Improvisation: Interview with Andrew Joslyn

Well…that was a long hiatus. Here I was blogging away about practice techniques, improvisation, and other musical topics and BAM!

…..I had another kid!!!

stewies banjo song-
'My fat baby loves to ea-eat
My big ol'______  baby loves to eat'

…..AND moved out of the city

It has been an adjustment trading the loud neighbors, bar fights, and occasional unsettling popping noises for a less raucous wooded plot of land full of deer, turkeys, and frogs but I think I’ll make do. Now that my head has stopped spinning for a brief moment, I’m ready to get back to sharing musical thoughts with you all.

Earlier this Spring I had the honor of meeting with a truly great performer, improvisor, and all around good dude. Andrew Joslyn is a talented violinist, songwriter, orchestrator, and composer who quickly rose to fame through his work with Seattle based rapper, Macklemore. I had the pleasure of watching him play with the band AND Madonna at the 2014 Grammy awards and am currently enjoying the work he is doing with David Bazan and The Passenger String Quartet.

Andrew and I talked about many topics that are applicable not only to a bluegrass musician like myself but to a wide array of styles and genres. Finding practice and writing time is challenging for all of us but after hearing how Andrew fits it in along with his extensive touring schedule, I find myself lacking excuses.

Here is a clip on improvisation that I found particularly helpful since he talked about how BAD he sounded when he was first asked to improvise. There is hope for us yet…

Here are some more clips you can peruse if you are interested in hearing about transcription and how his improvisation has evolved over time…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iS8nGdAyB8Q

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFkkKan2whg

I had another VERY interesting meeting with someone I blogged about previously and will post some of those clips as soon as they are ready. In the meantime, keep practicing, improvising, and of course PERFORMING! I’ll be back with a more substantive education filled blog in the near future.

Sleeplessly yours,

Michael

Musical Improvisation: The cut and paste method

pastescissors_PNG25Before I begin, I should offer my apologies to Gary Burton, Miles Davis, Bela Fleck, and other improvisational juggernauts since this method merely scratches the surface of improvisation. My focus is on a rather simplistic approach to improvisation that my jazzer friends may will turn their noses up to. At it’s core, improvisation is a spontaneous communication between a player and the ‘music’. The ‘music’ can consist of other players, a melody, or even the underlying chord progression. Although simplistic, I find that the ‘cut and paste’ method meets the standards of the above definition AND it is very useful for the budding improvisor.

Backstory: Some months back, I stumbled upon an eccentric Berklee Banjo professor named Lauck Benson in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We spoke about a myriad of technical and theoretical topics but two of the nuggets particularly interested me.

1. There are A TON of ways to play 4 open notes on a stringed instrument without repeating a string in succession. Lauck has spent considerable time uncovering all the combinations. At an earlier time he even crashed a computer program with an algorithm simulating the possibilities of different types of open stringed rolls.

2. How does banjo player, Bill Keith work on improvisation?  He takes a lick or phrase and cuts it in half, then cuts it in half again, then puts the pieces together again in a different order. The result? A spontaneous new creation!

I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibilities. Like Lauck before me, I crunched some numbers found that the possible variations for a simple 8 bar break are so numerous that it would be impossible to memorize them all. I started writing ideas out on paper to get a grasp on all of this and want to share my findings with you.

(Editors Note: Many have taught this method and written about it. This post is simply a reflection of my own journey)

Project time: Just how many ways we can play one simple song?

The tune we will use is a standard fiddle tune called Bill Cheatham. This version is from Michael Corcoran and can be found in it’s entirety here. The first section is 8 measures long and it is played 2X in a row before the song moves on. Below are 2 variations (breaks) for the first section of Bill Cheatham (tab is for Banjo gDGBD)…

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Now, when we play each 8 measure chunk in succession, it sounds great, right?

