Improvisation

Hi JP and everybody else,

writing from Northern Germany on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Thanks JP for your help in the past. I learned quite a bit and are able to play a lot of songs (single notes, bending basics etc.). My basic problem is improvisation, playing freely along to backing tracks (specially 12-bar blues) and do it free without thinking to much what to do.

Does anybody know how to improve or better to get started?

Thanks in advance!

Mufidi

This is one of the most difficult questions to answer…especially via writing…

Ouch.

Possibility 1: Find a music teacher that specialized in improvisation. A great guitar teacher may be a better candidate than a lousy harmonica teacher. Meet with this person once a week and create a daily practice routine.

Possibility 2: Purchase Harmonica Instructional materials that teach Improvisation but make sure they have audio or video accompaniment.

Possibility 3: A bit of shameless promotion… Take phone lessons from me. I’m warning you ahead of time that my rates are pretty high so this is probably a poor solution for most people (you can email me at jp@harmonica.com if you’re interested)

Possibility 3: TRY THIS FOR STARTERS

I want to make this simple and practical.

So I’m going to intentionally give you and SEVERELY OVER SIMPLIFIED RESPONSE.

Let’s assume you want to play Blues:

Phase 1: Become a master of 2 draw.

  1. Pop on a twelve bar blues
  2. Start your licks with it and end your licks with 2 draw (make sure it is completely unbent or it will be out of tune). What I want you to do is start a musical sentence (aka “a lick” or “a riff”) with 2 draw, then play 1 to 5 random notes and then come back to the 2 draw notes.

Will someone who understands improvisation follow-up and explain why I’m making this simple suggestion?

Will someone who has had success learning improvisation chime in so we can get a variety of responses?

Thanks for your post Mufidi!

jp

Howdy Mufidi!

I’ll be honest and upfront and say I don’t understand a whole lot about the technical aspects of music…just yet. I may like to get some sort of scholarship and perhaps study it further, but it’s on a back burner for now.

When I was younger though, I did take accordion lessons. But the first teacher turned out to be a child molester (not me, his family members); and the second one an alcoholic (who fell off a stage and ended his career there and then). So my musical training didn’t ever go far, and what I knew then, well, miles and miles have gone by since.

The only thing I do remember is that I when I played the accordion in my bedroom I liked to try my own things out on it. It sounded good to me; however, I had to play the book notes and songs properly because dear old mom was paying for the lessons. I don’t know why, but I found it difficult to do.

I wish I had pursued it in some form or another because one Weird Al Yankovic came along and did his own thing on the accordion and made a living at it! Well, maybe soon enough some Aha-Eureka moments will be shining through, I know they will. Anyway…

Speaking freely here as the non-professionally trained harp enthusiast that I am, I do read a lot about music. Doesn’t mean I understand it, but I do have some comfort here. Why? Well I’m a big fan of David Harp. And he says upfront too that he never understood music and its language either. Yet he stayed with it, and eventually became the fine author and great teacher that he is.

He does offer some instruction on Music Theory as well as on Improvisation. I don’t know where you are in your journey through the harmonica universe, so maybe this can help:

http://www.davidharp.com/

http://www.bluesharp.com/

However too though – in reading other people from other forums and such, many of them like yourself seem to struggle with this or that. I’ll admit I do and have as well. We all want to get better and improve ourselves to be sure.

Yet I believe in how one approaches things where the real enemy and/or foe is here. Meaning, along with buying lots of things harmonica – I also wanted to know what makes a musician a musician to begin with.

I came across a great book and cd that many talk about and has helped lots of people. Perhaps it will help you too!

It’s called Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner. I recommend the book with or without the cd, not with the dvd. But you can it find here as a start:

http://www.amazon.com/Effortless-Mastery-Kenny-Werner-Compact/dp/B001QJR8KY/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1283119599&sr=8-3

Another interesting thing I found is playing with your eyes closed.

Yeah, check it out!

I don’t know if you do that already or not. But Howard Levy said other people have commented on his playing with his eyes closed. Howard said he could better feel and hear the music that way.

Well, think about it! Shutting off one sense (even for a few brief moments) brings out other senses. I noticed JP closes his eyes too on his dvds where he’s playing on stage.

It might seem self-evident, but really it’s not.

Here’s another thing I found within myself. When I’m out on the street just harpin’ away – Many times I’ll just get into a ‘zone’ and viola! things that I’ve been working on at home struggling with even suddenly just come out and play. It’s like having an out-of-body experience, man! Cool beans, eh?!

Bottom line is: Play what’s in your head; play what’s in your heart; and don’t sweat the small stuff too much and the bigger stuff will take care of itself!!

If anything, I’ll leave you with a quote I found in David Harp’s ‘Music Theory Made Easy’ book – It comes from the late, great saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker who said:

“First you master your instrument, then you master the music, then you forget about all that…and just play!”

Let me know if any of this helps you.

Good luck!

Thanks for reading!

Hello JP,

thanks a lot for your answers. I found really a few very good and valuable hints.

JP, I’ll try your recommendation and send you an email soon, how it worked. A phone lesson or Skye lesson could be a good idea later though.

Keep you posted!

Yours
Mufidi

Hi Street Player dude,

wow! You send so much material and I guess that this can really help me as well as JP’s hints.

I will need some time to study the material. However, I agree that playing with closed eyes can help. I tried and it is really a difference. One shouldn’t care to much about the proper notes. If doing as you recommended one finds good solutions spontaneously.

Thank you really for the long answer and the valuable material. I’ll come back to you with my further experiences.

You’re quite welcome there, Mufidi!

I’m glad you’re reading my posts…hope others are too!

