Improvisation in Classical Music (Part 2)

Welcome my friends to another fun and knowledge packed lesson. This week we will talk about different kinds of improvisation. So, listen up, get on your thinking caps and enjoy.

Firstly let’s look at the traditional way that everyone views improvisation. Here it is, picture this. The room is filled with smoke and dimly lit. For, whatever reason the guitar player feels that he still needs to where sunglasses. The bass player starts to lay out a groove over a smokin’ beat being tossed off by the drummer. All of a sudden the guitar player starts to throw off these lines from nowhere and it all falls into place for one of the most memorable jams in a long time.

Okay now let’s wake up and look at reality. Nothing is ever thrown off the cuff. There is one universal law in physics that all must adhere to, and that is: “You can not make something out of nothing”. All those licks that a guitar player throws off are like words, an entourage of licks form what is called an “improvisational vocabulary”. Where the improvisation comes in is stringing these licks together to form a solo.

I once had the opportunity to attend a seminar with the classical guitarist Frederick Hand, who is widely known for his ability to improvise. During the class he had the audience call out three at random and he would improvise using those three notes,as the basis for his harmony and then would improvise over that. What he played was great. How does he do that? Actually it is quite elementary.

First of all let’s take three notes A, F#, and Eb. Then let’s look at the root chords we have to work with A: Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented, Maj 7, Min 7, Augmented 7, Dom 7, as well as 9 ths, 11ths and 13 ths, and their inversions. This can be done as well for the F# and Eb. Then we have to establish some kind of key. it is important to remember also about enharmonic tones. For instance these three notes cannot work in a “traditional” key. The reason they cannot is because in order for it to be in Eb the A would have to be Flatted as well in order to keep with the order of falts ( B E A D G C F ). It will not fit in the key of A either. However, if we think of enharmonic tones like I mentioned earlier we can view the Eb as D# thus, making all these tones present in the key of E major or C# minor. You might be saying to yourself that You could not possibly make up an intersting harmonic progression out of these chords. Oh yes, you can! Think inversions. More specifficaly think 7th chords because they have the possibility of three inversions rather than triads which only have two. This particular arrangement of tones provides us with an easier way to end the whole thing bacause we can use a D# diminished chord (VII) to a E major 9 with an F# on the bottom to end it all. However some progressions are not that easy to figure out a final cadential formula. This is why we must study our theory boys and girls. We have become so familiar with the authentic cadence that other cadential possibilities seem to elude us. One of the cadences that is overlooked is the Plagal cadence (IV-I).

What I have just spelled out is easy when you can sit down and think it out on paper. The real test comes at a moments notice, when we are bombarded with notes that we have to take and mold into a musical coherence. How do you do it? There is only one answer. Use it! practice these techniques, at first on paper then on the fretboard. The real trick is to be able to recall this information at the drop of a hat. This is why it must be practiced on a daily basis. Here is a list of things that you should work on to improve your improvisation:

  1. Scales. You should practice all your major and minor scales in all of their forms and positions, as well as diminished scales, whole tone, pentatonics ( yes even classical players should know their pentatonics).
  2. Chords. You should be able to play a chord for every tone in the chromatic scale. For each note you should be able to play a Major, Minor, Diminished, Augmented, Major 7, 9, 11, 13 and all of it’s inversions, in several positions. Do the same thing for minor 7, 9, 11, 13, so on and so forth. Leave no chord unturned. And do not buy a chord book. Chord books are evil because they suppress the analytical thought process. Figure it out for yourself! Use your gray matter.

After a while of doing this you will begin to build up your own “improvisatory vocabulary” and you will begin to transpose things into different keys, that you will use depending on what notes you have with which to build your harmony.

The above method is only one way in which to think about it. There are many ways to go about improvising. The other way is based around improvising within a set score of music. This way is geared towards the classical guitarist who is playing the set repertoire. As you know when your playing something like a Bach cello suite, or The usher waltz by Nakita Koshkin you are bound by the written note. However, you are not bound by any type of phrasing or dynamics or color. These boundries are set only by you personal taste. One way to practice these different effects is to use scales.

Try playing a scale straight through with no dynamics, no color. After that now try a crescendo on the way up and a decrescendo on the way down. Then while doing the crescendo ascending try moving the hand to ponticello, then when decrescendo on the way down move the hand to tasto. Then add some phrasing. When ascending while you crescendo and move your hand ponticello. Ritard and do a small decrescendo beginning on the fifth scale degree, pause slightly on the seventh scale degree to hang on the tension and build excitement. Then, release the tension and hang on the tonic to accentuate the arrival point before we descend again. Don’t forget to descend with a decrescendo while we move our hand tasto. Also, begin a ritard on the third scale degree so that you can create a feeling of coming home. When you finally play the tonic play it so that it is barely audible and really lay into some vibrato to really warm it up. This is only one way to think of a phrase. There are an infinite number of ways you can play scales. The key is to never just play scales, play them with a purpose. By doing this you begin to facilitate a technique with which you can express you inner most thoughts and desires. What is so improvisatory about this is that just because you felt on way about a passage in the practice room doesn’t mean you will feel the same way about it on the stage. We have a tendency to be swallowed up by the moment and if you are prepared you can open the doors and let that spirit of spontaneaty in rather than suppress it.

Next time I thought we might discuss rasgueados and dive into a little flamenco! Until then God speed and keep the fingers moving.