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Cello Lessons: Mike Block with Rushad Eggleston & Jeremy Kittel: Improvisation - Discussion

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Improvisation can mean a lot of things.
And it means different
things to different people.
It means different things
within different styles.
Jeremy, what are some big picture
thoughts you have on improvisation?
>> Wow, well, you know improvisation is,
it's something that you
do in different scales.
You do it a little bit,
kind of all the time in life and in music.
Whether you're playing the written page,
you're still, we don't usually use
the term, but technically you're
improvising the way you play it, right?
So I think about it like there's
this spectrum of improvisation.
You've got, with written music, where
you're playing the exact notes, you're
still, really improvising the expression
of it, in the way you play, in the moment.
Now on the other end, maybe of this
spectrum, would be music that has say,
like no set structure, completely
improvised music that you're just creating
>> Yeah.
>> or on your own for the first time.
And so then you have things in the middle.
You know, you've got improvising
over chord changes that repeat.
We call them choruses.
You know,
it's a very common thing in jazz.
You've got your chorus.
And that's basically one
time through the tune and
you improvise on those chord changes and
that's the structure you work with, right?
And that's not totally unique to jazz.
But then you've also got cells music or
your basically improvising on the melody,
Your kind of riffing and melody.
So, you're changing little things here and
there, but
mostly the melody lines stay the same.
So that's one of the things
I find interesting,
is you have all these different ways and
degrees to which you can go about it.
>> Yeah, what about you?
>> Improvisation.
I agree with Jeremy, there's like,
classical is like a one out of
ten on the improvisation scale.
You got Celtic music,
which is like at a three.
>> I was thinking three too, yeah, three.
>> Yeah.
>> Bluegrass is maybe at five.
>> Because as you're going,
Celtic music you're varying the melody.
>> Very much playing,
sticking with the melody, and
you're improvising slight
variations on the melody.
But in bluegrass, you'd be
improvising more extreme variations,
or just playing over the chords.
And so that way bluegrass could be as much
improvisation as jazz, although bluegrass
tends to be a five on the scale because
jazz gives you more room to stretch out.
But sometimes jazz gives you more
appointments because you have to hit more
chords, and that makes your freedom less.
My favorite thing, and the way I learned
to love music, and be a musician, is
basically what I would call a hippie jam,
which is my favorite style of jamming.
Which is where you just jam on like
two chords for a long time and
you go deep in explore mode and
it's like anything can happen over that.
You can both start playing arpeggios.
You can both take a solo.
You can just groove out for
a while, play some new riffs.
Get into a melody.
And that's where like many different
levels of improvisation can be
converging sometimes.
You know?
Like, you're improvising the form and
you're improvising new melodies,
and then they're coming to be.
I also like what I call
minimalist improvisation work.
You improvise until you find a thing and
then you keep repeating the thing for
a while.
Cause it feels good and
then someone else does the same thing.
>> I feel like composition is, the way I
compose actually is often just improvising
my way around stuff until I find
something that I feel is worth repeating.
And so exactly what you're describing,
I feel like that's when
improvisation becomes composition.
They're very similar processes.
>> Where you're like I
gotta hear that again.
So you do it.
>> Yeah it sounds like something's
worth hearing again then it could
be the seed to a composition.
>> Yeah.
>> In a way rather than improvisation
as a way to pass time or
there's something fleeting
about improvisation where
you're kinda committed to never
doing the same thing again.
>> Yeah.
>> But actually I find what you're
describing really inspiring too though
cuz it's like.
It's improvising less as like,
less about musical
statements, more as like improvising
within a feeling, and just
bringing a feeling into sound and
just going deep with that feeling.
>> I think that's
an important part of it too.
It's just for everybody.
For any person who have just, as human
being making music, finding the feeling.
It's finding somebody get
that feeling out in music.
Sometimes, we talk about composition,
sometimes I'll just have
a feeling as the beginning and
I know that if I follow that feeling,
that intuition, that it's going to flesh
out over time into something that
actually communicates that feeling.
And I just know that from experience and
it's kind of a wondrous thing.
But you know in terms of improvising and
making your own sounds.
I'm fascinated with how we
respond in music and how,
it's emotional response,
the physical response.
