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Improvisation On Concertina


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This forum has loads of discussion on existing tunes; how to play them etc. But rarely I hear about people improvising on the concertina.

I mainly play existing Irish tunes on the concertina, but a considerable chunk of my playing time is spent on improvising.

With me I tend to sit quite relaxed (not in the performance position...) and just randomly playing whatever sequences of notes, until a structure emerges and I build on that. Or I have a little theme in my head and improvise/explore this theme as much as I can.

The music resulting from these improvisations is not always that interesting but most of the time fun to do. But every now and then a tune is born. If I like it or find it promising (to work on it later) I quickly record it on my minidisk player (I am an illiterate musician). By now 8 discs filled with bits and pieces, ideas, complete tunes etc. Some I find trash, some interesting enough to spend time on and several pieces of my repertoire are thus (home)made. Interesting enough most of these pieces do not sound Irish at all.

So I would be interested to know:

Do you improvise? How?

Are new tunes being made as a result? If not how do you make a new tune?

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I improvise all the time (even without the benefit of a pint). Particularly in bluegrass, breaks in country balads and of course jazz, I cannot help but improvise. Back-up lines behind a singer or even hanging out with the backers at session where some very nice baritone runs and augmented chords can compliment the lads in dadgad tuning are of particular interest to me.

 

Creating a tune? Not remotetly one of my talents or aspirations. Countermelodies, yeah but something I would put a name to and call my own, not in this world. I stand in stunned silent respect for my colleagues who do.

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This forum has loads of discussion on existing tunes; how to play them etc. But rarely I hear about people improvising on the concertina.

I mainly play existing Irish tunes on the concertina, but a considerable chunk of my playing time is spent on improvising.

With me I tend to sit quite relaxed (not in the performance position...) and just randomly playing whatever sequences of notes, until a structure emerges and I build on that. Or I have a little theme in my head and improvise/explore this theme as much as I can.

The music resulting from these improvisations is not always that interesting but most of the time fun to do. But every now and then a tune is born. If I like it or find it promising (to work on it later) I quickly record it on my minidisk player (I am an illiterate musician). By now 8 discs filled with bits and pieces, ideas, complete tunes etc. Some I find trash, some interesting enough to spend time on and several pieces of my repertoire are thus (home)made. Interesting enough most of these pieces do not sound Irish at all.

So I would be interested to know:

Do you improvise? How?

Are new tunes being made as a result? If not how do you make a new tune?

That is exactly how I write my tunes,except that I have a dictaphone normally in the car and the improvisation ,or note sequence is worked out in my head not normally on the concertina and sung into the dictaphone. It is best to initially work on an A part of the tune and then add the B part later. Then I see if it works on the concertina. One tune however Chocolate Rabbit came about from me trying out what I considered to be the best left hand notes for my style of play and with that tune the B part was compiled first and in the shortest time for anything I have ever put together .The A took considerably longer.

In amongst all your little bits of improvisation you probably have a fantastic tune and the next step is to start assembling it,some bits will work with others some bits will not.Some assembled bits may again need improvisation to get it into some sort of order.What you are doing is experimentation and that is how you will move forward.

Al

Edited by Alan Day
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I play a duet (Hayden) concertina, and so whatever my right hand is doing (melody), my left hand is always improvising, since very little of what I play comes arranged for my instrument and so I need to make up left hand accompaniment parts on the fly.

 

I don't write tunes, but occasionally I'll pick up the instrument and start with a familiar pattern and see what comes out of the instrument next.

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So I would be interested to know:

Do you improvise? How?

Are new tunes being made as a result? If not how do you make a new tune?

 

Hi, Chiton1,

 

Yes, I do improvise.

 

I do this on two levels: One level is the illiterate angloist's equivalent of composition, the other is the same approach to arrangement.

 

What I improvise most frequently is arrrangements - the harmonisation of a given melody. I have the same sources as you - basically anything I hear on radio, CD or at concerts, or from people in my surroundings. Sometimes a new tune forms in my head, and I arrange that by the same method.

