Improvise with Seventh Chords in Open Voicing

Last month we improvised with some cool seventh chords, voiced “cluster” style (officially called closed position). For an even more lush, modern sound, let’s improvise with seventh chords in open voicing. We’ll use the same four chords: Cmaj7, Am7, Fmaj7, G7. Instead of playing the chord with four fingers in your left hand, we’re going to open them up and use three fingers of each hand.

In your left hand, play c, g and b (like the open voicing on a simple C chord, but with a b instead of the second c). In the right hand, play e b and e (the third, the seventh again, and another octave of the third). Between your hands, you’re now playing all the notes of a Cmaj7 chord, in an open (spread-out) voicing. You build the other chords the same way. Here they are spelled out for you:

 

Finger LH
4
2 1 RH
4
2 1
Cmaj7 c g b e b e
Am7 a e g c g c
Fmaj7 f c e a e a
G7 g d f b f b
chord degree 1 5 7 3 7 3

 

Notice that there are always two empty strings between your two hands, and you’ll find the positions more easily. Once you understand the pattern, you can of course play any chords in the key with the voicing. But for now, try to play through the sequence above, rolling the chords in each hand as one unit or playing arpeggios, until you get very comfortable with the progression.

Once you know the progression inside and out, you’re ready to embellish it with improvisation. To start, try adding “filler” notes in the right hand, e.g. the notes between the upper tones of one chord and the next. For example, between Cmaj7 and Am7, you might walk between and around the notes e and c. Just relax, experiment and have fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with Seventh Chords

For a lush and funky sound, we’re going to improvise with seventh chords. Here are the chords to use (familiar from Heart and Soul, but turned into sevenths); Cmaj7, Am7, Fmaj7, G7. Right now, you don’t even have to understand how those chords are constructed, because I’ll give you the notes.

Using just your left hand, place b on the bottom, then, c, e and g (the C major triad with a b added to the bottom of it). The b is the seventh, added to the bottom instead of the top of the chord (and thus they are “inversions”, one possible way to turn the chords upside-down). Don’t worry about your right hand right now, although you can of course play these chords with either hand. You build the other chords in the progression the same way. Here are the chords spelled out for you:

 

LH Finger 4 3 2 1
Cmaj7 b c e g
Am7 g a c e
Fmaj7 e f a c
G7 f g b d
chord degree 7 1 3 5

 

Once you understand the hand form, you may want to play seventh chords up and down the scale, all over your harp. Then, try to play through the sequence above, rolling the chords in your left hand, until you get very secure about which chord comes next.

To begin improvising, try playing any notes from the chord in your right hand as you play each chord with your left. Find pleasing notes that connect the chord tones, and you’re on your way to creating your own melody. Remember, there is no test . . . this is about having fun with sound!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with Pachelbel Canon

The idea that one would improvise with Pachelbel Canon is not too revolutionary; the whole piece is a series of variations that would have been improvised to begin with, as that’s what musicians in the Baroque era did.

So this is a  fun way to become more comfortable with that oft-requested piece AND learn to improvise at the same time. It’s especially useful to free up your right hand. Pachelbel’s Canon makes us of the same chord progression over and over:

I V vi iii IV I IV V

In the original key of D, that’s D A Bm F#m G D G A. Play just the root of each chord in your left hand. Notice that you go down a fourth, then up a step, down a fourth again, until you get to the final two chords. (Don’t have levers? The chords in C are: C G Am Dm F C F G).

Now for the fun part! With your right hand, you will be outlining the chord tones to create patterns. It will be easier to play and sound a lot better if you use inversions of the chords to keep them closer together and “under your fingers”. Here’s the progression with slash notation to show you which note is on the bottom of the inverted chords (say, D over A, and play A on the bottom, with D and F# above it, otherwise known as a 2nd inversion D chord):

canon chords D

(Click images for larger versions)

Or, in C:
canon chords C

Practice finding the chords in your right hand while playing those roots in your left hand. (Don’t rely on reading them; practice finding the shapes). When you know where they are and can find them reliably, you’re ready to play with them. Remember that the left hand simply plays the chord root on beat one; the right hand will fill the whole measure with notes based on the chord.

Here are some patterns to try:

*Play with rolled chords; two half notes per measure
*Start with the top note; play down and back up in a pleasing, regular rhythm
*Play the chord tones plus one extra “color” note in each measure (a note between two chord tones. If you don’t like how a note sounds, simply move on)
*Play the chord downwards in a triplet pattern (one triplet per beat)
*Create a meandering melody that wanders around the chords

Now its your turn. Anything can work. Regular rhythmic patterns will sound more classical, but how about some syncopation for a Latin canon? What rhythm would you use to make a rock-inspired canon? A dreamy New Age canon? Keep playing and experimenting, and you will stumble into new patterns for your right hand. Have fun and make it yours!

Pachelbel tango? Pachelbel bluegrass? Check out this video by “Pagagnini” for laughs and inspiration for improvising with the canon. The cellist is your left hand . . .

Pachelbel Madness

This is the original cool Pachelbel video, the Pachelbel Rant. Rob Paravonian demonstrates just how often this chord progression shows up in music, and you will laugh through the whole thing. Go ahead, watch it again . . .

Pachelbel Rant

This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with the Blues

It’s fun and easy to improvise with the blues on your harp. The traditional blues progression is really quite easy. It consists of 12 bars in 4/4 time with a set progression. The simplest traditional chord progression is
I I I I
IV IV I I
V IV I I.

In the key of C, that would be
C C C C
F F C C
G F C C.

To keep that steady blues beat, you play the chord on all 4 beats of each bar, so you might think of it like this:
CCCC CCCC CCCC CCCC
FFFF FFFF CCCC CCCC
GGGG FFFF CCCC CCCC

Playing straight chords on every beat is tiring and can sound muddy on the harp, so it’s better to play open chords or alternate between the root and the other two notes from one beat to the next. To begin with, try playing just the chord roots (the note C for four measures, and so on).

Here’s another easy alternative that keeps the steady beat and is harp-friendly (click image for larger version):

Blues-Patterns

Right now, your goal is to play something in your left hand so simple that you can keep it going while you improvise with your right hand. So stick with chord roots if this pattern is too much to remember right now.

With your right hand, play only notes that are part of the chords you’re playing or even just play the chords twice on beat one and then rest for three measures.

If you’re an intermediate player, and that feels easy, you can get fancier. Remember, though, that the blues is very repetitive; you might only play on beats one and two with your right hand, for exmaple, and play a similar rhythmic pattern for every measure.

Here’s another intermediate idea:

Blues-RH

Now, you may have noticed I put some flats in there. If you know your chords, you’ll notice that some of the chords have become dominant sevenths in the process, though I haven’t marked them that way to keep things as simple as possible. If I’ve lost you, just go back to the easy level of this improvisation play chord roots in your left hand, play sparingly and without flats in your right hand, and have fun!

For those of you who want a little more depth, I’m going to explain a bit more. The thing that gives the blues its jazzy flavor is the blues scale, which also includes several flats. Here is the whole blues scale in the key of C (click any image for a larger version):

Blues Scale

The blues notes add the pizazz, but notice that their natural counterparts are also part of the scale. What’s a lever harpist to do?

For starters, on most lever harps, we need to use F# instead of Gb. Fortunately, the Gb is the least important blue note, so feel free to leave it out or save it for occasional punch.

You really need to play B-natural on the G chord and E natural on the C chord. One of my favorite ways to play the right hand is to put the Bb and Eb in the middle octave (right above middle C) and play with my RH in that octave when I’m on the F chord, but play up an octave to catch the naturals when I’m on the G chord. On the C chord, I also play up an octave so that I’m avoiding Eb, but I catch the Bb sometimes from just below that C. This is far simpler than it sounds and far easier than flipping levers all the time. (My right hand pattern above works this way).

If you’re up for a challenge, or you’re an advanced player, you can experiment with lever slides to ramp up the variations between the flats and naturals. If you get bored and ready for something different in your left hand, you try playing with the traditional blues bass line

blues-bassline

To make the bass line more playable, play every note with your thumb (with the thumbs-up position) and play C instead of Bb. (You can keep the Eb if you’ve set that in the middle register for your RH anyway). You may want the play the first two measures on line 3 up an octave higher, especially if you have a small harp. In that case, either leave the Eb out (play F), or play simple G and F broken triads in those measures (G B D B, F A C A).

If you’re struggling, go back to the easy chords and keep that beat going. The RH can really be so simple–play 2 eighth notes on beat one and then rest for the remainder of the bar and you’ll be in the blues groove. And if you have a playing partner, take turns: one person can play the chords while the other “solos”.

Have fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvising Over the Chords

What do I mean, improvising over the chords?  I’d like you to try improvising with a piece  you already know, or at least with its chord progression. If you’re an intermediate player, you could also start with a simple arrangement for piano, such as Amazing Grace (level 4, first page only) on Gilbert Benedetti’s Free Music site.

Now, if you’re more experienced, perhaps you could play the left hand as written. However, it will be far easier if you start by playing the chords in their simplest form in your left hand (this is where your music theory comes in handy.  You did label those chords, didn’t you?)

First, play through the left hand chords alone. Next, play the chords again, and play anything you want to in your right hand ~ anything except the melody, that is.

At first, unless you’ve done this before, it will feel awkward as you search for something that sounds good.  You may want to start by simply pulsing the chord root in your right hand on every beat, just to get the two-hand coordination going.

Then move on to creating little lines of moving notes in your right hand. Don’t know where to start? If you get stuck on a chord, keep playing that one chord while you try different notes in your right hand. Next, do a single phrase until you like it, instead of trying to work the whole piece.

If you can keep the left hand going as written and feel a little braver, try this: keep playing that left hand, let’s say five times through, while trying different patterns of single notes in your right hand. If you stick with it, you will find pleasing snatches of melody that you like and you will start to repeat them when you get to that spot again.

Here is one suggestion to try with your right hand. If your left hand is playing a G chord, try all the notes from g to d (the G triad and the two notes in between those strings). When the chords changes, the of course the five notes you can play change to match.

One more tip: if you want to be able to focus on your right hand without worrying about your left, why not record the left hand chords (or original accompaniment) and play along with only your right hand?  That way, you can really explore.

Most of all, have fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvising with an Ostinato

Let’s play with a repeated pattern called an ostinato (a constantly recurring musical fragment). When improvising with an ostinato, you can play the ostinato in either hand, but let’s try one in the right hand.  Tune your harp or set your levers for the key of C; with your right hand, put finger 3 on g (just above middle c), finger 2 on a, and your thumb on the high d .

Practice playing these three notes in succession, either from the top down or the bottom up (see which you like best). When you can do this with a smooth, rippling motion, you are ready to add you left hand.

Use your left hand to play chords and single notes alternating below and above your right hand. Start simply, by “dropping in” single long notes, once per ostinato pattern.  When this is easy, try open chords (for example, d a d, or an octave plus the fifth) in the bass. Have more fun by crossing over to play closed chords, thirds or sixths in the treble.

It doesn’t matter what you play, as long as you like it. Strive to keep the right hand going smoothly as you let the left hand roam. Remember to use some repetition in your left hand to create structure (if you like it, do it again).

Give it a try–it’s fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvising Right Hand Patterns

We’ve spent a lot of time in this blog focusing on left hand vamps and patterns for improvising. That’s all good and well, you say, but what do I do with my right hand?  Let’s look at improvising right hand patterns today.

First, remember that simple is good ~ start with just a few notes. In fact, if you’re improvising with a new pattern, the first thing to do is to add a simple repeated note on every beat with your right hand. Sounds easy, right? But sometimes, even one note is enough to show us that our left hand needs a bit more practice.

Once one note is easy, expand to three. For example, if you’re playing a Dm chord in your left hand, you have the notes D, E, and F available for your right hand. They’ll always sound consonant. Once three notes is easy, expand to five. In our example, you would add G and A.

We’ve talked before about white strings, and how they always fit if you’re playing in the key of G, so next try using any white strings while you play G and D chords (you can play the D as a neutral chord, leaving out the F# third, if you want to avoid flipping your levers for now).

Here’s the way to make your doodling sound like music: if you hear something you like, play it again. Or play part of it, changing the ending. Or play the same rhythm with different notes. It’s structure that pleases our ears, so don’t be afraid of it.

Now let’s branch out a bit. We’ll put a really simple chord in the left hand–let’s say that neutral D chord (D and A, played together). Now play thirds and sixths (two notes simultaneously) in the right hand. When you hear something that sounds dissonant to you, just move on to something else.

Try “climbing the ladder” with alternating thirds: d f, e g, etc. Try it going down, too. Try seconds instead of thirds; d e, e f, g a . . . Try playing different rhythms, too (long short or short long).

Ready for something a little different? Try the following triplet pattern over the C chord (click on image for larger version):

Triplets

Notice that while this pattern sort of works over the C chord, your ear would really love for you to change chords. Try changing to a new chord on beats 1 and 3, thus: C, F, G, C over the two measures of the pattern.

Now it’s your turn. Play with scale fragments and runs and repeated motifs. Keep your left hand simple and uncluttered with block chords, especially if you’re using more than one chord. Let your right hand experiment until you find patterns that make you happy. Repeat and vary them. They’ll become part of your personal style!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with a Roving Thumb Pattern

If you like to improvise, arrange and/or compose music, you have probably collected some favorite patterns for your left hand. A quick look at most Celtic harp books will show some very common patterns, such as rolled chords on beat one, three note arpeggios (4 2 1, anyone?), and various combinations of chords and extra notes in an “oom pah” style. One of my favorites is a rocking arpeggio with a changing top note, known as the “roving thumb.” This post will teach you how to improvise with a roving thumb pattern.

To start, find this pattern on your harp by putting 4 2 1 on the notes low C, G, and middle C. Play them from bottom to top, back to middle, and then to top again, but this time moving your thumb to D. Next time, play E with your thumb, and then once more back to D. The music below shows this sequence written out (click image for larger version):

Roving thumb 1

Practice this pattern on just this one chord until it feels natural. When your left hand is playing a busy pattern like this, you can bring in something really simple (whole or half notes) in your right hand, and it will add a lovely contrast. Once this is easy, you can graduate to other chords. You just need to find the root, the fifth, and the octave of any chord, and add the walking notes above the octave.

Next, you can try a faster rhythm with a roving thumb pattern that travels further afield (all the way to F on the C chord):

Roving thumb 2

Again, spend lots of time practicing the pattern, applying it to different chords.

When you’re ready, steal the chord progression from a simple tune you know and turn it into an improvisation.  Try playing 2 measures of each chord using one of these patterns, playing just your left hand until that’s easy.  When you’re ready, adding thirds or sixths as long chimes in right hand can be lovely.

Have fun, and keep improvising!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with the Habanera

In a recent post, I gave you improvisation ideas using the harmonic minor scale. One place that this scale shows up is in the Habanera (often confused with the tango). I’ll repeat the notes about tuning that I gave you then:

If your harp is tuned in C (or you’ve put up your levers for C), engage your G# levers. In your left hand, play the following chords in succession (called a chord progression): Am, E, F, E. (The notes in those chords are ACE, EG#B, FAC, and again EG#B). Let’s use 4/4 time and play the chord just on beat 1, changing chords every two measures.

By the way, if you have only F, C and B levers on your harp, disengage the B’s to create Bbs, and then engage the C#s. Now your harmonic minor scale is Dm. Play Dm, A, Bb, and A chords to go with this scale, and avoid the C# when playing the Bb chord. (Chord notes are DFA, AC#E, BbFD, AC#E).

Okay, so here’s the fun NEW part. Below is a simple pattern of chords in Am with the traditional Habanera rhythm. (If you’re playing in Dm, use the same pattern on the Dm, Gm, A, and Dm chords, with your C#s for the A chords).

Habanera

(click image for larger version)

Play through the chord changes with your left hand until you can do it without too much thought. Then you can start adding simple notes in your right hand. Try repeating just the chord roots (A, D, E and A) in your right hand in a rhythmic pattern, for example. (That would be D, G, A and D in Dm).

Of course, you can play the chords in any order and make up beautiful melodies for your right hand as you get more comfortable. Try to improvise for at least 20 minutes just to allow yourself to get bored with the pattern. Boredom means you’ve got it, and that’s when something new and magical can happen!

Have fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Improvise with the Harmonic Minor Scale

Why improvise with the harmonic minor scale?  For starters, it’s a lot of fun.  The harmonic minor scale has a moody, mysterious sound, and almost anything you play will sound great.

If your harp is tuned in C (or you’ve put up your levers for C), engage your G# levers. In your left hand, play the following chords in succession (called a chord progression): Am, E, F, E. (The notes in those chords are ACE, EG#B, FAC, and again EG#B). Let’s use 4/4 time and play the chord just on beat 1, changing chords every two measures.

Now, in the right hand, you may play any notes, but you’ll notice that when your LH chord is F, the G# sounds rather dissonant, so you might want to avoid it on those measures. That same G# gives the harmonic minor it’s distinctive sound, creating the E major chord instead of an E minor chord. Whether you understand that music theory or not, you can have fun experimenting with this scale.

Glissing and fluttery patterns are very satisfying with this tuning. Let go of looking for the “right notes” and just experiment.

By the way, if you have only F, C and B levers on your harp, disengage the B’s to create Bbs, and then engage the C#s. Now your harmonic minor scale is Dm. Play Dm, A, Bb, and A chords to go with this scale, and avoid the C# when playing the Bb chord. (Chord notes are DFA, AC#E, BbFD, AC#E).

Most of all, have fun!

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This post is adapted from material that I originally published in the ezine, Notes from the Harp.

Sharing the Magic of the Celtic Harp