And so if you can get in to that
connection, with your own internal
emotions, feelings, intuition and the
sounds that you're making and could make.
Then you're on just a wonderful path.
>> Hm.
>> Yeah, it's all gotta be in the service
of expressing something, right?
Unless you're improvising to pass a test.
>> [LAUGH]
>> Yeah.
So, let's say with that thought,
if you're in a musical situation,
where you need to improvise,
sort of beyond your level,
or you have to think really
hard about fast chord changes,
or something?
Or just really fast tempo,
like how do you maneuver that mentally,
when your like improvising in
a context that's very difficult?
>> How do you stay expressive?
>> Sometimes,
you probably just need to practice to
the point where it's easy for you.
>> Mm-hm.
>> Like, once you can do something really
well, of course, it's not hard anymore.
Whatever it is,
it takes a lot of time to do it.
And so in that sense, if you don't
know how to play any chord changes and
you're being asked to play rhythm changes
or giant steps or something or a really
fast or really hard jazz tune, then
there's probably no way that you're gonna
actually play the technical chord changes
if you haven't really practiced it, right?
So you know,
a lot of times you need to just
to explore that tune I think for
a long time.
Play along with it.
Do you guys like making, like, I used
to always make these play along tapes.
Like practice along.
Make a loop or something.
Like play the chord changes on piano,
maybe with a drum sample or
something or a metronome and
then you can play along with it.
Because I think getting to play
with other people with a certain
song you're working on improvising on,
playing with it, you're going to hear how
every note you play interacts with
the structure and with all the harmony.
If you're just trying to play the chord
changes all alone it's not really like,
you're not really in the world of it.
>> Yeah.
>> You know?
>> You can't hear if
it's a dissonant note or-
>> Yeah, of course.
>> Note or-
>> Sounds kind of obvious but-
>> Things that can sound good by
themselves wouldn't
necessarily sound good with it.
>> And vice versa.
>> And vice versa. Yeah. >> Yeah,
>> Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So that's an easy thing to do,
these days you can just get a like
any kind of multitrack thing like,
even on your phone.
>> Or the iReel pro software is great.
>> There you go.
>> Yeah.
And they have a looping function.
>> [CROSSTALK] iReel pro.
>> iReel?
I just use GarageBand.
>> Yeah.
>> Yeah.
>> Yeah.
Playing along and
you can make your own, too.
>> Yeah.
>> Like a garage band or something.
>> Is there, so with that thought in mind,
has there been things like,
well, can you practice
improvisation with somebody else?
Like if you have something you wanna work
on, what kind of things can you do in
pairs with somebody else that's
wanting to work on improvisation?
>> I think if you're at the same
place of wanting to check out a tune,
you don't even need to be in
the same place, technically.
I think that it's really helpful to
practice it with a friend because,
you get to interact live as well.
So your energies can bounce off one
another and you can challenge each other.
>> I feel like that's how you learn
to improvise is with buddies.
If you're doing the kind of
improvisation that's with people,
otherwise you can sit and just make stuff
up in your room all day long or whatever.
>> Yeah.
>> But there's
something about
>> Yeah.
>> Getting together with some other
people, and jamming, you know?
The whole concept of jamming.
>> Yeah.
>> And there's so
many different levels of jamming.
Me and my friend, Nico.
He was describing it as
agreeing which game to play.
It's, like, hey,
we're gonna play baseball.
Like, okay.
You know the rules of baseball.
Baseball has these rules.
It's, like, you can play bluegrass, and
bluegrass has a certain set of rules,
you know?
You can play the head.
And someone says you're
gonna take a solo and
someone says you might go around again but
you get 32 bars.
It's not like you're gonna just
suddenly solo in E flat for
like 42 measures out of nowhere.
No, the thing has rules.
You know what I mean?
Or bowling, like that has different rules.
That is where the kippy cam comes in.
It's a looser structure but
you're just gonna be playing A minor in D.
And then you'll solo for a while and
then I'll solo for a while.
It's like a really loose game
not quite like baseball or
tennis with all these established.
>> It's like catch.
>> Yeah it's just like
you're playing catch.
