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Nsehe Otobong

I can't find the last question I posted on the third of November. I was responding to the people that had replied but wasn't able to send because the site upgrade started at about the same time. Unfortunately, I do not remember the names of the people that responded. Still, I found the comments very thankful. So, thanks a lot.

My question today is about improvising. I played some hymns last week alongside a saxophonist and I played them exactly the way I learnt them. He kept asking me to "add a few more notes". In my head, I thought that if I attempted that, I'd be lost forever, not able to come back in time to the original thing I was playing. So, are there any tips or hacks for improvising? It's almost like sight reading limits my musicality a bit such that I can't be expressive without sheet music (not that I have mastered even that). Can improvising be learned? How?

Nsehe Otobong
11 Responses
Posted: December 1, 2019
Last Comment: December 9, 2019

Timothy Smith
Posted: December 9, 2019

Thanks! I have heard of  Christian Howes that Barb mentioned . Didn't know much about him. His material looks very interesting especially coming from someone who has done plenty of it himself.  
Just to be clear. I mostly improvise on piano/keys and guitar. I  am not very far along with violin yet. Also to be clear, I see nothing wrong with "coloring outside the lines" musically so to speak, even in a worship setting so long as people can follow it. If no one can follow it, then it becomes more of a show. I see a difference between artistic liberty, sensitivity to an audience and showing off :) 

Nsehe Otobong
Posted: December 9, 2019
@ Barbara Habel, thanks a lot. Will check it out rightaway.

@Barb Wimmer, thanks to you, I now know what mordents are. I had seen the sign on sheet music a few times without knowing what they meant. Will definitely try out your methods too.

@Timothy Smith, I am humbled by all the detail. The MP3 was a bonus for me. Thank you so much. I think the major thing I got is to experiment a lot especially during rehearsals and not try to show off unnecessarily during performances or ministrations as we call them. So, no more undue pressure! Still, I'll work on it because I want to. Thanks again!

Barbara Habel
Posted: December 6, 2019
Dear Nsehe

christianhowes.com    has a store / shop that sells improvisation courses at around US Dollar 20

Barb Wimmer
Posted: December 4, 2019
I got up to mordents and like playing the three notes of a scale in a piece over and over in different order. And finale program you can put notes of different instruments and listen to how it sounds    I still am working on trying to memorize figure out chords 

Timothy Smith
Posted: December 3, 2019
I was working on something last night and remembered this post so I decided to post it as an example of something that was 100% improvisation.

If you have access to a DAW this is easy to do. You simply track one sound over another . In this case I tracked three bouzouki parts, one violin part and an ethereal pad type of sound. 

For me improvisation generally is often simplified on violin. I might use this as the basis for a more refined idea later on. With a few more passes I probably could have began to make more of a concrete melody... I managed to find some kind of structure in this admittedly "meditative" piece. Compare this to drawing an idea on a napkin and that's basically what it is warts and all...all done in about an hour including the mixing part of it.  Nothing was re tracked. This is important because you don't get a second chance playing in a group. If you already have some kind of melody to follow it can be much easier.

For a hymn improvisation you could simply play to a recorded version of the hymn recording yourself to hear what you sounded like playing with the music or record your group and play to that recording. 
I like doing this kind of thing. It's almost like abstract art. Ideas from it can be used in more solid compositions. HELP COMES

Timothy Smith
Posted: December 2, 2019

That sax player would have probably gotten on my nerves...let him worry about what he is doing lol... a sax player telling a violinist how to play. I I digress.

You have had some good answers here which aren't always the easiest to implement in a real life situation when a person is put "on the spot" so to speak. In theory it seems as if it should be easy. In real life performance it can be more of a challenge than first impressions. I could say, "Oh yeah just learn the scales and practice all around that key".  I believe it depends on violin proficiency. Ability to pull the right notes in correct pitch out of thin air. The notes you hear in your head that line up with the music. Much of this is situational based on other data. 

Violins often carry the melody, so this would probably minimize making too much of a lead part. I wouldn't let anyone put undue pressure on me. Play first of all true to the music and true to yourself. If playing hymns your primary goals are very different than say, playing a club in Vegas.Why? That dynamic is totally focused on God. In my opinion the highest use of any music.Having said that ,the group needs to play as a team and sound good together.  It isn't the time to get all caught up in solos or anyone with a "look at me" attitude. It isn't a performance...you are facilitating in a skilled way.