 

Arrangement in the academic sense requires a grasp of music theory - chord progresions, harmonious and dissonant intervals, which accidentals come with which tonality, etc. Fortunately, two of my favourite instruments have this theory built in: the anglo concertina and the autoharp. With both of them, the mere process of picking out the melody by ear narrows down the choice of viable harmonies. The rest is a process of selection and optimisation, with the occasional search for a less obvious alternative. And these two instruments have taught me a lot about theory ;)

 

My composition-type improvisations, on the other hand, very often start with a neat chord sequence, which gives the piece a general direction, and then I sort of chisel away at the chords until a melody line emerges. I do this mainly on autoharp and guitar. With the anglo, the approach is more melody-oriented, and with the 5-string banjo, it's a bit of both.

 

My more usable tunes do not usually emerge from an improvisation session. The just come to me, and I sing them over and over again until they've gelled. Sometimes they form around a short musical phrase, sometimes I base them on the metre of a lyric (my own or someone else's) that I want to sing, or on a dance rhythm (usually Irish, but occasionally waltz time).

 

My song tunes are not particularly Irish, although I am. But when it comes to dance tunes, they usually come out as jigs or hornpipes.

 

cheers,

John

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Most of my songs have tunes that have come about by improvising on something else, or from a harmony to something else. The improvisation can be a mental exercise rather than with an instrument in my hands, however.

 

I do like to improvise, particularly harmonies with the baritone.

 

Robin Madge

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That is exactly how I write my tunes,except that I have a dictaphone normally in the car and the improvisation ,or note sequence is worked out in my head not normally on the concertina and sung into the dictaphone. It is best to initially work on an A part of the tune and then add the B part later. Then I see if it works on the concertina. One tune however Chocolate Rabbit came about from me trying out what I considered to be the best left hand notes for my style of play and with that tune the B part was compiled first and in the shortest time for anything I have ever put together .The A took considerably longer.

In amongst all your little bits of improvisation you probably have a fantastic tune and the next step is to start assembling it,some bits will work with others some bits will not.Some assembled bits may again need improvisation to get it into some sort of order.What you are doing is experimentation and that is how you will move forward.

Al

 

New tunes emerge in my head sometimes as well. I remember one particular case in which I had an interesting melody in my head, but nothing to record. I knew if I wouldn't record it it would be lost. So I phoned myself and got the answering machine and sang the melody into it.

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I always improvise (or, do we mean 'noodle?') when I play. That's really all I like to do, it seems... in fact, I am not very 'tuney.' I find it difficult to play many tunes, because I really only learn (other people's) tunes at places like church services or 'sings' or... sessions if I went to any, but I don't. (Doing 3 songs in church tomorrow, though.)

 

Then, I guess there's the question of whether or not something is being 'improvised' or if it's 'experimental' music. In fact, if someone can come up with good definitions and comparisions, that would be interesting!

 

Me, I think of 'improvising' meaning that there's an existing, known tune, but I don't have written music so I arpeggiate chords within the chord progression or whatever.

 

I think that 'experimental' music describes what I do when I create my own songs, these days. The composition is usually partly a 'normal tune' and partly an oddly-patterned sequence of related chords or theoretical something-or-other. Usually the song has at least a few vocal lines.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

On a related note... it's funny, I used to say that I hated jazz (and, true, there's some forms of jazz I just don't go for), but, over time I've really started to like a lot of what I hear at night on my favorite radio stations (mostly WGBH Boston).

 

Well, over this past winter, we had some problems with a lot of noise in the walls from some critter that had gotten into the walls -- something(s) even started to gnaw right through the soft wood directly into the inside. It scared me almost to death, since it reminded me a lot of the same noise that I heard one night when someone broke into a house I was sharing with some people, years ago -- that awful, crazy, splintering wood sound (kinda like, 'Wendy...I'm home!!!'). Anyway, I started playing radios all night long, to indicate that the place was in fact occupied -- to have some noise going. Jazz. Jazz all night. Eventually, I really started to like jazz!

 

Finally, I got a photo of something that's using the hole previously dug by the 'thing' that was getting into the walls. I'm not sure the original owner was a chipmunk, as in this photo -- but, though the noises seem to be gone, now we do see these cute chipmunks outside and they run into the holes dug near the house. I still play a lot of jazz on the radio, and they don't seem to mind:

 

post-39-1212281411_thumb.jpg

 

... And, I keep a recorder handy, too, to record music or whatever. The Pogo Ripflash is great, because it's possible to operate it without seeing it -- the buttons are big, etc.. Most other modern digital recorders have very picky little buttons that you must look at to get right.

