TIP OF THE DAY

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Kalimba Improvisation
Pay Attention to Phrasing

When you are improvising, pay attention to phrasing. What does that mean? Every sentence has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and if the sentence doesn't end - if the person just keeps on talking and spewing out words and riffing, perhaps they are happy to hear the sound of their own voice, but it is likely that other people won't enjoy listening to them.

When you improvise, you are throwing out MUSICAL IDEAS. Musical ideas can be amorphous, but they are much better when they are well formed. And a great way to make a musical idea well-formed is to give it a good beginning and a good ending.

MUSICAL IDEAS aren't quite translated into exact expressions like a computer language or even poetry. Perhaps the most important thing about musical ideas is that they can convey to the listener that they are solid, well formed, and self consistent - i.e., they can give the air that YOU know what you are doing... or not, depending on how you pull it off.

Let's get back to phrasing. A well-spoken sentence comes to an emphatic end. A well-formed musical phrase comes to an end gracefully. Consider this: musical phrases can start or stop on any beat, but if you make your phrase end right at the end of a measure - or perhaps end right on the first beat of the next measure - that gives the listener the impression that you did it on purpose, that you are in control, or at least in tune with the music. Also consider that you can end your musical phrase on any note, but that certain notes related to the key you are in or the chord that is being played will give a more solid sense when you end on them.

And now for the climax to this idea: what if you arrange your phrase so you end on a particularly strong beat, AND on a particularly strong note? Then you hit the jackpot.

When you are playing, in the middle of a phrase, you can sort of see where the end of the phrase is to come. Just make a guess as to how many notes you want to play between now and then, and throw them out in some pattern, aiming to come down for a 10.0 Olympic landing on the aimed-for beat, on the aimed-for note. If you miscalculated and there is more space than notes, slow the notes down, or double back (i.e., if you are coming down the scale, maybe go back up the scale for a note or two and then come back down) so that you end on the solid beat and the solid note.

Finally, a handy fact: a lot of music is in 4/4 time (i.e., four beats per measure), and the most common scales have 7 notes... well, 8 notes if you double the root note at the top. So, a very simple example of what I am talking about would be to have an 8 note phrase, start at the top of the scale, on the root, a strong note, and go down the scale: Do, Ti, La, So, Fa, Mi, Re, Do --- that is, 8 notes. In other words, the game of music is sort of rigged for success by the fact that the common timing and the common scales line up to be the same length.