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Improvisation

by Jerry Rockwell

Improvisation is where it all started for me. When I started learning how to play guitar in 1963, there really wasn't much in the way of instructional materials out there--particularly in the blues and rock genre--so I was on my own, to a large extent. The kids that could really play well just learned from wearing out records: they would play a given riff over and over until they got it. Same with the chord changes: through trial-and-error, they'd arrive at a close approximation of the changes, just by playing along with the record until it sounded right. This used to amaze me, and it really made me jealous! I simply had to find a way to do this myself.

So after many, many hours of spinning vinyl, and a few hints from friends; I began to get the hang of playing by ear--I learned to copy note-for-note the guitar solo in the Kingsmen's Louie, Louie, as well as all of George Harrison's lead parts. Something else started happening at the same time, though: I began to "noodle" with my guitar. With a sense of childish curiosity, I began to run some melody notes right through a chord position--just to see how it would sound. Or I would go on extended melodic excursions way up the fingerboard; back down and around: all the time having NO CLUE what I was doing! I did waste alot of time noodling like this, but I gained something very important: I got a direct connection to the guitar as a means of expression. After a while, it felt very natural to pick up the guitar and just start to make music: a blues line would emerge, giving rise to another one, and so on.

This experiential time with the guitar was absolutely critical to my early development as a musician(and remains in first place to this day, whether I'm playing dulcimer, 5th-tuned guitar, standard-tuned guitar, or whatever), and the best news of all is that it is GREAT FUN! I highly recommend this undisciplined, exploratory style of music-making: Its a sort of "communion" with the soul, where you can touch some deep and wonderful--and occasionally tumultuous--areas of yourself.

I wish it was "happily ever after" from this point on, but for me, I was yanked out of my esoteric magic by the harsh, cruel reality of the "real" world. This "real" world was the world of fragmented Western European culture. It was the mindset that said: if you wanted to play the guitar, you should learn the "correct" way to play the guitar. You'd have to go to a classical guitar teacher(a rare commodity in those days!), and if you got to him soon enough, he'd be able to undo all the fatal "errors" that you didn't even know you were developing. OK, if its Jazz you want, you'd better find yourself a jazz guitar instructor, and ditto; he'll un-learn your mistakes! But don't pollute yourself with that rock-and-roll dreck! So my parents helped me out with some jazz guitar lessons.

I had a very skilled jazz guitar teacher, who was both warm and encouraging, but this was my first experience with standard musical notation, and it was totally devastating. I could get no more rhythm--or soul--out of those stupid little dots than a dog might manage. To me, there is a real "tyranny" to these printed notes, and I'm still a really terrible sightreader!

Sorry for all this stuff about ME and my background, but I think that in order to get YOU improvising with a free spirit and really connecting to your dulcimer, this philosophical background will really help. In fact, I think it's so important, that I went out on the web and found three wonderful, enlightening essays about the inter-relationship between Improvisation and Composition. These are not technical essays: you'll find a minimum of jargon here; just clear concise writing, and hopefully some truths that have some resonance for you and your music.

One Great Essay:

Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation (1991) by Chris Dobrian

To give you a taste of what's possible with Mountain Dulcimer Improvising, here is a tentative outline of topics:

What is Improvisation?

The Spirit of Exploration

Tab for D Major Pentatonic


What is Improvisation?

Improvisation simply means "making it up as you go". Any time you change something about a pre-meditated, "fixed" piece, you are improvising. Another way to think of Improvisation is that its Real-Time Composition: you are "composing on the fly". Maybe it matters less that we haven't "frozen" the composition in written notation, than the fact that we created some music that no one has ever heard before. And actually, the whole idea of "canning" or "freezing" an improvisation opens up a can of worms: Does a sound recording "freeze" an improvised performance? Is it any more "fixed" if we improvise into a MIDI sequencer, and then print out the results in standard musical notation?

Jazz Improvisation is a very specific type of improvisation. Its really more like a musical language with rich cultural roots and a really incredible history. In order to become proficient with improvising in the jazz language, you must become totally immersed in jazz: its history; the great players; the rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic devices; and much more. I have had some formal training in Jazz Studies at The Ohio State University. I can tell you that it was a very humbling experience: I learned a great deal about the music and got to play guitar in the OSU Jazz Lab Ensemble. Although I have the deepest respect and appreciation for the music, my approach to improvisation is not defined in relation to any specific genre of music.