While it sounds great as is, you may want to alter the tune on the fly so that you have a unique break every time you get back to the first section. Variation can keep your sound fresh and interesting and will of course stretch your mind when you spontaneously do it in real-time. So, how do we alter the tune?

As the title of this blog suggests, we will cut and paste. Below, I cut each break into 2 equal parts, each containing 4 measures…Picture 4

Taking these ‘cuts’ you can now ‘paste’ them back together in 4 different ways.

1.    A1 – A2

2.   A1 – B2

3.   B1 – A2

4.   B1 – B2

Sounds awesome and it might keep you sounding fresh for a few breaks but we can go MUCH farther when we split the breaks into smaller chunks (2 measures, 1 measure, 1/2 measure, etc.)

Picture 5

The number of possibilities goes up exponentially the smaller the chunks get. For example, when splitting into 2 measure chunks, we suddenly have 16 possible ways to play the tune (each letter is a 2 measure chunk, played left to right)

AAAA   AAAB   AABA   AABB

ABAA   ABAB   ABBA   ABBB

BBBB   BBBA   BBAB   BBAA

BABB   BABA   BAAB   BAAA

 

When splitting into 1 measure chunks…

256 possibilities!!

1/2 measure chunks…..

65,536 possibilities!!!!

Got it?

When breaking music down mathematically like this I am reminded of how limitless our musical choices really are. My friend Lauck from the beginning of this post told me that Tony Trischka is down to thinking in 2 note chunks when he improvises. Freaky stuff, right?

Here is a clip of a few different variations so you can get the gist of how it works in action…

Break #1 – ABAABABB

Break #2 – BABBABBA

Happy improvising!!!

Mike

Q: How to play fast? A: Practice slow

200_sTechnique came up briefly in my last post about practice techniques but it deserves so much more than a simple paragraph. Good mechanics, accuracy, control, and overall good musical technique are not always god given. In fact, musicians have a rich history of obsession in this area.

One of my favorite composers, Robert Schumann was hell bent on perfecting his piano technique since the music coming out during that time period was incredibly difficult to play. Early Romantic era études, ballades, and scherzos from masters like Chopin, Liszt, and Mendelssohn were flashy to say the least and to perform them well, you had to have some serious skills. To strengthen his fingers, Schumann allegedly went so far as to use a contraption that isolated his fingers and required him to apply more force than usual to play each key. Schumann suffered a hand injury from practicing that badly impacted his playing career.

Instead of focusing on physical strength and dexterity, I want to use these pages to give you tips on how I approach technique, from a mental perspective. It’s all about breaking down phrases and passages and then putting them back together. Do it slowly AND with a metronome. Control is key.

Lets use a 2 bar passage stuffed with 16th notes as an example. This passage comes from the playing of Berklee grad/banjo extraordinaire, Ricky Mier. Give his version of Big Sciota a listen for some context of what we will be working on…

The passage we will focus on starts at :36 seconds in…

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OK, so we have the notes and we know how it sounds. How can we break this passage down so we can truly know it inside and out? Turn your metronome on (slow) and try these techniques out…

Technique #1 – Change the accents

Changing which notes are accented forces you to listen to what you are playing in a different way. You will stretch your brain and enhance your muscle memory. Not too tough when accenting every 2nd or 4th note, but accents on the 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th notes? Be patient and try to avoid listening to the true melody of the song. Focus on the new, disjointed melody you are creating with your new accents…

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etc…  (TIP – Don’t stop after the easy ones. The 5th note exercise might frustrate you but shed it. Your playing will leap.)

Technique #2 – Swing it!

This one is easy when practicing with 8th note or 16th note passages.

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When you have that down, do the inverse.

Technique #3 – Fill the beats

This technique is my favorite but it can be quite difficult (and annoying to spouses, pets, mothers-in-law who have been staying with you for 3+ months, and most other living creatures with ears). Your metronome should still be on a slow tempo, slow it down even more. You’ll see why…

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Easy, right? Now try 2 notes per beat…

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Still easy..

