Improvising: The Second Stage?

Murphy Henry

As you know we have a DVD titled Improvising: The First Stage. And when I first concocted that DVD (many long years ago) I had a fairly clear idea of what the second stage would be. However, that thought obviously did not pan out and furthermore I’ve completely forgotten what it was! Still and yet, as more students are beginning to improvise I’ve been wondering lately what the second stage might be. And I think Zac is guiding me down that path!

If you’ve been reading these blogs, you might remember that Zac, who just turned 16, started improvising a month or so ago. He’s been playing about a year and a half, went regularly to David and Linda Lay’s Fruit Stand Jam last summer and fall, and, of his own volition, is playing at nursing homes two or three times a month. (With his band of Susan and Bill Morrison and his dad.) All this to say that learning to improvise is a whole lot easier if you immerse yourself in the music and—this is a biggie—play a lot.

Zac is getting the idea of three-chord-singing-song improv down pretty well. So the other day, just on a whim, I thought I’d try him out on an instrumental. No words to cue on. I trotted out Daybreak in Dixie. (I actually teach this note-for-note on the Ralph Stanley Style DVD.) It’s a great tune, and while it does have a banjo “hook” (a signature lick that Ralph uses in the B part) it can easily be played with generic Scruggs licks.

Zac’s ever-supportive dad Todd was at the lesson playing guitar, so the first thing I did was show Todd the chords so he could accompany me while I played the tune for Zac on the banjo. It has a basic three-chord progression (I, IV, V, not in that order!) and Todd had no trouble picking it up. So Zac got to listen to us practice on that. Then I told Zac to vamp along while his dad and I played through the tune a couple of times. And I gave him this word of advice: “I wouldn’t ask you to try to play this tune if I didn’t think you could do it. I’m not trying to trick you. You can do this.”

And by Jove, he got it! Since he’s been improvising so much, he now has a standard G lick that he automatically goes to to start with and he also has a standard C lick. And, thanks to When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder (on the Amazing Grace DVD), he has added Ralph’s most excellent D lick which happens to fit perfectly in Daybreak in Dixie! (Which is where I learned it!) Now I’m not saying Zac played the tune perfectly the first time. It took several passes through before he cobbled something together. But he did end up with a really good version of Daybreak in Dixie.

So at the next lesson we tried Bluegrass Breakdown. (Which I teach note-for-note on the Rawhide DVD, just in case you’re interested!) Again, Todd accompanied me on the guitar and Zac listened and vamped. Bluegrass Breakdown is not hard, but.......it does have an F chord it in, which Zac recognized early on. So before he tried to make up a break, he played through Old Joe Clark to see what he used for the F lick there. Then he used something similar (simular, as we say here) in BG Breakdown. It worked! Good thinking, Zac!

After we’d played it a few times and were taking a rest, Todd said the most amazing thing. He said, “Isn’t Bluegrass Breakdown just like Foggy Mountain Breakdown with an F chord instead of the E minor?” BINGO! It sure is. Then he continued, “And isn’t the part that has the C in it just like Lonesome Road Blues?” BINGO AGAIN! That’s one thing that makes this whole improvising thing work. The songs all sound alike! (See, I can say that, but them’s fighting words if someone else says it!)

As I told Todd, I was just fixing to show Zac how to substitute the up-the-neck break of Lonesome Road Blues for the last section of BG Breakdown. After a false start or two (no pinches after the tag if you’re going up the neck), Zac laid that break in there as pretty as you please. As he was leaving, I reminded him (not so gently!) that for our next lesson I still wanted him to learn the low break to Lonesome Road Blues from the Improvising DVD so he could add that C lick to his bag of tricks. Er, bag of licks! (Got ‘er done yet, Zac???)

So, do I have the beginning of Improvising: The Second Stage? Only time will tell, but perhaps just knowing Zac is doing it will inspire you to go and do likewise!

14 thoughts on “Improvising: The Second Stage?

  1. Kathy

    Yes Zac has it ready to show you at his next lesson, thats pretty good when you blog about Todd and he only comes along because Zac wont drive and drags the guitar along with him!!!

  2. Martin Bacon

    I think a lot of these bluegrass tunes were not created in isolation but evolved on from another. So it is not surprising to me that one instrumental tune has parts from another. I wonder if a second volume of Improvising (which I would really like) couldn’t include some attention to how to begin to incorporate melody notes into the tune. I don’t know if that means choosing licks with more of the melody notes in them, or picking out the melody and then working rolls around the melody. I just know that if I play an improvised break that perfectly reflects the chord progression and sounds like the tune to me, it often doesn’t even to a knowledgeable listener. The method as far as I can execute it so far does help you at least get something approximating the tune done. Improvising on a non singing song does sound exciting because I would have to hear the tune in a whole different way in my head. The sounds would have to be the words and you would have to figure out where you have played that particular sound before and then pull all the sounds together to make the tune. Zac is really progressing and that is very exciting to see (and read about).

