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Spontaneity, Playing by Ear, Creating Music

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Feb 12, 2020 - 1:51:05 PM
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nooby

USA

6849 posts since 2/14/2006

I have no qualms about someone learning to play the banjo through tablature or mechanical, routine practice.  This is awesome, and it should be done.

But the next step in playing banjo is spontaneously creating music by ear.  

For me personally, this part has been really difficult to teach.  If not impossible, for me.  So I thought about borrowing an idea I had from another thread, and here it is:  For me, there are 4 total steps of being able to pull this off.  

1.  Learn how the song goes - through repetition and practice.  Learn the basic chords and chord changes, and learn to do back up on the song before you work on the lead solos.

2.  Listen to the chord changes and timing changes.  Soak the music in and learn to listen to it.

3.  Notice the momentum of the music in you as you feel the music.

4.  Respond and experiment to that momentum on the neck of the banjo.

 

I sound kind of out there, but it works.  At least for me, it works so that I can create riffs and solos by ear.  And usually spontaneously.  The first break or solo won't necessarily sound right, but as you run through the song you've learned, listening, feeling and responding, you will eventually get a grasp on creating music by ear.  I believe it can happen.

Feb 12, 2020 - 2:06:48 PM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)

USA

23950 posts since 8/3/2003

Might I add that the more you go to jams and play with others and take a chance on taking a break on a song you don't know, the easier it gets.

First few times I tried to pick a new song in a jam, I really messed it up. Didn't sound too much like the melody, but at least the chord structure was right. However, the more I tried, the easier it became and I eventually had a repertoire of what I call melody phrases. One, two or three measure phrases, chord specific and melody specific that can be punched into many songs. After that, it's just a matter of adding frills, runs and licks where appropriate.

Worked for me. Don't know if it would work for others, but worth a try.

Edited by - Texasbanjo on 02/12/2020 14:07:44

Feb 12, 2020 - 2:44:21 PM

10528 posts since 6/2/2008

Doug, I think you're leaving out two important aspects of learning to improvise on banjo:

1 -  Learn the modular character of banjo music. That is, whatever you know how to play against G, C, D, Em  and any other chord in any song you know is almost certainly going to work against those same chords when they come up in any other song.  Will "X"-chord licks and phrases from one song always sound perfect, or best, or even right as melody substitutes in another song? No. But they'll be musically correct or close enough.  They'll be fine as a reinterpretation of melody.  Sort of like scat singing on the banjo. They'll sound like you know what you're doing. 

2 - Build a vocabulary of licks and phrases.  And never stop building it.  Learn that many licks -- and especially most melodic phrases -- can be broken into segments that can be used on their own. Experiment with licks you already know. What happens if you change a note by one fret? If you change up the roll against a held position?  If you change held notes and picking order?

Over time, as your ear improves, you'll develop the ability to start or end licks or phrases on targeted melody notes.  Also, you might learn the trick I use all the time, which is to find the first important melody note while I'm playing backup.  That gives me an idea of how I want to start my solo.

While most of what I play in jams or gigs is improvised rather than worked out (excluding my Celtic stuff) I think I have very rarely created a riff by ear when jamming or performing.  Nearly all of what I play in improvised solos is stuff I already know.

Feb 12, 2020 - 3:35:33 PM
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nooby

USA

6849 posts since 2/14/2006

You both bring up excellent points. See, I told you I’m no good at how to teach this!! Lol

Feb 13, 2020 - 8:16:10 AM
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10528 posts since 6/2/2008

Don't sell yourself short, Doug. Your tips were are all good -- especially since each one was about listening to, feeling, and being aware of the music: what it's doing and where it's going. I like your use of the word "momentum."

You gave the most important advice of all, because you have to hear the music in your head before you can play it with your fingers.

Feb 14, 2020 - 6:10:36 AM

71264 posts since 5/9/2007

What worked for me was being brought up in a family that already played by ear.
I was handed a banjo,shown the keys of G and C on it and
began playing along.