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The original melody and phrasing become obsolete when you break it down in this manner. By focusing your mind on fitting the notes within the beats, you are subconsciously developing muscle memory AND SPEED!

If you want to hear this in action, click below to hear me giving it a shot.

There is no limit to the ways you can alter these exercises, we are only scratching the surface in this post. Other ideas: Staccato/legato, repeating the same exercises above but starting on a random note, sing the exercises in your head, play them to the rhythm of a totally different song, anything else you can think of.

All ideas will be effective as long as you follow the 2 rules. Use a metronome and start slow….painfully slow!!!

-Mike

The Big 5: How to Practice

There’s nothing worse than getting stuck in a musical rut! Lack of forward progress can turn something as magical as music into a maddening exercise of frustration.  Ever find yourself playing the same tune for months and hitting a brick wall? Ever make the same mistakes week over week in jam sessions? It happens to musicians ALL THE TIME and while I don’t claim to have the end all cure for this ailment, I would like to share my personal practice philosophy in hopes that it will help you climb out from the musical doldrums.

Piano Kid

These techniques have helped me with classical, jazz, bluegrass, and contemporary playing situations. They are not specific to one genre or instrument and should help anyone from your Tuba playing cousin to the Guitar playing metal head who works at the bank down the street.

So what are The Big 5?

  1. Technique
  2. Theory
  3. Repertoire
  4. Improvisation
  5. Performance

1. Technique

The mechanics. The position of your hands or fingers, circular breathing for wind instruments, fingerings of scales, and about a million other items are under the technique umbrella. Working on technique will help you with stamina, rhythmic/harmonic/melodic accuracy, dynamics, and of course the most popular, speed. Slowly practicing with a focus mechanics can be maddening for some and blissful for others. Personally, I love to break passages down and alter the tempo, rhythm, accents, and direction because I can immediately (within 10 minutes of work) notice a difference in my playing. We will explore the finer details of ‘Technique’ with some examples in a later blog post.

2. Theory

Music Theory through practicing is a mental and aural endeavor. The goal is to take those little dots on the page and learn to think of them as more than a simple strike of the key or pluck of the string. As a classical pianist for many years, this was something I simply did not do. I played the notes that were written but didn’t pay attention to the underlying chord progressions. On stringed instruments, I wasn’t thinking about how to play the same passages in different ways up the neck. Next time you learn a tune, take some time to look at an 8 bar section and identify what the underlying chords are. Then look at the notes you are playing over the chords and identify them. Are they all in the major scale? Pentatonic or other scale? Are their accidentals or other notes that don’t seem to fit. Challenge yourself to use those note patterns in different songs with similar chords. Developing those muscles will make you musically aware. As I tell my mother in law, music theory is better for the mind than playing “Words with Friends”…

3. Repertoire

Learning tunes is an important part of developing as a musician and will do as much for your rapid development as anything on this list. Many years ago, I was introduced to Sudoku puzzles. I remember early on, I got stuck on a hard one and couldn’t let it go. After a few days of work, I had hit dead ends, crossed answers out, and the paper had too many holes in it to carry on. Frustrated, I took a step back and worked through some easier puzzles, picking up patterns, strategies, and general tips and tricks along the way. Eventually I got back to the difficult one and found that it was quite easy now. Learning repertoire invokes the same phenomenon. In the long term, someone who spends 8 hours a day for a year on a difficult piece may not play it as well as someone who spent 20 minutes a day on the same piece but also spent time learning other songs. It’s not how long you practice but HOW you practice. Try to learn one tune a week increasing in difficulty every now and again.