You could end up being like hey,
you know what I mean, or whatever.
>> Yeah.
>> So yeah games.
>> Games, I like that.
>> Playing games with your buddies.
>> I like that analogy.
>> It should be fun,
I've always thought that it should be fun.
And what is more fun in music
than making up something?
You know what I mean.
>> Yeah.
>> What do you guys think about theory?
What do you guys think about whether
you need to know some theory to
improvise well or whether you don't?
Or maybe there's no exact rule about it?
Some people know tons of theory,
some people know not much.
>> Mm.
>> But maybe they have their own
way of thinking about it that works.
You need to think about it,
you need to understand [SOUND] music
theory to be able to improvise?
>> Yeah, I was actually reading a book
called A Thousand Days of Wonder, and
it's a brain scientist who his specialty
is the development of a baby's brain.
He had a baby and so he was charting
his baby's development knowing
what's happening actually in his brain.
Anyways there's a really amazing
concept which is that humans
can't really have a concept for
something until they have a word for it.
The way our brains are wired
it's like vocabulary and
language skills, create connections in
our brain that didn't exist before.
So it's like this sort of idea that like
you don't really understand the difference
between blue and red until you
have different names for them.
>> And the idea is that that's
just part of being human
>> That is apparently like a way that our
brains operate is giving things names as
solidifies the understanding of them.
And I do think there's
an element of that to music.
I mean, you could express yourself
without any theoretical knowledge.
But simply having a word for a collection
of sound, like a collection of
notes that includes C major,
it's helpful to be able to group things.
Like I think like music theory
is just a way of grouping
sounds into things that you can identify.
>> Sound relationships.
Tone relationships, yeah.
>> So there have been many great
improvisers though, right?
Especially in Jazz.
Well, jazz and bluegrass and
who haven't really,
supposedly I haven't known
anything about theory.
>> Uh-huh, about what they were playing.
>> About what, yeah, what it actually
was because you can use your hearing.
>> Yeah, yeah.
>> You heard other people
do that with the bass, and then you--
>> You might...yeah.
>> I think they have a little bit of an
advantage in some ways because they're not
bound by it having to make sense according
to the laws of theory necessarily.
I dunno,
I feel like people that are untrained
do stuff that's a little bit different and
sneakier sometimes.
But I think that it's good to learn
as much music theory as you can,
especially if you want
to be a composer at all.
Or like it just gives you
more options in music.
But not to be a substitute for
developing your ear
>> Right.
>> and learning.
There's some people gonna
learn a bunch of jazz solos
just off a page of sheet music or
But that doesn't give you the same
ownership of that as if you just
transcribed it yourself
like by hearing it.
>> Right because the real
thing in music is music.
>> Yeah.
>> And so the, all of the visuals are and
all the names are just like sky posts or
something, they're labels.
>> Right.
>> The real thing is the tones and
we can talk about it.
We can name them, but when you're learning
it by ear, you're training your ear and
you're getting all sorts of
information that wouldn't be translated
through the page and back to you.
>> Subtleties of inflection,
things that aren't even notatable.
>> Things you will know that you're
learning because you're doing it that way,
and things you won't even realize that
you're learning because like you're.
>> Uh-huh.
>> Yeah, that's exactly
why you gotta do both.
You gotta learn as much as
you can about theory, and
also just develop your
ear as much as you can.
Because there are infinite minute
details that make music music
that can't just come from
a theoretical knowledge.
Because in theory I mean you could
know everything about music theory and
everything about the way it works but
you could also not be able
to play one lick of music.
It's possible.
>> Yeah, yeah.
>> If you know all this stuff and be like.
>> Right, yeah.
Know all about music theory and
never have heard music.
Yeah, you could maybe
even ever of heard it.
>> You could understand
the mathematical relationships, yeah.
>> Yeah.
>> And that's the flip side is that
the moment you name something,
the moment you define it,
then that's a box.
>> Yeah.
>> That you've limited something to like.
>> Limited some kind of understanding.
>> Yeah, so it's like in a way having
names for things can set you free,
cuz you're able to sort of
think about something else.
Defining things too specifically-
>> I think, that 3,000 years ago.
I'm just kidding.