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If not how do you make a new tune?

I've composed a good few tunes, but they aren't a result of improvisation necessarily. Usually I'll stumble on a sequence of notes accidentally that rings a bell in my head or just sounds cool, and then I'll follow it to what seems like a likely conclusion. Often I find out it's a tune I’ve heard that I haven't yet learned sitting dormant in my subconscious. When I play the new tune to friends they will tell me it reminds them of such and such tune, and when I hear the tune they’re referring to I realize it's the tune my mind was struggling to get out and I trash the tune I came up with and learn the right tune properly instead.

 

Sometimes my effort to follow the tune to its likely conclusion ends up being interesting enough to keep on account of how unique it is, and occasionally I'll actually stumble onto a musical idea that stands entirely on its own and doesn't mimic any known tune. The latter is more rare, but I've kept a good few tunes regardless of their obvious similarity to other known tunes.

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The Irish tunes are sort of rigid sometimes in form, and it doesn't take much wandering to sound a bit weird. Also I find the diatonic nature of anglo does not lend itself as well as a regular piano keyboard to have flights of imagination.

 

If I were to improvise on an anglo, it would be out of modes such as dorian and throw in passing tones.

 

This post has made me think about working out some chromatic runs in my playing, that will certainly sound a bit jazzy, and will work well in many fiddle tunes, especially with a sort of Texas Swing attitude maybe.

Edited by stevejay
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A lot of "new" folk-type tunes fall into one of these three categories:

 

1) A new combination of old phrases from existing tunes.

2) An existing tune half remembered, and perhaps with a change of speed or time signature.

3) Fairly banal.

 

I know this because I've written a few only to decide later they fell into one or more of the above.

 

However, yes, at the end of a practice session, I often doodle a bit to see what happens. Sometimes it reminds me of a tune I've heard (or played on harmonica) and it sets me to trying to learn it on the Anglo.

 

For composition, a useful tool is ABC notation. Sometimes when I get stuck trying to find a new jump or direction to help a tune break out of the predictable box, I fiddle about with ABC, which gives me two advantages:

 

1) ABC plays it right - so I don't have to write the tune and learn to play it correctly simultaneously.

2) If something works, you don't have to struggle to recreate it - it's "saved" in the text file.

 

With more tunes out there than I can ever learn to play, writing a new tune may be fun, but not the most efficient use of practice time.

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With more tunes out there than I can ever learn to play, writing a new tune may be fun, but not the most efficient use of practice time.

True... writing tunes is a total interruption of practice time. You don't get back to practicing again until you put the tune aside or finish it. The problem is that, at least for me, the tune shows up unannounced and on its own terms. I've never sat down to write a tune; it always finds me first.

Edited by Phantom Button
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A lot of "new" folk-type tunes fall into one of these three categories:

 

1) A new combination of old phrases from existing tunes.or time signature.

2) An existing tune half remembered, and perhaps with a change of speed.

3) Fairly banal.

I know this because I've written a few only to decide later they fell into one or more of the above.

 

A new combination of old phrases from existing tunes.

 

Reminds me of the saying that all tunes are the same, the notes are just in a different order!

 

I know this because I've written a few only to decide later they fell into one or more of the above.

My repertoire consists mainly of English country dance and morris dance music. Over the years of learning a lot of these old tunes, I find that certain types of tunes, e.g. jigs, seem to have phrases or structures in common and that once you have learned these phrases and structures, you can often 'improvise' or construct a 'new' tune by mixing up these phrases and putting them together to make up a standard 32 bar tune, that sounds like a new tune (which I suppose it is, in a way). Also, I don't know whether one would call it improvisation exactly, but when I become familiar with a tune as is commonly written and played at sessions, I find sometimes find myself experimenting with playing the tune 'my way', adding notes, leaving out notes, in effect, using the original tune as a starting point for a variation on that tune.

 

An existing tune half remembered, and perhaps with a change of speed.