4. Improvisation

Communication. “Learning licks and expecting to know how to improvise is akin to memorizing phrases in a French book and expecting to know how to speak French. One can only truly learn language by conversing with other people” – from an earlier post about Jazz Improv legend, Gary Burton. I would agree with Gary that the BEST way to develop your improv skills is to get out and play with other people. There are jam sessions all over Boston that welcome players of all levels. Getting an opportunity to solo and falling on your face is a humbling experience but it conditions your mind and body so that you can do a little better next time. I have been amazed at the results that come with simply not giving up. As for practicing at home, learn what notes or modes fit well under different chord progressions and practice over backing tracks or with the music in your head. Try playing a short 3-4 note motive, then play it starting on a different pitch or beat. Play it backwards. Play it double the speed, half the speed, and so on. Improvisation is the act of taking your vocabulary (notes, modes, scales) and using it to communicate (phrases, motives, etc).

5. Performance

Performance is different from repertoire in that the focus isn’t on a piece you have been actively practicing. On the contrary, for me, it is meant to simulate the feeling of being caught off guard at a jam session. Often times a tune is called out that I haven’t played in months and I need to mentally dig out the chord progression, melody, back-up, and any improv ideas on the spot. No better way to prepare for that common scenario than to play some musical Russian roulette. I keep a list of 50 or so tunes that I know and pick them at random to play at a performance tempo. It keeps you on your toes!

Now that you know what the ‘Big 5’ are, it’s time to talk about keeping yourself accountable. What get’s measured gets accomplished so you need to keep track of your progress. You can notate your practices on lead sheets, music folders, excel, or anywhere else that you look regularly. I have a running google spreadsheet where I outline what I worked on (tunes, tempos, techniques, etc.) so that I can easily see my progress. There is nothing like looking back at what you were doing last month and saying, wow, that is really easy now!

(sneak peek at what I was doing in the Fall)

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There is much more to say about each of these techniques and I will dig into them individually (with musical examples) in future posts!

Michael

Is perfect pitch really perfect? It’s all relative

Does anyone else listen to WNYC’s radio lab? I thought so. How about when you are on the subway, exercising, cooking dinner, picking your kid up at daycare, or at any other socially acceptable moment? Great!! Looks like I’m in good company.

Recently I heard an archived podcast called “Music Language” and it completely blew my mind. Everyone should listen to it after reading the rest of this blog.

To get things started, here is my definition of perfect pitch…

Perfect Pitch – The ability one has to identify the pitch of a frequency without having the aid of a musical instrument or a reference tone. If I play you a middle C and then follow-up by playing a sequence of notes that you correctly identify, that doesn’t prove you have perfect pitch!!! Even musician and educator worth a damn understands that perfect pitch can NOT be learned.

Well, after listening to “Musical Language” I am not so sure anymore. Cognitive Psychologist and possessor of perfect pitch, Diana Deutsch is very interested in tone languages such as Mandarin Chinese. Languages like Mandarin rely very heavily on tones since the pitch frequency and fluctuation of a word is intimately connected with the meaning.  One popular set of words to showcase this is (Mâ, Mā, Mà, and Ma) which can mean mother, hemp, horse, or a reproach depending on the inflection and pitch. This relationship with tone is so hardwired in native speakers that their day to day pitch consistency is identical. Professor Deutsch made audio recordings of people speaking a few chosen words on multiple days and the pitch was indistinguishable one day to the next. See what I mean? Totally mind blowing stuff! It’s like me saying “good morning” everyday but having the frequency sound identical (regardless of whether I am sad, happy, tired, or hungry) every single day. What does this have to do with perfect pitch? In the US and other Western nations only about 1 out of 10,000 people have perfect pitch. People who were raised speaking and listening to a tone language have been shown to be 9 TIMES more likely to have perfect pitch.

My initial reaction: My 8 month old son will only be listening to Mandarin Chinese from here on out.

Let’s alter my original definition …

Perfect Pitch – The ability one has to identify the pitch of a frequency without having the aid of a musical instrument or a reference tone. If I play you a middle C and then follow-up by playing a sequence of notes that you correctly identify, that doesn’t prove you have perfect pitch!!! Even musician and educator worth a damn understands that perfect pitch can NOT be learned(unless you are between 6 and 12 months old and are regularly exposed to a tone language).