Feb 14, 2020 - 10:54:03 AM
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2144 posts since 4/5/2006

Those than can, do.....Those that can't, teach. Used to be a commonly heard phrase. B.S! You can lead a horse to water, But you can't make him drink!

To my way of thinking, there is more to teaching than meets the eye. Certainly one must know the subject, (music) and be able to demonstrate in real time as well, the material they are attempting to teach. The ability to connect with the student, to communicate the how's & why's all this stuff works, to inspire the student to go beyond just learning songs from tablature, is a talent.

Granted, some will soak up everything at alarming rates, while others will never seem to advance much beyond beginner stage. That is, I think, just the nature of the beast. Some students may be better off moving to another instructor/method. And some of those just may never get it, no matter who they go to, or what method they try. Perhaps they have too many other priorities getting in the way. Maybe at a later date, when they don't have all that junk blocking the thought process & have more time to devote to the task, who knows?

But I think you're on the right track Doug. Just keep refining your methods & plugging away at it.         

Feb 14, 2020 - 12:20:50 PM

6485 posts since 8/30/2004

Doug,
Don't let anybody walk over your great posts. You do great work...Jack

Originally posted by nooby

You both bring up excellent points. See, I told you I’m no good at how to teach this!! Lol


Feb 14, 2020 - 12:53:58 PM
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5477 posts since 10/13/2007

Doug,
You are a much much much much better player and teacher than I but I want to throw and idea in here and don't be afraid to throw it out!. A skill i had to get was just to be able to pick the melody out in real time without rolls. I had to know where the melody notes are on the banjo and be able to pick out a song on them just as if i were humming or whistling the tune. But just playing melodies and then later trying to play just the melody with a recording was good practice. Then when I started playing it with rolls and I had an idea of what melody note I had to work into the roll. Also, it just seemed to make you go to the right chord by both sound(sounds really bad when the chord is not formed) and also which notes you were fretting to get the melody as they are part of the chord & its fingering. But getting the banjo to be an extension of my voice was the big key for me. Still am not the best at it. If I am out in left field, just tell me.
thanks,
Ken

ps, If I can't find the melody note then I have to find the chord and look around in the chord for the melody note.

pps, To me, what JD is talking about when he says keep refining your teaching was what they call in the schools of eduction at universities - reflective teaching. That is a fancy way of saying think about how it went after and then see if you need to tweak it. I have been coaching tennis for 50 years and have had some good players but I am still learning from both my good and not so good students. What works for one does not work for another and having several ways to say the same thing is a benefit because different people hear things differently. But I do know this, If I was in your area I would consider myself dang fortunate to be able to take lessons from someone as good as you.

Edited by - From Greylock to Bean Blossom on 02/14/2020 13:01:11

Feb 15, 2020 - 7:10:15 AM

1604 posts since 2/10/2013

I think Number 1 should be moved down to Number 3. Listening to a melody should come first. Be able to hum/whistle/whatever the melody BEFORE you even make an attempt to learn the melody. I agree with the person who said that your mind needs to know what you are trying to do before you start attempting to do it.

I get the impression people often don't really appreciate the importance of some things they are told. Even when you tell them they are "important". And, they also don't realize that things that sound simple can be very difficult to achieve. On the violin/fiddle they instructors always stressing the importance of relaxation. Sounds simple but it is easier to say than to achieve.
Italian violin instructors would not let a student start to learn to play something until they could read and sing the music.

I need some more information on Number 4.

Edited by - Richard Hauser on 02/15/2020 07:11:46

Feb 16, 2020 - 10:10:02 AM
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Tommy5

USA

3510 posts since 2/22/2009

Going to jams solves this problem in most instances. You can’t just sit there and roll through chords for hours at a time without wanting to explore the fretboard, throw in licks everywhere until some stick, play melodic links ,, Scruggs licks, single string licks , just play with a melody, anything to make the music more fun and interesting.