Hymns are usually pretty straight forward but you can add a feel to them.
I really rocked up " Go Tell It On The Mountain" this past Sunday :) Helps to have a drummer and bass player on the team. I often take hymns and juice them up a bit...lots of altered, modernized hymn medleys out there too. I look at it like ways of playing. I do this because it gets people into the music, it really does.
There's playing to the notation following it exact, then there's playing to the chords structure. More wiggle room with the second one, yet people still recognize the song and can sing along to it. "Adding more notes" can be simply modernizing a song for a different feel. G2 instead of G..adding more dimension to major chords can really change the feel of something. I am finding it more difficult to fit a violin into those contexts because it really sticks out in a church setting most of the time. If it isn't done tastefully or well it sticks out in a bad way....and I'm pretty sure you guys practiced before hand? That's the time to try more experimentation.
 Follow whoever the leader is. If you have a creative leader they won't have an issue with changing a few things up here and there.

Context is important, and the crowd you are playing to...are these 70 year old Presbyterians or footloose Baptists? I am of the latter and we do a little of everything. I part with my Baptist brothers who are "hymn bound" We are probably closer to Charismatic in our music. It's my fault :)

Nsehe Otobong
Posted: December 2, 2019
@Elke Meier, I can completely relate because that's where I am currently. But I just started. Hopefully it gets better. 

@Sarah Bondi. Thank you. Scales... Looks like they cannot be escaped any which way. 

@Ted Adachi, thanks a lot. I manage to improvise in my singing but reproducing it on my violin is usually not as fast and clean, maybe because my fingers aren't so fast yet. Still, I will keep at it. 

@Melodia, I think we should just practice a lot more scales and their arpeggios as Sarah Bondi suggested. Major scales, minor scales, pentatonic scales, the works. 

Elke Meier
Posted: December 1, 2019
Another good preparation for improvising is practicing arpeggios - basically as the others said, cultivating an understanding of the scales and chords involved in a piece. I am no good at improvising, but what little bit I can do works best if somehow I have internalized the scale involved and the arpeggios that go with the chords involved. I have melodies in my mind all the time, but finding them at the spur of the moment on the violin is quite a different story! Sometimes I think that improvising seems to be a completely different approach to music. I have several brothers that can't read music but play the piano very well - just improvising back and forth! I am stuck to music notation. So to help my limitation in this area sometimes I just put on music and try to play along or harmonize without seeing the music. It is good that most songs have several verses, so by the third time round I might find some of the right notes. I think I need to somehow come to the point where I just know instinctively which tone belongs to which place on the fingerboard. I am FAR from that yet...

Sarah Bondi
Posted: December 1, 2019
I improvize on the piano all the time.  On the violin it is more linear but it revolves around understanding scales and what key you are in as well as the chord progressions in the song.  I would start with practicing one scale in one key with a backing track to match.   I recorded myself doing this a while back and posted it on this forum.  I hope this helps.   I am trying to improvize on the violin also.   Good luck! 

Ted Adachi
Posted: December 1, 2019
Hi Nsehe,
I have only been playing violin for a little over 3 years so I don't have the tools I really need to improvise but I can easily improvise on piano.  The fundamental ideas are the same.

The base of improvising is singing. So if you take the hymn you played, try singing it and adding some notes. Violin is quite linear so you're working a lot with scales. So that you can change notes and add notes to the melody that belong to the same scale. Much like 'memorization', you sing it, then you play it.

So the basic concept is pretty simple but it's not so easy to do. I mean, you can do really simple improvisations by just singing but if you want to get more sophisticated, you need the tools at hand.

For me, the way I did this was to 'throw mud at the wall and see what sticks'. I would sit at the piano and just play. I wouldn't try to play songs, I would literally put my left hand on the keyboard and play and then do the same with my right hand. So I would play and listen. Most of the time, it sounded terrible! But every once in a while, something would sound good so I would take note of that and keep playing.

With the violin, because you don't have bass and melody parts at the same time (unless you are very, very good) it's more difficult to just play like this perhaps. So you could start with your the first three notes of your hymn and then just play. Go up, go down, play triplets and scales and just keep going on and listen to see what sounds good or interesting.

You will build up an arsenal of interesting sounding bits that you can use to bridge the different ideas you hear in your head as you sing. It takes a certain command of the instrument, but then you just pull these ideas out when you want and use them to structure the improvisation that you're singing.

It's not like the movies. You don't sit down and start improvising. It took me a long, long time and a lot of practice to get comfortable with improvising.

Posted: December 1, 2019
Improvising on the violin is a skill that I'd like to learn as well. I think that it involves having a good understanding of music theory and chords.