So if replicating these notes doesn’t confirm that you have perfect pitch, what is happening? It means you have relative pitch, which can indeed be learned through ear training. If you have a reference note (like the middle C from the definition), hearing the intervals between that note and the others can help you tease out the correct pitches. How does this work?

Let’s use a childhood classic to get a few pitches in our head. The root note is C. When we get to the note D “your”, you should note that the difference between the notes (the interval) is a major 2nd (get that in your ear!).

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Now listen to the beginning of “Silent Night”. Same deal, major 2nd.

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You can find hundreds of examples of all intervals (ascending, descending, augmented 4ths, Major 7ths, etc.) to exercise your brain and develop relative pitch. For an ascending tritone, think of Bernstein’s “Maria” from West Side Story. A descending perfect 5th? The Flintstones theme! There are also ear training courses like Basic Ear Training 1 and Harmonic Ear Training that will help you develop an incredibly intimate relationship with sound and harmony.

Let me ask you this musicians: Why do you want perfect pitch so badly? What are you missing out on? The folks I know who have perfect pitch tell me that they always hear car horns honking F# or elevators dinging with Db’s. As awesome (and maddening) as that sounds, I will stick with what I can control and develop my ear through ear training. I’ll leave the Mandarin to my son.

-Michael

Should Music be Socialist?

Weird question, right? I only ask because I was recently in Helsinki, Finland meeting with other Music educators from around the world and well, this discussion kept popping up. Many of us were talking about how to prepare students who want to make their entire income strictly from Music. Chair of Professional Music Kenn Brass recently told me that only 7% of US residents make all of their dough from musical ventures. Berklee grads do a bit better than average but still come in at around 30%. 100% of your income means enough to cover, rent, food, transportation, your vintage vinyl collection, and if you have anything left over, new gear! Cliff and Theo Huxtable illustrate this more elegantly than I can…

Are you going to make enough for ALL THAT by playing in a wedding band, having a youtube clip go viral, performing on live TV, and then touring the world???

Karmin

Errr, I guess it’s possible, but not very likely. Musicians (including Karmin) have to gig and gig and gig and be open minded for opportunities that may be outside their wheelhouse. I used to play a lot of wedding ceremonies; easy street for a classical pianist: Pachelbel’s Canon, Trumpet Voluntary, a couple Chopin Preludes, etc. What happens if a jazzy cocktail hour gig comes up? A high school Broadway production? A Nickleback fan club sing-along? Should I adapt to different styles I may not like to make a living OR should I say “I am a wedding pianist, that is what I do and I should be paid handsomely for dedicating my life to the continuation of this valuable art”.

I had never thought about playing gigs as ‘selling out’ but that may be because I am a product of my capitalistic society. People I met from Norway, Russia, and other countries felt very differently about the music profession. If Robert Schumann spent his 31 short years playing chamber music would we know his name today? Would music composition or performance have advanced as it has if Chopin didn’t dedicate all of his time and energy to composing painstakingly complex Etudes, Preludes, and Ballades? I don’t know. Should a government support its talented musicians financially so that they can put all of their passion and effort into creating incredible music? Perhaps they will create the next Beethoven or Beatles or Adele and bring pride to their country. There could be thousands of musicians who have what it takes to change the world so why are they using their energy to paint houses so they can pay their rent? These discussions and questions always funneled into differences between capitalism and socialism.

I guess I see their point and I think they see mine as well. I think the next Mozart or Rolling Stones or Justin Bieber will surface regardless of whether they are paid through government commissions or by rising to the top while gigging and making ends meet. We all have to live within the scope of our own realities. That being said, if some powerful government entity is reading this and wants to pay me a salary to dedicate my life to creating music, please post in the comments section and we will hash out the details.

-Michael

How can Dr. Leo Marvin help you make money from music?

