“Sing, Sing A Song…”

Remember that song? Oh, you don’t… sorry.

Well, anyway, this post isn’t about singing (per se). More about improvisational skills and ear training. Seem to be my two favorite topics these days, eh?

In my last post, I wrote about the utility of the chromatic scale and then set you (us, actually) up with an exercise to develop your ability to use it. One of the key parts of that exercise was my comment:

“The key thing is that this is not a speed exercise — it’s a listening exercise. In trying to build simple phrases, you’re going to have to start trusting what your ears tell you about them.”

I was serious about that comment. Well, it turns out that it may not be enough. How do you get to the point where you are building simple phrases that will fit that chromatic exercise? Good question.

If you listen to players long enough, you’ll find that they’re always “recycling” lines. It’s not all free creation or pure improvisation. Often times, there is a fair amount of “stock material” that is being used when improvising. Does that make it bad? No. Does that keep it from being fresh? No. Where it goes south is when you don’t have anything but those “licks” to choose from. Why do we take solace in these things:

  • Part of it is the comfort of playing something that you know you can play well.
  • Another aspect of it is the certainty that comes from knowing that what you are playing isn’t going to sound “off” or “wrong” when you play it.
  • The final part comes from the fact that there are certain fingerings that just feel good when you play them. Makes it easy to go back to the same old stuff and rely on it.

Too much of this and it goes real stale really quick. One of the things that I’ve found that helps me is to combine my ear training and improvising work. How? Well, another exercise, right? :-)

Conditions for this exercise are similar to the previous one, only I’d focus on something that sits in one key (ii-V-I in F, for example), just for the sake of simplicity. If you want to work it all at once — go for it, but it isn’t necessary to get a benefit. Play the major scale in a few positions as the music plays, so you can get the sound in your head.

Once you’ve done that. Play a few more rounds of scales. Only this time, sing the note you are about to play. Remember, this doesn’t need to be fast — it’s not a speed exercise. This will help align your voice and your ear. By the way, if you don’t like singing or think your voice sounds terrible, too bad. It’s not about your vocal qualities, it’s about your ability to hear.

The next part of the exercise is where we start working on bringing improvisation and ear training together. As the music plays, sing a line using two notes. Now, play that line on the guitar, using the same qualities of attack, tempo, etc. that you sang it with. If you’re able to successfully do that, you’ve now successfully identified an interval (ascending or descending, who cares!?!?) and then played that interval in one position.

Where else can you play that same interval on the next? Find all the places where you can play that interval. Work through some other intervals and do the same thing. Once completed, add a note and make it three. Then make it four. Keep repeating this and add more notes. As you expand your coverage you’ll find that there are natural variations you like. Find them all over the fretboard. As long as you are singing it, it’s fair game.

Now, there is a hazard here for us guitarists. Often times, I catch myself singing what I am playing, not playing what I’m singing. There is a huge difference here! When George Benson was singing/playing on “This Masquerade” on Breezin’, he wasn’t just singing the notes — he was leading it with his voice. If you just sing what you’re playing, you can expect that you’ll sing your tired old licks or sing scales. Hey, it’s not bad, but it’s likely to drive your audience (whoever is still there) to go get coffee in the middle of your performance.

By associating:

  • The sound of an interval
  • With a specific fingering pattern
  • All over the fretboard

we are actively developing the raw materials for successful improvisation and effective ear training. The best part of this is that we’re going to be making music as we do it!

What problems did you have, if any? How well did it work for you? What variations did you try? Inquiring minds want to know! 😀

Have fun with this and let me know how it goes.

November 24, 2009 · kengon · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Music

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