide what is and what is not appropriate, I also incorporate improvisation into my warm up. A good story I have is when I was on a music course recently I was playing a Mozart Sonata, and mid way through it I forgot it. I then proceeded to improvise the rest of the recapitulation. smile

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Improvisation (or "real-time composition" ..urgh) is easy; playing exactly what's written is the hard part. I feel the majority of true improvisation is innate; when I hear or read of people pre-planning notes or harmonies...well, um, it strikes me as contradictory. Some *can't* "just play" but *can* compose quickly and complexly enough without the need for writing it down and, as such, can bear all tangible semblance of improvisation, but, um, in truth have it not be so and, perhaps as a result, insist nobody can simply "play" without planning or, at least, theoretical fundamentals; improvisation is free of this, in my mind. Um...I mean, one need not be ignorant or incapable of such processes but, at the time of improvisation, be utterly liberated of it; to move in the swells of momentism and be so utterly in the moment that most temporal notions lose their relevance and all that matters is in the now. Neither is better than the other; both have incomparable merits...but, um, please; can we try and note the difference? Both are born of the spirit of music and their paths are altogether parallel but different; they end up at pretty much the same place and it matters not which one you're on; but one you tread looking down and the other looking ahead. Practically, um, if you're really struggling to improvise (after, say, years of attempting), learn theory and listen to loads of music; then play standard repertoire and try throwing a load of ornaments and extra harmonies on it...and arpeggiate some chords...repeat sections but miss out the occasional passage, or have a voice come in a few measures late...just jump in! laugh
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I've always been able to make up lines, improvise. I played by ear before having lessons as a youth. I have just always been able to do it. I couldn't tell you how I do it. Dave Horne's advice about working through all the keys is worth trying. Do that enough and you'll be able to play anything, I bet. Just listen a lot and cop the licks you like - then you're on your way.


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