When you play a musical instrument, sooner or later it occurs to you what you might call art within art: improvisation. What exactly does the verb 'improvise' mean? Let's see what the dictionary says:
Improvising, a transitive verb, means: create and perform (music,verse, discourse, etc.), spur of the moment, unrehearsed, without preparation or meditation, composing music mentally in the same act of performing it.
'Without preparation' does not mean that you should not be prepared to improvise, it only means that the music which you play isn't planned, you just think and play it on the fly. If it weren't the case, anyone could engage in this activity, but the reality is quite different. Improvisation can be performed on all musical genres, but on some it turns out to be the predominant part of the execution: think of the jazz players who execute the standards, generally after having exposed a "chorus" (the main theme of the piece), improvise for several minutes before proposing the theme again. A similar situation occurs in jam sessions where the blues is being played in addition to the jazz, whereas instrumentalists are spontaneously engaging some 'battles' with articulated phrases. The occurrence of this act, while on stage, is magic.
If you want to check your improvisation skills, get to the Jam Arena!
What does learning to improvise mean? Well! I'll tell you right away...Technique, is what it takes, but technique alone isn't enough. I know a lot of music graduates at the conservatory who perform every score you make them read on the fly but they can't improvise. What do these musicians lack? Surely a improvisation training that requires time, exercise and many hours of practice, combined with a good reason to do the job. When I say a good reason to do so I mean that improvisation, if you learn it, can give you a lot of satisfaction and takes form of an effective network which works as a "rescue" for your musical performances. Think about it, apart from the situations where you have to perform the songs exactly as they are written, being able to improvise sets you free and gives you freedom to step on any stage with the sheer confidence that you will always find a way without being afraid to forget the notes, simply because when you improvise you are 'inventing a whole new story'. A great advantage...Don't you think?
In this article I will give you some tips on how to learn or how to improvise with harmonica. These suggestions are valid for any melodic instrument as well as for our voice when we sing. Let's see these together:
1. Improvising is like talking: The instrument becomes your voice and you say something through it. Like reading is quite beneficial when you want to become a good storyteller, whereas in order to learn how to improvise, it is very crucial to study songs and phrases. The wider the 'library' the most varied and elaborative will be your language. In the field of music, this means studying songs of different genres and various rhythms.
2. Build a solid technical background: Sometimes music lovers argue about this critical point. Technique is the tool which gives shape to improvisation . It is true that improvisation is an inborn quality of mind and soul, but it is also true that if you do not have the technical ability to express what comes to your mind you will not be able to improvise and your idea will remain just as it is. Always remember that if you train someone dexterity and improvisation together, the two might reinforce each other; but you can't perform something you can hardly visualize and you just can't turn to something what you can barely imagine.
3. Learn how to use the right improvisation tools: Major, minor, blues and pentatonic scales should become your daily bread, as well as arpeggios and patterns. Remember that any musical passage can be traced back to a fragment of these elements. They are the bricks you will use to build your 'music stories'.
4. Set a progression: By progression I mean not to expose all of the ideas and things you bear in mind instantaneously, but to take them out slowly. building speech starting from simple elements and adding others along the time. To be a little more specific..I'll show you some techniques to create this progression:
- Start with phrases of few notes and increase the intensity with the advancement of the solo.
- Use the low end of the instrument in the beginning and move to the higher notes afterwards; the higher notes generate more tension.
- Incorporate dynamics to convey emotions: remember that dynamics work directly on the sensations which music transmits to the listeners.
5. Use pauses: Pause is a music in itself and putting a pause between phrases means giving time to the listener to really get what you just said with the notes. The pause is a very effective element. Train yourself to insert pauses between two musical phrase and also within a single melodic line.
6. Practice playing what you think: Think of a sequence of two notes and execute them on the harmonica immediately after one another. Then try three notes, then four and then with more complex sentences. You have to be able to hum a melodic line and play it on the instrument on the fly.
7. Designing a global vision of the solo. Think where you want to start from and where you want to move in terms of note height, dynamics and phrasing. Imagine reproducing a monologue, or a dialogue between two or more people and then try to make people understand: who is 'talking' at that moment?
8. Listen to other musicians and engage a 'battle', play alternatively, lets say, every four bars, every eight or every two. This kind of dialogue makes jam sessions magical.
9. Learn to improvise using the best tool you possess, any time anywhere: the mind. Hum in the head or with the voice, if you do it often you will become more skilled and adept at playing harmonica in lesser time.
10. Don't overdo it! To improvise, you don't need to shoot notes like a machine gun, all that matters is that you can say something. Do not take risk to become like those petulant 'ladies' who never stop talking (there are also men like that).