Feb 16, 2020 - 11:46:55 AM
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nooby

USA

6849 posts since 2/14/2006

quote:
Originally posted by From Greylock to Bean Blossom

Doug,
You are a much much much much better player and teacher than I but I want to throw and idea in here and don't be afraid to throw it out!. A skill i had to get was just to be able to pick the melody out in real time without rolls. I had to know where the melody notes are on the banjo and be able to pick out a song on them just as if i were humming or whistling the tune. But just playing melodies and then later trying to play just the melody with a recording was good practice. Then when I started playing it with rolls and I had an idea of what melody note I had to work into the roll. Also, it just seemed to make you go to the right chord by both sound(sounds really bad when the chord is not formed) and also which notes you were fretting to get the melody as they are part of the chord & its fingering. But getting the banjo to be an extension of my voice was the big key for me. Still am not the best at it. If I am out in left field, just tell me.
thanks,
Ken

ps, If I can't find the melody note then I have to find the chord and look around in the chord for the melody note.

pps, To me, what JD is talking about when he says keep refining your teaching was what they call in the schools of eduction at universities - reflective teaching. That is a fancy way of saying think about how it went after and then see if you need to tweak it. I have been coaching tennis for 50 years and have had some good players but I am still learning from both my good and not so good students. What works for one does not work for another and having several ways to say the same thing is a benefit because different people hear things differently. But I do know this, If I was in your area I would consider myself dang fortunate to be able to take lessons from someone as good as you.


I used to play the banjo with only my thumb, doing the melody and also Scruggs type of licks as best I could make them sound with just the thumb.  Great idea.

Feb 16, 2020 - 12:10:48 PM

10528 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Richard Hauser

I think Number 1 should be moved down to Number 3. Listening to a melody should come first. 

I need some more information on Number 4.


But #1 says "Learn how the song goes," which I take to require listening to the melody -- which is, after all, how the song goes.

#4  to me sounds like the part where you put all the listening, melody learning, and chord progression awareness into the playing part. 

Feb 16, 2020 - 12:39:35 PM
Players Union Member

rvrose

USA

712 posts since 6/29/2007

I think to a large degree playing by ear is a gift (or how your brain is wired). I've always been able to whistle a tune or pick a melody out on a piano or whatever. But my wife who studied Saxophone in HS could only play by music or memory. I've known many people in that camp who play beautifully if they have music - but can't hum a tune to save their soul. I'm not saying a non ear learner can't learn to play by ear, but I'm not sure how to teach it if they can't hear it. First step though is to hear the melody an be able to just simply pick it. Once you know the melody - throw in the BG rolls and licks. I'm always amazed how few actual melody notes you actually need once the song is recognizable to the hearer. The brain is amazing at filling it the melody around the rolls and licks.

Feb 16, 2020 - 2:03:35 PM
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3341 posts since 12/6/2009

This may be a little complicated for a beginner but here goes…..to get a touch of what plying by ear is like….you should know how to sing a little. Sing and easy line of something you know like down in the valley. Sing the first line a few times…..down in the val ley ….then strum your banjo in G. now sing again while strumming that chord….[down in the val ley]…..now try to find the note you are singing….you know by the sound it starts low….[down] and goes up….[in]…[.the val ley]……try it.until you get it…that’s about basic learning by ear…. I'm big on singing it first

Feb 16, 2020 - 5:49:59 PM
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2144 posts since 4/5/2006

Yeah, I have to agree with what these other guys are saying about singing/humming/whistling a tune. Like so many other things, when you've been doing something like that since you were knee high to a grasshopper, you just take it for granted & are unable to conceive anyone not being able to do it. When you are real young, you have no fear of making a bad note, singing off key, or anything else because you don't know any better. cheeky It's more or less monkey see, monkey do. So at eight years iof age, when I bought a cheapie harmonica, it didn't take too long after going thru the little instruction book to be playing by ear.

