The Art of … Musical Improvisation: Full Show

(music) Narrator: Today’s musicians learn to play music by
reading sheet music. To improvise, to play without sheet music — or time to prepare —
can be very scary. Alison: Improvisation is scary and I’m not sure if it actually ever becomes never scary. I think it’s always, it’s taking a risk. Narrator: Coming up two experts give these students the courage to face the fear. And in the process learn a new way to explore music, create
their own, and decide who they want to be as musicians. (music) The Art of … Musical Improvisation is next! (music) The following program is a production of
the Fairfax Network, Fairfax County Public Schools. (The Art of … Musical Improvisation slates and music) Hello! Welcome to the Art of Musical Improvisation. My name is Diana. I’m Alison Lynn. Diana: We’re The Moxie Strings. We are here to show you a little bit about what we do, work with some students and talk about why improvisation is so important. The easiest way for us to get started and to really give you an idea of who we are, the easiest way to introduce ourselves, is
to play a little bit for you. Here’s an Irish tune called “Drowsy
Maggie” and we take it into a tune we wrote called “Sidetracked”. (music) (sound of drums) Narrator: For thousands of years, improvisation has been a part of music. Even after the development of written music in the 15th century, improvisation was still valued. All the greats — Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt — were known for their improvisational skills. But in
the early 20th century improvisation declined. Now a new generation of
composers and performers is rediscovering improvisation and they are
expressing the music that lies inside them. (music and applause) Narrator: The Moxie Strings found their passion after learning to play classically in high school. Diana: In our public school system,
and our music education system in the United States classical music is what
you learn, it’s what you play. It’s pretty much standard protocol. But that
means that there is not any improvisation . There needs to be this in our classroom and there needs to be creativity in the classroom. One, two, ready go!
WOO! Narrator: So, the Moxie Strings are making it their mission to introduce improvisation to students across the country. (music) Student: My reaction was really good. Like, the music was so inspiring. Like, when I first heard it, I just went like ‘pow!’ Like speechless. Student: It’s really hard to play improvisationally. But that’s why I like it a lot because it gives you a lot confidence in your abilities. Diana: We always say our clinics are designed for the back half of the orchestra, those students that really know that they love their instruments and they love music
and they love being a musician. But what they’re being offered in school might
not be what they either love or feel that good at. But they’re the perfect
candidate to just be offered this idea that if they’re try something different,
figure out what type of musician you’d like to be, hone in on what you love
about music and what you love about being a musician and go that avenue
instead. And that is equally awesome and OK. Narrator: Kerri Shelfo teaches hundreds of students in a large high school orchestra. Kerri Shelfo: I think the biggest shock for me was seeing kids, when we’ve worked with The Moxie Strings in the past, kids who barely talk in my classroom, get
up on stage in front an auditorium full of people and improvise, play a solo in
front of a full theater. Narrator: Shelfo says improvisation give students a new way to communicate. It encourages students to take risks, be more resilient, collaborate, and think
outside the box. Shelfo: I think it is so vital to include improv in your curriculum. It always creates a more relaxed environment and a real trusting environment; the kids learn to trust each other and they learn to trust you. It has changed the way that my orchestra communicates with each other, they’re working together as a team now because I gave each one an individual voice, which is pretty cool. (music) (instruments tuning up) Diana: We found that — once again, being really good ears. Can you diagnose what’s going on around you, really figure out what’s going on without being handed sheet music is a big deal. But also when you get to that musical scenario, and you’ve figured out what’s going on, that’s going to be up to you to decide what you are going to play and what you are going to add. Whether that involves hearing something in your head first. Or whether that involves kind of just experimenting on your instrument. Either way, no one’s gonna tell you what to play, like we’re used to. Meaning we are going to give you a context. But we’re not going to tell you what to play that’s going to be for you
to decide for us. So we’re gonna tackle those two things today and hope that, and
hope that we can send you off a little bit more equipped to maybe start
exploring what type of musician you’d like to be; what what’s your musical life gonna look like;
where would you like to play your instrument and other scenarios. OK. I
think we should warm up. Alison: All right let’s warm up. I’m going to play some notes. I’m going to start nice and easy on my open D string. You guys just play them right back to me. OK? Instruments up. Me first. (music ) (music) (Alison plays a run)
Alison: I’m kidding. (Moxie Strings and students laugh) Alison: Good ears. Diana: You have great ears and that’s a big deal. What we’re gonna do right now is walk you through my and Allie’s tune learning process, pretty quickly here. Because, I think you just showed us a lot. You’ll get it pretty quickly , which is great. And the first step in that skill — number one — in using using your ears is almost always going to be is figuring out what key — is going on around you. Whether it’s jumping up with a band or playing with one other person there will probably be a collection of notes that sounds the best and works the
best with whatever is going on. And so we’re going to establish that key by
