Zoom Encore!

Lockdown continues… We have all spent several months practising in our houses, away from each other, and meeting online to do what we can. As an orchestra we cannot really all rehearse together – it is not possible to both play and hear when dozens of people are on a single video call.

Ok. So traditional rehearsals don’t really work as a direct translation from live face-to-face meetings to online meetings.

We changed tack and decided to talk about a ‘composer of the week’ and that worked for a few weeks, but not everyone wants to have a musicological discussion and people did want to do something interactive. I gave a session on conducting where everyone had to conduct. This worked well as you don’t need to make noise to conduct. We practised patterns and worked on using one hand to conduct the beat and the other hand to show expression, give cues, and cut off long notes. This gave everyone a challenge and a giggle. It also helped the orchestra members to understand more about what signals I was giving them and how they could interpret them to both be together and be musical.


The next week someone asked a question. What about improvising? How does this relate to us? Hmmmm… Well this discussion followed:

It is definitely a special group. Personally I thought the discussion was amazing and covered huge ground, conceptually, personally, musically, and collectively as a group. Thank you to everyone who was there! These sessions have been meaningful for all of us – we are all learning to endure and grow in these strange times, as we figure out how to renegotiate so many things we have taken for granted.

As a follow up, one of our members who was not able to be at our meet (for the call) watched and then wrote this reflection. Thank you David!


Having listened to last Wednesday’s conversation I would have loved to take part! No surprise to me to find my musical development seems to have been very different from the course many of you have followed.

One thing that really struck me was the experience some of you had of music lessons being stressful, and as Anne said being conditioned to do what you had to do, for fear of getting a slapped wrist. Enough to put any young person off music I would have thought, I hope not everyone had such a stressful musical development. Never having had any music lessons as a child perhaps I should consider myself lucky. On the other hand I felt inadequate for years because being self-taught I had never learned to play an instrument “properly”. Teaching myself to play music included a lot of improvising, which leads me to believe the ability to improvise is certainly very much influenced by our conditioning.

In brief, I learned to play blues guitar and then a load of instrumental folk music by watching and listening to other musicians, without ever having a music lesson. I became able to pick up a tune and after a few attempts more or less repeat it. I’m not talking long or complex pieces, but maybe 32 bar tunes with an AABB structure, which works out around 16 bars you actually need to learn. In the folk world everyone I knew learned tunes by ear and nobody thought it was exceptional. Having said that, not many could play from a score. So my musical journey began in the company of “ear” players, many of whom had also never had a music lesson. So completely different from the conventional route.

I found learning music that way was all about recognising intervals. Root, 3rd and 5th become your benchmarks.  Once you get the idea you can pick up tunes by ear and relate them to that mental map we all have of finger positions. It also involves “hearing” where to find the right note on your instrument, getting used to using it as a tool. There again my technique was probably rubbish because I had never had any tuition in how to actually play an instrument. The hardest thing I ever had to do in music – by far – was learn to play from a score; because having got reasonably proficient as an ear player it was a big learning curve in my 20s to extract even very simple tunes from a written score. It made me feel like a beginner again. I did have a few violin lessons and the thing that helped me most was doing O level music.

Once I got there and started using scores, lots of possibilities opened up, but even now I still have to stop and work out what people mean when they talk about a crotchet or a quaver. And it’s only since starting regular sax lessons that I’m taking any notice of the dynamics in a score. I remember years ago playing something I had found for a teacher, which I thought was quite a nice piece, and he said to me did I realise it was an adagio. I had played it as a brisk allegro. D’oh!

Thanks Ray for posting the clips from Dawkes Music which I think are really good for starting impro. Lots of people think of improvisation as jazzers playing two hundred notes a minute, whereas having time to hear the notes is just as important. So is the space in between – like in drawing. Less is often much more interesting than more when improvising. Then there’s the question of knowing what to play when improvising, and just like learning a tune, it really helps to listen to others doing it. Here are a few I like.

Here’s a gentle and laid back jazz standard that moves into several verses of mpro.


The improvised verses that follow on from the first one are gentle and you can tell the player is just throwing little phrases in that echo bits of the tune (pity about his awful sweater though).

Here’s Johnny Hodges playing with Duke Ellington. Sunny Side of the Street.


Starting very quiet, what a delectable sound, full of tension and release, and building up momentum with each verse. Johnny was a master of impro. It’s such a well known tune even on the first verse he’s playing around with it, but the listener always knows where the tune is.

Interesting to hear different players’versions of the same tune. Matthew Stone’s has gone for a laid-back ballad feel.


And the same song from Chad Lefkowis-Brown


In this version he slips in a few phrases in homage to Johnny Hodges.

As a teenager I listened a lot to this.


In fact I think I wore out my vinyl disc playing this song so many times. Eric Clapton just using the pentatonic scale that Mark mentioned. 5 notes only, and you can just tell he’s putting it together as he goes along, but I think it’s compelling.

And here’s something different, two old guys having a blast


They’re just loving the fun of improvising as a duet, seeing what happens, playing the odd bum note. Oh yes and they have both been improvising for years. It takes time to get that good.

Loads more impro on Youtube and the more you listen, the more idea you get as to what improvisers actually play.

What can you use to practice? Search Youtube for karaoke tracks, and choose something you have never heard of. You’ll find a piece of music that you can interpret and play along with any way you want.

I once met a surgeon who was interested in the idea of improvisation. Amazingly for a surgeon his name was Roger Kneebone – I know that sounds a bit like the start of a joke but it really was his name. But I digress. He had been through medical school and done his share of gall bladder removals and appendectomies. Pretty predictable treatments that he got to be quite good at before qualifying. Then after a few years working he went to a war zone and was faced with a new range of very unpredictable injuries. But he knew how the human body worked and what he needed to do to keep it alive, so he drew on techniques he had previously learned and modified them as needed. He realised he was improvising, using a toolbox of standard techniques but changing them more or less subtly according to need. He came to speak to me because he had identified restoration of antique materials as another practice of improvisation. You learn the technique to make a new object, say a piece of furniture, and then adapt that technique to repair an old and damaged one. And he said of course it’s just like jazz music where you have a bag of notes, chords, scales, modes etc. and put together the combination you think is right for the occasion. Classical musicians do it too but it seems to be called extemporisation in that context. Is that a thing? Improvisation vs extemporisation?

I’ll stop now. I’ve improvised enough on this topic.



One Comment

  1. Thank you for posting a very interesting zoom discussion on improvisation.

    I am at the very beginning of my musical learning journey, which I started later in life, but wanted to share a recent experience I had on this.

    I was attending a zoom violin workshop with over a hundred participants yesterday. We were given beginner and intermediate pieces to join in with, live (muted, except for teacher).

    When it came to one intermediate piece, I could only play some of the slower parts, but wanted to join in with the spirit of the group, so I improvised in the parts I couldn’t keep up with, trying out the notes in the scale and experimenting with rhythms.

    I was surprised at how ‘some’ of it sounded and the experience was very uplifting. I wasn’t worried about my ‘performance’ and simply enjoyed the freedom and small accomplishment for myself.

    It was a very positive experience, which I will continue to play around with, inbetween practising scales and exam pieces.

    I love the idea of playing along with the radio, suggested by someone, and agree that we should embrace our imperfections and just enjoy whatever flows, whenever we have the opportunity.

    Happy improvising!

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