Rhythmic Basis of Melodic Improvisation

(I’ve just changed the title of this post, 21/03/07, as a lot of people¬†were coming¬†here looking for a popular jazz title -sorry folks!)

A lot of people fancy the idea of improvisation -they just never get started. Where do you start?

There are probably almost as many different ways of improvising as there are people, so there are many possible starting points. However, if someone doesn’t know where to start, the chances are that they think of improvisation as the effortless creation of melody and will quickly become disheartened if their efforts lack conviction and form. One can improvise melodically in many styles but almost all successful melody creation is built on a strong sense of pulse and rhythmic balance.

Experienced jazz teachers frequently start off with rhythmic ‘question and answer’ activities: the teacher plays a short rhythmic idea to which the pupil responds with one of equal length. This helps the pupil develop a feeling for phrase length which, as most Western music is structured in balanced phrases, underpins melody. The second step is for the pupil to invent the ‘question’ for the teacher to answer. Once the pupil is secure in this rhythmic invention, the rhythmic ideas are clothed with pitched notes.

Rhythmic ‘question and answer’ is a good way to get started in any style of melodic improvisation and “Answering Back” provides some simple phrases with which to work in classical or folk styles. In case pupils are tempted to ‘turn up their noses’ at the simplicity of these rhythmic schemes, I should explain that they are all taken from melodies by ‘top rank’ composers. For Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven simple was good!

Playing Away

This is the time of the year when music publications aimed at teachers and musicians are full of ads for summer schools, which must mean that it’s time I got around to updating the “Creative Workshops” page on the Full Pitcher website. As our “Get Creative!” pages are resources specifically to support creative music-making, I only post details of courses with a focus on improvisation & composition (I’d be delighted to hear from anyone running such a course, anywhere in the world) but there are hundreds of other UK courses available, covering everything from bagpipes to music technology.

Every year, Rhinegold Publishing produce an “Annual Guide To Summer Schools”. This year it’s a 52-page small-print publication! This is sent free of charge to “Music Teacher” subscribers but non-subscribers can purchase it from the publisher’s website. For experienced amateurs, the breadth of choice is just amazing! But, if you dig around, there is also plenty on offer for less experienced musicians and for children.

Here, I’d like to introduce you to two small UK venues which are big on broadening musical experience and fun:

First, there is the Hindhead Music Centre, where the calendar of summer courses embraces both children and adults, with tuition levels from beginner to diploma. There is even a course, “Discover Music!” for children who don’t yet play an instrument and those who have just started. The centre is a country house, set amidst acres of National Trust commons and there is free time in which to swim in the pool or explore the glorious countryside.

Another of my favourite places is Benslow Music Trust, where adults can enjoy a mind-boggling range of courses – classical, folk, jazz, world music – you name it, they do it! It’s a friendly place and there are courses at various levels. Benslow courses are mainly short weekend or mid-week courses.