 

I have just been listening to the new Will Duke CD, 'Out of the Box'. He plays a version of the Dorsetshire Hornpipe which is a bit different to the fairly standard version I have learnt to play. Whether his version of the tune is his own take on the tune, or a version he's heard somewhere and copied, I don't know, but given that the dots for a tune are just the starting point, this is how tunes evolve. And given that folk music is essentially an aural tradition, with many folk musicians and singers unable (or unwilling!) to learn to read music, tunes get learnt and passed on at sessions and not always remembered correctly, leading to subsequent variations. Take Tom Fowler's Hornpipe and Tom Tolly's Hornpipe as examples. Anyone familiar with these two tunes will know that the 'A' parts are identical but there is a difference in the 'B' parts, which can be confusing at sessions when the tune is started, so it helps to know both versions. How these two tunes came about, I don't know. Is one a half-remembered version of the other, or an improvisation? As long as it sounds alright and you enjoy playing it, does it matter?

 

Chris

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A lot of "new" folk-type tunes fall into one of these three categories:

 

1) A new combination of old phrases from existing tunes.

2) An existing tune half remembered, and perhaps with a change of speed or time signature.

3) Fairly banal.

 

I know this because I've written a few only to decide later they fell into one or more of the above.

 

This is probably true for many old tunes you play as well, so not something specific of ''new'' tunes. During a session yesterday night I found myself playing the A part of an ''old'' reel and skipping to the B part of another (but oh so similar....). And this is not the first time this happened to me (and over time I have seen many others doing the same). Some older tunes are so similar (and certainly derived from the same source) I wouldn't dare to call them different, but they are so regarded by today's musicians .

 

However, yes, at the end of a practice session, I often doodle a bit to see what happens. Sometimes it reminds me of a tune I've heard (or played on harmonica) and it sets me to trying to learn it on the Anglo.

 

For composition, a useful tool is ABC notation. Sometimes when I get stuck trying to find a new jump or direction to help a tune break out of the predictable box, I fiddle about with ABC, which gives me two advantages:

 

1) ABC plays it right - so I don't have to write the tune and learn to play it correctly simultaneously.

2) If something works, you don't have to struggle to recreate it - it's "saved" in the text file.

 

With more tunes out there than I can ever learn to play, writing a new tune may be fun, but not the most efficient use of practice time.

 

Ah, but I do not regard improvisation as practice time but as playing time, and writing a new tune is indeed fun (and more creative as ''just'' repeating an old one) and I will willingly sacrifice practice time for it (you can always practice your new tune afterwards).

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Yes, I improvise - given my limited repertoire its what i ahve to do to get some music out of the box.

 

Both my Crane and MaCaan duets are great for sound track music - in fact the other day I started to figure out the main melody in "Chariots of Fire".

 

Usually while noodeling around on any instruement, I find that I stumble upon songs I recognize, so i see it as a very important musicians tool.

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Usually while noodeling around on any instruement, I find that I stumble upon songs I recognize, so i see it as a very important musicians tool.

 

Hooves,

A funny thing happened to my once while noodling. I can't remember what instrument it was - perhaps it was just vocal noodling.

But anyway, I realised that what I was noodling was a rather nice chorale melody. It was a typical Bach/Luther-type tune that fitted the metre of a typical German hymn, with a short modulation into the dominant key, and phrases that each fitted a line of text, and it had that unctuous simplicity of the baroque hymn tune.

 

But I had no idea what it was. I've sung in Presbyterian and Methodist church choirs, so if it had been a Scottish Psalm tune or an English Victorian hymn tune, I'd have recognised it. Must be German, I thought, and looked up the tunes of all the chorales I could think of whose words would fit. Nothing!

 

Well, my daughter's mother-in-law is a German Protestant church organist by profession, and must know any chorale tune that is popular enough for me to have got it stuck in my head. So I picked her brains, too. All she could say was, "Well, the first line sounds a bit like 'Brich an, du schönes Morgenlicht', but not quite, and I've never heard the rest."

 

So I now have a rather nice original tune entitled "John's Chorale", which plays well on autoharp, classic banjo and anglo concertina. I'm just waiting for a moment of spiritual enlightenment to write a lyric to it. A secular lyric wouldn't be suitable.

 

Yes, noodling can be creative!

 

Cheers,

John

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