For the purposes of this blog, lets imagine that I am taking the role of the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Leo Marvin and you are my ambitious patient, Bob Wiley.


If you don’t know these characters, do yourself a favor by finding a VCR (the preferred way to watch a classic of this magnitude) and pop in “What About Bob?”.  Now Bob Wiley has just about every possible phobia known to man. Despite Bob’s difficulties, he makes an astounding transformation from a man who fears anything and everything to a capable, and valued member of society.

It is surprisingly common for students to call me and tell me they are going to quit their jobs, study Music Business full time and then become an A&R, a highly competitive job that requires extensive experience in the music industry. In short, quitting your job for a risk this big is not a good idea. I am in no way saying that people with such lofty goals are in the same category as Bob Wiley, but I often find myself giving advice that I learned from his psychiatrist, the great Dr. Leo Marvin. Baby Steps….

Student: “I have 3 kids and a mortgage and I work in the legal field. I don’t like my job so I am going to quit and start a record label.”

Michael: Baby Steps…

Student: “I write songs using a computer program. I am thinking about dropping out of college to move to LA and give Film Scoring a shot”

Michael: Baby Steps…

The “Baby Steps” idea definitely comes into play when you are interested in getting into the music industry (in any capacity). The talents who are discovered performing on YouTube and rocket straight to the Ellen Show are few and far between. It is ok to take your time and develop a foundation that you can build your future career on.

Step one: Come up with Measurable and Attainable Goals

It is fine to have a stretch goal like “I want to make music my primary means of survival”. The chances of this becoming a reality increases greatly if you have the foresight to break it down and get specific. For example, in 2011 I was studying Orchestration and I gave myself the goal of writing 10 new songs in one calendar year. The purpose was twofold: Get familiar with the regular writing demands required to do this professionally and to further develop my craft and portfolio. The exercise was challenging and contributed greatly to my goal AND I didn’t have to bet the farm to meet it.

Another exercise works for performers and teachers. Set a goal like the following “I want to make $500 this year from gigging/teaching banjo lessons/doing studio work/anything else related to music.” This will teach you how to manage your opportunities and how to follow-up! If you have convinced someone to study music with you and they have taken $100 worth of lessons and suddenly dropped off of the face of the earth, you need to make sure you nurture the relationship so that they come back and of course, tell their friends. Baby Steps…

 

Step two: Be Persistent

So, you have been baby stepping along and things are going great! Lets say you have a ton of music produced and you want to get some of that sweet, sweet royalty money. You have heard that Music Libraries and Sound Catalogs are a good way to get your foot in the door so you send some demos out and wait…and wait…and continue to wait.

You will keep on waiting unless you are persistent and leave no stone unturned. Call, email, and even show up at every music library you can find and be prepared to tell them why they should listen to your tracks. Have everything labeled and neatly organized to make it as easy as possible for them to hear your work. Just because you get one person to listen to your stuff does not give you an excuse to stop calling more libraries.

Step three: Never leave an opportunity on the table

I have tried my hand at transforming nonsensical synth midi recordings into orchestral scores so that an ambitious hobbyist could hear his creations performed by a studio orchestra. One time I had a gig transcribing extremely complicated Liberace piano solo’s from old video clips for a client who was dead set on reviving the old tunes. I even had the opportunity to score music for a group involved in supervised (yet illegal) intravenous drug use (that was a wild one). Sure, I made money in some of these cases. Others were utter financial failures. What gained in every instance was experience, and just as importantly, a reputation. Now if a transcription/film scoring/weird orchestration gig comes up I have demo’s to show them AND I have references. Be creative and realize that getting out of your comfort zone can lead to a breakthrough!

Working with music is extremely rewarding. Even if it takes you longer than you want to reach your financial goals, enjoy the ride. We are performers, producers, orchestrators, songwriters, artist managers, and more. It is amazing that people are willing to pay us to do something so fun! Take baby steps and you can make a transformation…just like Bob.

-Michael