  3. Martha Carlton

    I think a new DVD on improvising Part Two would be a good idea. And it would really be interesting to work on improvising instrumentals. I have done a good bit of this type of playing, but my breaks, when I take one, are not very exciting, and they do not reflect much of the tune. It just gives me the opportunity to play and not vamp while everyone else has so much fun. Go to it Murphy and Casey.

  4. Tam

    Hi Murphy..

    There has been much discussion about “Improvisatuion” over on the Banjo Hangout recently. Many different viewpoints on what it is and how to aquire this skill.

    Many feel that the Murphy Method is little more than learning by rote and that TAB doesn’t provide a solution to Improvisation either. Some ill informed views would have you believe that by learning to play the banjo using these methods students become dependant on the method and can’t break free in order to improvise. I would add that personally I certainly don’t share those views.

    I have asked the question many times in the Hangout for someone to define Improvisation but most avoid giving a straight answer (which might suggest they simply don’t know) whilst the rest can’t seem to agree on what Improvisation is and quickly get into a long and often heated debate.

    If asked, my own definition would be, the ability to spontaniously play music on the fly i.e. Without the aid of TAB or taking a tune I already know apart and subsituting a few licks in order to alter the tune.

    To my mind Improvisation as I have discribed is an advanced skill and one that can only be achived with much study, a very good knowledge of the fretboard and the ability to play music by ear. Needless to say my contemporaries don’t necessary share my views.

    After two and a half years of in-depth study working with the MM I have progressed to more challenging material with lessons from Bill Evans and Alan Munde and a few other prominant teachers.

    I just like to add that I couldn’t have come thus far and be able to tackle the kind of material I am currently studying without the aid of the Murphy Method and yet I still can’t really improvise in the manner I have described.

    But In recent months I have worked on Improvising a solo on two tunes without any external aids just from knowing the melody. The tunes are ‘Cheating Heart’ in the key of C and ‘You are My Sunshine’ in the key of G which includes an Up the Neck break.

    For the benefit of any doubters who think that the MM is all about learning by rote I didn’t learn either one of these tunes from the Murphy Method but did it using the skills Murphy has imparted upon me. To coin a phrase often used by Pete Wernick, Murphy didn’t give me another fish she taught me how to fish.

    Do I feel the need to have an ‘Improvising: The Second Stage’ I am not sure that I do. That’s not to say I would be opposed to the idea, I am thinking along the lines that if I say yes please, I could be accused of becoming dependant on the Method.

    Any aid that would further advance a students progress has to be welcomed. So if Murphy were to make an ‘Improvising: The Second Stage DVD’ would I add it to my library. You bet ya I would certainly buy it.

  5. Martin Bacon

    I don’t necessarily think that improvisation has to be defined as an advanced skill. The proof is that there are many tunes I can play fairly spontaneously if I have the tune well ingrained in my head and work out the chord structure all using Murphy’s instruction. Trying to improvise is hugely helpful in learning to hear chord changes. Her Improv DVD is essential learning material. I do think that learning to incorporate melody is a more advanced skill but there is an awful lot of Scruggs style that is lick based and playing a serviceable break is better than no break at all and will likely get you playing with others a lot quicker because you can play more tunes.

  6. Tam

    Hi Marty

    To say that Improvisation is not an advanced skill is somewhat misleading.

    As I see it, in order to Improvise you must first know how to play the banjo to a greater degree than a rank beginner and if that were not the case then Murphy would not have started off introducing her students to Beginning Banjo Vol 1 & 2 she would have jumped straight in at the deep end with Improvising: The First Stage.

    I have to assume, like me, your not a rank beginner you have aquired some skills from Murphy’s teachings. So then the question arises are you Improvising from ‘rote’ something you have memorized or from ‘spontaneity’ hearing a melody for the first time and then just playing.

    To quote you:

    “The proof is that there are many tunes I can play fairly spontaneously if I have the tune well ingrained in my head and work out the chord structure all using Murphy’s instruction.”

    If you have to work out the chord structure and practice it before you play in a live situation then it’s NOT improvisation ‘Playing on the Fly’ it’s playing from memory.

    So Improvisation by my definition must be an advanced skill.

    You have to know where to find the notes, the chords, the lick’s sure you do and Murphy’s teachings give you those foundational skills but to truely Improvise you have to play spontaneously and that doesn’t come from a book or a video but from experience, lot’s of it.

    Although Murphy’s teachings provide the foundational skills from my understanding to truely Improvise the music has to come from within you since you are creating the music and not playing from memory or a musical score.

    So then the next question arises are there different levels of Improvisation or are they simply different interpretations of the definition?

    I will leave you to think that one through.

