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Building the skills to play with the professionals – Part Two: Improvisation

Improvisation is a big word, but if you listen, experiment, explore, analyse and have a solid foundation of teaching or learning, it can be FUN.

When you are on stage; that solo, the improv, that’s you. That’s when you as the drummer, bassist, guitarist, vocalist or keyboardist get to show that you know how to play not just the notes, but to perform with personality and creativity. I like to think of improv with Rock & Pop as building my data bank of styles and musicianship, with an understanding of the many genres of rock and pop music, from the 50s to now!

When I’m out travelling as the Rock & Pop Czar there seems to be a lot of fog, smoke and mirrors when it comes to improvisation, so let’s clear some of that as we look at foundation level improvisation (Initial to Grade 3).

Let’s take a closer look at the Rock & Pop Session Skill – Improvisation! This is where you develop your listening skills and style bank of music knowledge (rock, pop, ballad, heavy rock, metal, blues, shuffle, reggae, country, funk, disco, Latin, jazz and R&B). I know you are saying yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do?

First, remember you are soloing or improvising within a band and a style. So listening to the music and understanding the structure and style is number one.

If you look at the exam criteria (which is what the examiner uses to assess your performance), you can see the three things the examiner is looking for to be able to award a distinction:
1. Fully convincing in style with extensive variation and development.
2. Assured fluency with precision in pulse and synchronisation throughout.
3. Effortless command of the instrumental or vocal resources.’

Note that style is mentioned first, so show you know how to perform the style of the improvisation, fluently, in the groove and in time with the music.

Yeah, yeah, yeah… but what do I do? Well, I think of improv and soloing as building blocks or ingredients.

The exam states you will play the loop three times and fade out. I look for at least three ingredients that would demonstrate structure; a musical story. These are style, fluency and command. By thinking about these ingredients, you will develop a multi-dimensional shape that is not flat, boring or unimaginative, but filled with interest for you and the audience.

How to approach each loop:
1. First loop – show you can play in the pocket of the style, lay the groove down, as if you are playing in the band.
2. Second loop – demonstrate you can build upon that groove and style rhythmically and/or melodically, staying in the pocket.
3. Third loop – add licks, hits or melodic soloing, remembering to play within the band and the track.
4. As the loop fades out, after adding these three ingredients, go back and lay the original groove to show you know where you are in the music and you understand the style.

Remember, why are you doing improvisation? You want to build listening skills and a data bank of styles so you can be a musician who can cut heads and take command on stage with any style of music and let your musical personality shine through. Knowing what to do when you get to your solos on stage makes you a better musician.

Most of us are looking for our star time on stage, so now you know where to start. Your style data bank and ingredients list must be developed not ignored.

When you achieve that Grade 8 Rock & Pop you will have listened to, analysed, experimented with and performed over 15 styles of rock and pop music. I know my teachers back in the day didn’t know all these styles or have the support and materials to teach them, but you do.

In the exam, you choose one Session Skill to be assessed: Playback or Improvisation. In your life, you need both skills to become a great musician.

Check out Guitar World’s top 10 guitar solos

And how about these all time great drums solos

Start listening, analysing and building your personal list of ingredients.

Tyler Smith, Trinity Rock & Pop Czar

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