Free Improvisation, to my mind, basically means starting out with a "clean slate": not having any idea what notes you are about to play. As a genre, though, it refers to artists mostly from the jazz vein, who are breaking out of the structure of chord changes and/or rhythmic tradition. There is also a movement called "European Free Improvisation" (with its own central website!), which might be less influenced by the American Jazz-end of the spectrum.(I'm no expert on any of this, so don't take my word for it). You could spend lifetimes defining, categorizing, segmenting, and criticizing; but wouldn't you rather play music?

Then, there's Improvisation within other specific genres of music, like Bluegrass, or Celtic. Or less specific genres, like Folk. Improvising in both the Bluegrass and Celtic genres might be more defined in the sense that they are specific musical languages, and they call for certain stylized rhythms, phrases and gestures: but what about the nebulous parent category of Folk? I won't try to define the term "Folk Music" here, but for our purposes, it might refer to "music that's always existed on Earth"--or, for you cadets: "music that's always existed in the Universe". How about "music that people make"? or "music of the common folk".

I don't know about you, but I get an exhilirating sense of freedom simply from thinking about what Folk Music might be--or what it might not be. I see myself as a sort of time-traveler when I think of Folk Music as "music from prehistoric times". I think its really helpful to find some way to free your creative spirit when you blast off into the unchartered skies of Improvisation. The last thing you need now is any kind of judgemental, fragmented-style of thinking! After all, Folk Music has always been the most Improvisatory music ever!


The Major Pentatonic Scale

Now here's a great way to get started with improvising: the D Major Pentatonic. The term "pentatonic" simply means "five-tone", and the Major Pentatonic consists of a Major Scale minus the 4th and 7th degrees. Some of the most powerful melodies in the world are based upon this simple scale. Here is a fingerboard diagram showing how the D Major Pentatonic lays out on the D-A-D tuned dulcimer:

D|----------E|---------F#|-----|--------A|-------B|---|---|--D|
A|----------B|-----------|----D|--------E|------F#|---|---|--A|
D|----------E|---------F#|-----|--------A|-------B|---|---|--D|

Don't worry what to do with this: it is a reference chart only--it shows how the notes in the pentatonic map across the entire finger- board. It does not give any information how you might combine these notes or play music with them.

To get the feel of the pentatonic, here is some TAB showing how to play the scale up each string, while using the other two open strings as a drone:

D|-0--1--2--4--|-5--7--8--9--|-11--12--14-----|
A|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|
D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|

D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|
A|-0--1--3--4--|-5--7--8--10-|-11--12--14-----|
D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|

D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|
A|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0---0---0------|
D|-0--1--2--4--|-5--7--8--9--|-11--12--14-----|

Play up and down the scale on each string, using even quarter notes at first; then try mixing and matching various note values (don't worry about what they are----JUST PLAY!). An important part of this "messing around" is to experience the sound of each note as its played against the drone: you'll feel a little more tension and rest- lessness on some of the notes than on others. Then you'll feel this tension resolve or relax when you get to the next note. (Actually, one of the truly remarkable features of the major pentatonic is how consonant---pretty-sounding---every note is. In fact, that's what makes it such a great resource for improvising: you really can't get yourself into any serious trouble! No "wrong" notes!)

Next, try changing the pitch-ordering--from consecutive low-to-high and vice-versa; to some sort of moveable sequence:

D|-0--2--1--4--|-5--2--4--1--|-0-----------|
A|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0-----------|
D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0-----------|

OR:

D|-7--4--5--2--|-4--1--2--0--|-0-----------|
A|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0-----------|
D|-0--0--0--0--|-0--0--0--0--|-0-----------|

Now these are very simplified examples--just here to get you going. At this point, you should begin to realize that your intuitive, and highly unfocused ramblings are way better than any "exercise" I may give you here. If you can get the idea of taking a little "seed" or "tidbit", and messing around with it until it starts to sound like its going somewhere, then you've got it!

©1997 Jerry Rockwell

What comes after this has everything to do with what kind of feedback I get, so send me your thoughts and ideas:

E-mail: jcrockwell@gmail.com

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Article: 3/11/97