using D major and making some changes to it until we find ourselves somewhere a little bit cooler. OK? So we start in D major we lowered F natural and C natural. Now
let’s take a couple of notes out — we’re not going to use them the whole rest of the day — E and B. We just don’t need them in this key. OK? So let’s play that scale, but this time it is a D major scale major scale with F natural amd C natural. But this time, let’s skip E and B, a much shorter scale. OK? here we go. One, two, ready, go. (music) Alison: Back Up. (music) A little different, right? So, we’ve come from a D major world (music) It’s lovely, don’t get me wrong. It’s very happy. But we’re already here (music) A little bit different, a little bit cooler. Our job today is, hopefully, make your instrument feel a little different in your hands, make you look at
it a little differently. So that’s our musical key for the day. We will play you the tune that we’re about to teach you and then we’ll learn it piece by piece. I
have a feeling you’ll get it really quick. OK? Here’s our tune. Two, ready, and (music) Diana: From the top. Here we go. One, two, ready! No, I’m just kidding, I’m just kidding. You don’t know it, you don’t know it! OK, so it starts, remember we’re only going to be using notes in the key that we just played. Which for reference is called the D minor pentatonic scale, a bunch of fancy words; which we would love to get more into but that’s ok. The quiz later is only like half your grade. We don’t need to remember it. It’s going to be fine. OK? So, we’ve got the D minor pentatonic scale. As we play these sections for you and you play them back to use, remember you only have those notes to choose from ok. Similar to if you were
improvising in a musical landscape you would know that there were only so many
notes that would really, really fit. OK. Alison: Do you want them to play an F sharp or C sharp?
Diana: They’re not there. E or B? No, they’re cut today. Diana:OK. So here are your first couple of notes. I think that you can figure them out pretty quickly. Play them back to me. (music) Two, ready play. (music) Diana: Now we’re gonna do that twice in a row and it sounds like this. (music) Ready, play (music) Diana: Awesome. Here we’re gonna go on a little further and add another couple of high Ds which you all figured out, except I’m gonna add something below them. This is one is longer (music) Stop there. One, two, ready, go, and (music) Fabulous. If we started on that last open D that we played, which went down to what note? An open A. I’m gonna add to just that section. (music) Try. Two, ready, go. (music) Nice job.We have one very, very short section left to learn and then you will know the whole tune. OK? So here it is. It’s probably the easiest section you may ever learn and it sounds like this. (music) And yes, the stomp is mandatory. And do what you need to do, it is as much a part of the tune as any note. Did you hear that they were both open strings? Let’s try it. one, two, ready, go. (music) Lovely. So now you officially know the whole tune. Ready. Swiss (music) Swiss again! (music) Here’s cottage cheese! (music) Nicely done. Great job. You should be so proud of yourselves. You just literally learned that in record time, and you have it all memorized. And if we were to throw a repeat sign at the end and then you’d have even more notes and an arrangement memorized. Congratulations! So, melody of the tune — check! learned! Store it in your brain, store it in your memory. Because now we are on to one of the more exciting parts of this process…
… and scary. I know I felt the mood shift a little guys but don’t worry. Don’t worry. It is one of our favorite parts and it will become one of your favorite parts, too. It is time to
improvise. So we’ve learned our melody. We know our key. We’ve been working now in the same hand shake for a little while now, which is going to be really important. And now it’s time to celebrate the fact that we are all different musicians playing, playing these instruments. So we have played the melody. We all played the notes. We
told you, told you exactly what notes to play where. And you guys did it in a great way. And now we want to take those rules away a little bit and give you a little bit more freedom. So improvisation exists in many different forms depending on what type of music you’re playing. Celtic and bluegrass soloing might sound a
little bit different than what we’re talking about here. But since we are in
a rock and blues world, that really usually comes in the form of taking a
solo, taking a solo. So in this situation we would probably all play the melody
together like we just did, and then our backup band, who is going to be our
electric cellist for now, but it might be a drummer. It might be a bass player. They’re gonna keep going and they’re gonna give anybody that wants to the
opportunity to take a solo. And this is what gets so fun because as soon as we
ask you to start taking some of the creativity into your own hands, then we
get to really celebrate the fact that we’re all different and our instrument
becomes not just something that we play to sound as much like other people as
possible; but you celebrate the fact that we can make our own decisions and we can sound exactly the way that we want to sound as musicians. OK? So taking a solo
is not a scary thing at all. We’re only going to use the notes that we’ve already been
using. And we are going to start as simply as possible. How about this? We’re
used to rules in the classical world. You have a ton of them here. You can only
use open D. OK? One note. I will play a a couple notes. You can play a couple notes. Right now, will let you solo as a group. I know that sounds a little backwards. But right now you can hide
your own space, figure out exactly how this feels for you. I will play my open D. You’ will all play your open Ds back to us. Don’t repeat what we play, find a way to play your open D in your own way. OK? Here we go. I’ll go first. (music) Alison: Your turn.