Am hoping also others will join in the discussions with their thoughts, findings, questions, comments, etc. We’re here to learn and explore the vast sectors of the harmonica universe together! It’s all good! It’s all fun! :slight_smile:

I’m presuming here too, you have JP’s lessons and DVDs. If you haven’t done so recently, it’s good to go back and review them. Why? Because he has plenty to offer on harp improv. And yet too, everything comes in little bits and pieces and your own Aha-Eureka moments!

So what you or anyone, even me, may not have understood or grasped the first times(s) you go through something, just do the best you can. Then simply forget about it! Really, it works! Sometime, somewhere, eventually out of the blue, viola! the answers will come to you.

That’s what’s so great about his home course set. There’s so much in it to learn and digest.

It takes awhile, yes. But what I get from JP’s lessons is: “A little bit in to it, and you get a lot back out of it!”

Cool beans!

So who besides you is pushing you to get there, my friend?! We push ourselves, okay. But another great piece of advice he offers is: “Relax! Just have fun!”

Again, Cool Beans!

Yet I’m really curious here and do have question for you: What specifically is it about “Improvisation” that you may be struggling with right now?

Is it more technical? Like you’re in a rut, because when you’re jamming with backing tracks as you’ve mentioned – You might be playing the same things over and over again, not getting certain patterns down?!

Is it more personal? Like you’re really trying to let loose and just get into the groove of the sounds, but keep missing the beats?!

Feel free to explore and discuss anything and everything harmonica here. I believe what might just help you in your journey through the harmonica universe, will and does/can help many others (even me) in more ways you/me/we can’t even imagine!
For me, improv is bringing out your heart, your soul, in ways you never thought you could. And it’ll surprise you as well as others when you do it with your own voice!

Feel the love, man (and woman)!

I’ll leave here for now with a quote from the late, great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong who said about music and musicians all: “What we play is life!”

Hope this helps you too! Please let us know!

Keep on smiling!

Keep on harpin’!

Thanks for reading!

Hey Street Player, I make and play the Native American style flute and I’m a big fan of R Carlos Nakai’s and his favorite saying is “Just play the dam flute”.

I can dig it!

Yet recently, I saw a PBS show about Bing Crosby.

One commentator (I don’t recall who) said Bing worked extremely hard to make everything out on stage look easy and care free. One time when the singers were on stage performing, the commentator patted Bing on the back and his shirt was soaked in sweat!

So yeah, I certainly can dig it!

I’m by no means an expert at improvisation (especially on harmonica) however I play saxophone in alot of Jazz bands so naturally have to improvise…ALOT. The most annoying this is that it takes time, a few years my solos were…shocking to say the least, now I’ve had people come up to me after gigs saying how well I played. Just play things in private, some will sound bad but over time you will unknowingly be drawn to things that sound good. What I personally feel is a good way to start on harmonica is rhythm patterns, slot a few of them in and you can fool alot of people.

Also, another trick is to be sincere, you can play something mediocre sincerely and often it’ll sound better than something more musical played without confidence. John Coltrane once said ‘You can play a shoestring if you do it sincerely’

Hope this helps

I think improv should start with listening to others -just go to you tube and watch how the harp players in muddy waters bands would improvise in the breaks. You then need to practice several riffs so that they just flow whenever you need them -your mouth muscles and mind will memorise them. When you need to create a break -you can then use these riffs in different sequences -thats a start anyway. Good luck…
Ray
http://photomuserh.wordpress.com/2009/10/06/10-blues-harp-masters-1-learning-the-secrets-of-the-blues-harmonica/

Hi,

I am also a senior who has tried to play every instrument and never good at any one
of them. I ordered JP Allens course last year and I am very pleased. I am still not
good, but I enjoy playing the harmonica for my own entertainment.

I have learned a lot from JP but it is good to watch other instructors too because each
have their own thing to teach new harmonica players. I watch JP’s videos and
then go to the Youtube and watch Adam Gussow’s harmonica lessions. They are very
good and free. Also on Youtube are Jason Rocco, Big Dog Walker and a fairly new guy from England named Ricky Cool who is very good. Ricky Cool does not get very many Youtube
plays due to him not listing his videos as instructions or lessons. He calls them sessions which
don’t come up on a search for harmonica lessions. Must be an English thing.

There are a lot of free stuff out there.

I mostly improvise when I play, and I haven’t played very long. Yet I can sit down with a guitar buddy and just jam, the riffs and melodies just pours out of my head.

I can give you a few tips that has helped me tremendous:

  1. Learn the chord progression. Learn it good! Learn to count your way through it. This comes before all else.

  2. Play very simple riffs over the progression. One note per beat, and hit the root note of the current chord two times. Example: -2 -3’ -2 -1 through the first four bars. Count by singing inside your head as you do this. When you get to bar 5 you go up to 4 blow and play something like: 4 -4’ 4 -3’ and when you get to bar 9 (after having done the first simple riff again on 7-8) you play: -4 -5 -4 4. When you hit 10 you do the same as on bar 5 and on 11 the same as bar 1 and on 12 end it before starting over.

The idea here isn’t to play good sounding music, but to learn how to count, play and think ahead at the same time while getting the feeling of what it is like to play in harmony with the chords. You don’t need to use my examples either, make up your own simple riffs to play. Try having two different riffs on the I chord which goes after eachother. Be creative about it.

  1. Ear training, lots of it. Build up a bank full of riffs ready at your disposal.

  2. Music theory, equally much. The more you understand, the more you can free your creative side to do constructive thinking.

  3. Play scales! Everyday! Up, down, up, down. When you know the scales by heart, play some notes twice, skip some other notes and eventually make up your own melodies.

  4. Always tap your foot!

Wow! Mufidi, our friend!

With all the great advice and fantastic energy coming to you from all corners of the globe, including God him, her or itself - By all means, please keep us posted on your improv progress!

Smiles! :slight_smile: