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The freedom of improv

I used to think there were two ways to play- just what was writen on the page, or a mistake. I learned a long time ago that you could make deliberate changes, as when you don't have a note on your harp. That happened fairly often, as my first harp was a small harp. But I kept any changes to a minimum, because after all, I am playing someone else's song. I should play it right, right? After I'd been playing for several years, I attended a harp circle. I played a very simple, very short song once through. One of the ladies asked me to play it again. So I did. The exact same way. It was a short song. Someone said "why is she playing that again?" To which the reply was, "I asked her to" and the lady smiled. I realized that she was trying to teach me something, but I wasn't sure what it was. I was playing the song as written, short, simple, possibly a tad boring a second time, but I was playing it right, right?


But what if you could feel free to make changes, to play around while playing music? What if the written notes were just guidelines? What if the short simple song becomes a theme, inviting a multitude of variations? I'd been thinking this for a couple of weeks before Christy-Lynn's last virtual harp circle, and to my surprise and delight the very topic came up in conversation. There are a number of things one can vary- a run of notes up can become a run of notes down, for example. The tempo can be played with to make fast and slow sections of a song. Or, a chord progression can be followed in tempo. Christy-Lyn showed us how to imporvise on Pachabel's Cannon- just follow the progression, have a few variations to play the chords- (1-5-8 in the left followed by 1-3-5 in the right, all arpeggiated, etc.)


Isn't it funny how topics seem to pop up here and there? Carolyn Deal put out a couple of excellent videos on Shakespearean sounding improv in January, which I just got around to watching. The harp is tuned to the key of C Major with the G sharped, which Carolyn calls the Lady Godiva tuning. One of my favorite tunes of all time is in that tuning- When That I Was, from Shakespear's Twelvth Night. I had a chance to see that in person years ago, and it was such a fabulous production: the set, the costumes, the acting, the singing even. Learning the song (arranged by Suzanne Guldiman) was a real treat and always brings back fond memories. But Carolyn's teaching on improv makes it even better, because that opens the possibility of combining a few shorter tunes with a bit of improv, creating a longer piece. Or of just playing around for the fun of it.


Ironically, playing around and varying the notes from the written page seems to also make it easier to sit down and play what is really written, as it takes the edge of nervousness away- what if I make a mistake?!!?!? It's more like, what if I try a little improv? What if I go offroad on purpose, just to play and see what happens? How freeing that is!


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