Of course there are no bad notes on a harmonica. And even though I had played with a guitar player accompaniment, I didn't really know what the guitar player was doing. I guess I just lucked out by stumbling onto my first banjo instructor who taught me about chords & harmonies. The biggest stumbling blocks I had to overcome in learning to play the banjo was

  1. I didn't know the style I wanted to play was called Bluegrass
  2. I had never heard of more than one or two tunes in the BG repertoire
  3. none done BG style on 5 string banjo

Only by shear luck did I stumble on the few examples on TV. So now, after re learning to read music [(for the third time) & (being introduced to tablature & Scruggs rolls & once you get that going)] which are the melody notes & which are the fill notes? And how does one learn to accent them to bring out that melody?

Again, for those of us who have been doing it for decades, it seems like a no brainer. But for a city kid who not only never grew up hearing this music, but had refused to listen to "hillbilly" music, it was not easy. I had a lot of catching up to do.

To get back on track, what can one offer the struggling student in the way of advise?  How long does it take to learn to play BG banjo? Depends on the level of playing that satisfies. For a lot of us, the goal post keeps moving. Does that mean we will be taking banjo lessons forever? Of course not.

Like any other degree, there are different levels, & different courses required to progress to the next level. School btw, is not so much about teaching you how to do things but rather giving you the basic tools, to use the knowledge you already possess to figure out things on you own. Developing good study habits, recognising when & where to seek help. Sometimes that means looking it up, or seeking help from an outside source. For example, other musicians, a picking buddy, books, or back to school.

Only the student can determine the skill level, the amount of effort/expense willing expend to obtain that level, & where to seek the guidance. The master can only provide guidance.   

Edited by - monstertone on 02/16/2020 18:06:56

Feb 17, 2020 - 3:21:24 AM
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3341 posts since 12/6/2009

I will say though, You have to have a passion for what it is you are trying to accomplish. That passion will guide you to success. To be good on banjo or any instrument its a commitment to only yourself.

Feb 18, 2020 - 9:32:32 AM
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5570 posts since 3/6/2006

Have you ever sat down to learn a really cool lick only to find that you already know that lick - you just don't phrase it that way? I see a lot of discussion of note choices here, but never underestimate the power of rhythm aka - timing aka - phrasing. Being able to improvise melodically takes a lot of experience, fretboard knowledge and a big grab bag of licks. But improvising rhythmically is something that we can all do on the fly and it can be very effective. Listen to the bass, guitar and mando and find where you can depart from, then return to the beat.

Feb 18, 2020 - 1:04:17 PM
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71264 posts since 5/9/2007

Best way to learn improvising is to play with people more than playing alone,imo.
Also,challenge yourself with uncomfortable (at first) keys.Force yourself into situations that make you scratch your head.

Feb 18, 2020 - 3:13:41 PM

2838 posts since 10/17/2009

quote:
Originally posted by Richard Hauser


I need some more information on Number 4.


4.  Respond and experiment to that momentum on the neck of the banjo.

My take on it is it realtes to the topic of being spontaneous and creative. Experimenting, exploring different possibilities, listen to the results; not as objective right vs wrong/mistake... just listen to subjective results. Getting outside of safe zone, outside the box, fixed plan; involves not being afraid to fail; just see what else can work. This might include, different phrasing, accenting, syncopation, timing, harmonic context, dynamics, tone, articulation. Might involve borrowing other ideas from other tunes... experiment to see if the similar idea would work, or could be adapted to work.

quote:
Originally posted by Richard Hauser

...your mind needs to know what you are trying to do before you start attempting to do it.

Italian violin instructors would not let a student start to learn to play something until they could read and sing the music.


Italian violin instruction is a bit apples/oranges comparison, in many ways the opposite approach. Spontaneous and creative, is a bit not following a plan, not in reading what's written; isn't using ability to read music.

In the exploratory mode... you don't need to know exactly what you are trying to do before you start. Nor do you need to fully understand the rules of theoy... use that as a plan to calculate and apply what is supposed to work or not (based on the rules), though some of it can be a useful guide to point into a direction; but allow yourself to think outside of those rules, and listen/feel.

It's perhaps not for everyone; some can't wrap their head around the concept; and/or it's not really imporrtant to them.

Edited by - banjoak on 02/18/2020 15:17:46

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