We're getting a little abstract.
>> Yeah.
>> [LAUGH] But I love it.
So for a beginning improviser,
somebody who,
maybe they're a beginning cellist or
maybe they are classical
cellist with three degrees.
But somebody who is new to improvising,
what's an approach,
mental approach or activity,
that you would recommend to get started?
>> Sit there and make some noise until it
turns into a little riff or something.
To be able to jam with yourself and
to just come up with something at all.
Even it isn't like.
[SOUND] Or whatever,
you just make up little riffs.
Then you're on your way to improvising.
Cuz then you can do that
with somebody else.
And you take what they did, and
you put a little bit of that in there and
you them back and forth.
>> Yeah.
>> But you got to make stuff up.
There's a lot of people that are just
like, no, I don't wanna make stuff up.
I can't make stuff up.
No, where's the-
>> Everybody can make stuff up.
>> Yeah.
>> Yeah.
>> Everybody can make stuff up.
>> Yeah, totally.
Yeah, you gotta just be open to that.
And sometimes it's easier to do
it alone than in groups at first.
Or even vice versa for different people.
But, yeah, I think being open to really,
just of course, doing it and
making stuff up is important.
I find that singing a lot, and
just kind of singing with melodies and
singing along with things that I like.
>> Yeah, [SOUND].
>> Yeah, yeah, or just singing along
with syllables or just learning things.
Imagining how you might play it.
Then you could
[INAUDIBLE] little songs.
You can just make up
a little part in the record.
Or I like to sing, I like to practice
vocals sometimes with recording.
I'll make the third part up.
>> Nice.
>> Or the second part,
of something like that.
And it wouldn't really be totally
appropriate all the time on a record, but
you're just making stuff.
>> You're like taking music
that already exists and
seeing if you can add something to it?
>> Sure.
>> Is that what you do?
>> Yeah, or play along with recording too,
can be a nice alternative to playing
along with specific backing tracks.
Just play along with the your favorite
record, and find out what sounds good.
The intersection of theory and
improvisation is really interesting
to me because music does have all
these mathematical relationships.
And consonances and dissonances,
and the way it effects
us is based in all these vibrations and
So it does often help people
to feel secure to know,
to have a,
kind of a way to get through the music.
And that, in theory,
can help with that, I think.
Cuz often people feel will feel,
like in workshops,.
I've noticed people will feel really
self-conscious if they play a note
that's not consonant, and so just being
willing to make those mistakes and
to learn is a big part of it too.
>> Yeah, it's just music.
It's just music.
We're lucky to live in a time where
no one's chopping off our heads.
>> Yeah.
>> It's like, you know the worst that
can happen is that someone vibes you.
It's like, they vibed me at a session
cause I played a bad note and
they were like, I got a vibe,
so the world is ending, really.
[LAUGH] Don't be afraid about being vibed.
You're gonna get vibed.
At least even in your own head,
you can vibe yourself.
>> You can vibe yourself [CROSSTALK].
>> Yeah.
>> [CROSSTALK] probably.
>> So don't vibe yourself.
>> No vibe, no bad vibes, good vibes.
>> We can end on this note.
Actually, what you're saying makes
me think of this saying that,
if you're not making a fool of yourself
in public then you're not learning.
Does that make any sense?
>> I like it.
>> I mean just a matter of like.
Going for stuff?
>> Yeah.
>> Maybe it doesn't make sense.
>> Yeah,
it seems like it could be true for some.
>> I mean, I think you have to take risks.
You know, you have to be willing
to fail even probably some times.
>> It all depends on how hard
the music you're trying to play is.
If I went to a jazz session,
any jazz session, I'm usually gonna make
some kind of fool of myself at least to my
own head because I'm not that comfortable.
Even in like a really
good bluegrass session.
But you don't necessarily need to go
through all that to be a musician.
If you really like jazz and bluegrass, and
want to learn how to play them,
then you do.
But if you just wanna make up music,
you can pick some buddies that
you feel comfortable with.
And you can just make beautiful music
that no one's ever made before.
Because the two of you and
your particular creativities have
never been combined like that before.
It's a new flavor and it is something
to be relished and enjoyed.
>> [LAUGH]