  7. Martin Bacon

    Tam,
    I think I was being a little tongue in cheek. I have been working pretty hard for the past two years but I think Murphy started me out on Improv before I finished Vol II which was a great idea. I had completed Vol I, Misfits, part of Vol II, Learning to Hear Chord Changes, Capos and Theory, and Vamping. So I would concede that beginning to Improvise using previously learned licks is an early intermediate skill. I think it is really important to begin Improvising earlier than might be suggested by calling it an advanced skill though because I think once I realized that if I could hear the chord structure, that I had a pretty good chance to play the tune, albeit minus a lot of well placed melody notes, I started listening more critically to bluegrass music, particularly Flatt and Scruggs. I think that improvising with incorporation of the melody notes while maintaining the Scruggs style is a truly advanced skill (still way beyond my reach). For example, I taught myself and Improvised version of What A Friend We Have In Jesus and I was pretty darn proud of it. Then yesterday I was listening to various versions on my iPod. Murphy’s version from her M&M Blues album absolutely rocks. I don’t think I appreciated how great it was until I listened after my first stab at the tune and could appreciate what she had done. Now I’m learning the break she teaches on her Gospel DVD, but I’m not going to forget my improvised one. So I will be able to play it multiple ways. I also think I can hear how she incorporates licks in the chord structure and compare them to how I did it and maybe snag a few new ideas for another improvised tune down the road.

  8. Martin Bacon

    Hi Tam,
    Not to wear out the topic, but I think that Improvisation almost certainly has to be defined as having different levels of difficulty. I think for example, playing a break you know well, but then spontaneously substituting a different D lick is improvisational, but not too hard to learn. I don’t guess I see how you could improvise a break on the fly without a pretty good idea of the chord structure. And I think that takes practice and experience. Fortunately, there are a lot of chordal patterns common to bluegrass that help. Tp paraphrase Murphy, “one day you will find that all tunes are a subset of Bury Me Beneath the Willow.”. I have come to believe that the heart of the Murphy Method is the use of the language centers in your brain that you used to learn your first language. That is why I think it works (at least for me). So, to me, improvising would be a skill one learns in a graded fashion, much like you start out with sounds, then words, then phrases, then more complex phrases, then sentences, then paragraphs, then maybe one day a beautiful poem. As for me, and maybe for Murphy as well, I am hoping I make it out of the “terrible twos”:)

  9. Tam

    Hi Marty

    You’ve got it. I think we are now both singing from the same hymn sheet. I too believe there are different levels of what is often refered to as Improvisation, but true Improvisation cannot be taught it’s something you aquire through experience not unlike learning to drive a car once you pass your test you are qualified to drive but it may take you ten or even twenty years until you know you truely have the skill to drive in any conditions. You do this spontaniously you react to the condtions without fear without thinking about the obsticales and the dangers.

    Once you learn the chords, the rolls the licks etc you have cracked the shell and have some experience a basic framework to begin the process of learning how to improvise.

    Murphy probably saw that you had aquired a level of knowledge and skill to set you on the path to aquire those skills of self-assurance. She may even have been using you as a guinea pig. I often did that with the Army Recruits I used to teach. It was a way to let me know that my recruits were taking on board what I was teaching them and at the same time checking to make sure I was doing my job correctly. Teaching young men to have confidence to stand on their two feet without fear of what was before them.

    I regularly jam with a group of friends and it’s great to watch them improvise. Someone will introduce a new song or tune to the group that the others haven’t heard before and before you know it they have improvised a break. Now that’s what I call improvisation on the fly.

    How do they do this, they have a framework. This is exactly what Murphy teaches us. Contrary to what you might read on the Hangout Murphy doesn’t just teach a bunch of tunes as some of the Hangout Members have suggested she teaches us how to create a framework of sounds using the basic elements of the Scruggs Style. The framework however isn’t improvisation, it’s what you might weave the music of improvisation around.

    I have studied a wide range of instructional videos most those lessons have been far more challenging than the MM and have taken me to a higher level but it’s my considered opinion that of those other methods I have worked with no one comes anywhere close to the teaching foundational skills like Murphy. I could not have begun to tackle those lessons had it not been for the Murphy Method

  10. Steve (in Japan)

    Aww, bs with those “wide range of intructional videos you’re talking about, Tam, they’re demonstrational videos! Enought with this, now, “Let’s pick.”

  11. Tam

    Hi Steve

    I don’t wish to get into a heated discussion with you here on Murphy’s blog enough of that goes on in another place, You are entitled to your opinion thats’s all I will say.

  12. Steve (in Japan)

    Sorry, Tam, I didn’t mean to step on your toes. You’re a true and dedicated 3-finger banjo picker, and most likely a great one too. Peace be with you.

  13. Tam

    That’s ok Steve no offence taken, I got used to it in the other place. The difference is nobody apologises there so thank you, your apology is warmly accepted.

    Now don’t go exaggerating my skill level. Dedicated yes, banjo player, em well that’s debatable. Lets just say I recognise I still have much to learn. I would describe myself first and foremost as a dedicated student of the Murphy Meothod and take pride in having Murphy and Casey as my virtual teachers. I am somewhat jealous of Marty he gets to have one-to-one lessons with Murphy. Peace be with you also.

Comments are closed.