Diana: Ready, play. (music) Nice! Fabulous! (music) This one’s easy to change. Here you go. Go! (music) Nice job, guys.
Yeah! (music) Alison: Wooo!
Diana: Go! (music) Add F natural. (music) Two notes. (music) Go ahead! (music) Go! (music) Awesome. You guys are moving. (music) Go! (music) Add G. (music)
Alison: Sell it! G — F — D. (music)
Yeah! Anything you want to say. (music) Go! (music) Go! (music) Diana: Guys, congratulations! You have just, yeah, you have just crossed a musical threshold that a lot of people, especially in the classical world spend their whole lives never trying, just making something up, deciding what you what you are going to play and how you are going to make your instrument sound. It may be based on how you are feeling; what notes you prefer on your instrument; whether you like to play fast or slow, loud or soft — it doesn’t matter. It is all to be celebrated because it is your opportunity to say what you need to say. Let’s add the rest of the scale. OK? Alison: The whole scale. Yeah, whole scale is now available to you. You don’t have to use them all. But you have that now creative freedom. OK? We’re not going to hold back anymore. Here we go. A one, two. Me first. (music) Go. (music) Lovely. (music) Awesome! I think it’s time to make some solos, you guys ready? Let’s start with bass, because I think she’s got this. Let’s start with bass. And then we’ll go low to high. OK? A one, two, me first. (music) Woooo! (music) Go. (music) Yeah! (music) Go ahead! (music) Yeah! (music) Go ahead. (music) Wooo! (music) Go. (music) Yeah! (music) Ready go. (music) Ready, go. (music) Yeah. (music) Wooo. (music) Right! (music) And.. (music) Yeah! (music) Diana: You guys should be so proud of yourselves. Give yourselves a round of applause. Not that scary. OK! It’s not that scary, OK? You guys just totaly owned it. It was fantastic! Narrator: What happens in the brain when students improvise? (music) Narrator: Surgeon Dr. Charles Limb wanted to find out. He asked a professional musician to play memorized notes as his brain was scanned. Then the musician improvised those same notes
while his brain was scanned again. Limb found that during improvisation brain activity slows down in areas that help inhibit our behavior. But areas that encourage
self expression are more active. (music) Narrator: So, when a student improvises, he is shutting down his inhibitions and letting his inner voice shine through. (music) Diana: So, improvisation is something that is vital to us as musicians and totally transformed us. We hope that this is not the last time that you try this. OK? When you take your instruments out to practice your normal four or five hours a day, give or take, (laughter) four or five hours roughly (laughter), no. Please take just four or five minutes of your playing to try to play something that you haven’t been told to play. Not reading from the page just picking up your instrument — maybe you pick a key, maybe you don’t. Just try playing your instrument and I guarantee it’ll be the
catalyst to what can become a really really transformative journey for you ok?
Improvisation is our chance to celebrate as audience members listening to each
one of your solos, everybody had a different take — some were short bows,
some were, there was more vibrato than others, some travel to other
strings. There were slides, there was a harmonic. It was fantastic and it was things that we
wouldn’t have thought of either. It was things that you decided on your own. And
that is should be empowering and exciting. It’s what we value so much
about creativity and music. We want to thank you guys for being here.
Alison: Thanks, guys. Students: Thank you. Absolutely. We hope to see you all again. We’re The Moxie Strings. Improvisation
can be a really, really wonderful way to celebrate differences, to really stretch
yourself on your instrument, and we hope that you’ll try it. Thanks so much for
watching The Art of Musical Improvisation. (music)