Music Improvisation

Tips and Techniques for Celtic Harpers


Learning to create a music improvisation on the Celtic harp is really easy. Not only that, but it is a skill that improves so many other areas of your harp playing. Here’s an overview of what the simple practice of music improvisation can do for you:

~ Allow you to play anywhere, anytime, without music
~ Generate ideas you can use in arranging
~ Generate ideas you can use in composing your own music
~ Free you to respond completely to the person you’re playing for
~ Allow you to play with many other musicians easily
~ Make playing the Celtic harp way more fun and easy
~ Teach you to be flexible and adaptable in life

There is a reason that music improvisation seems out of reach to many. Because of musical experiences in life that left us less than sure of our abilities and a culture that worships the few star musicians in any genre, most adult musicians (and especially beginners) believe they can’t create their own music. They believe that music is a language understood only by a gifted few, and that it’s too mysterious for those of us not born prodigies.

It isn’t easy to discard a belief like that, so for now I won’t ask you to. I’ll simply ask you to set it aside, on a shelf in your mind somewhere, and just be willing to play and expeiment for yourself. It will get easier and easier; I promise! Ready?

Music Improvisation: A Few Simple Rules

In order to improvise on the harp for the first time ever, you need three things:

~ Your harp, tuned in C or G
~ The white strings
~ A playful attitude

Notice anything? No music degree from Julliard, no debut at Carnegie Hall behind you . . . just a playful attitude.

Here’s what you do:  put any fingers on any white string and play.  This is like playing only black keys on the piano; you cannot play a “wrong note”.

You can use just finger 2 of each hand, alternating your hands back and forth.  Use the notes to ask yourself a question, pause, and then let your hands answer the question.  This is like singing a “call and response”, except that you’ll be “singing” both.  Keep your hands loose, and be sure to open and close your whole hand, including your thumb, every time you play.

If you want to place your fingers in groups of 2 or 3, that’s pretty easy with just white strings, isn’t it?

Play around with patterns on the white strings and have fun!  (Or try white string runs).  You can throw in some G chords in your right hand if you want to.

Your Second Assignment

For your next improvisation, here’s what you need:

~ A chord pattern to play in your left hand
~ A limit of notes to use in your right hand
~ A playful attitude (yes, we always need that)

First, we’ll take care of the left hand. All you need for right now, is a chord. (Later, you can fancy it up with 2 or more chords, called a chord progression, but for now, one is plenty).

Let’s use A minor. The notes are A, C, and E. You can play all of them, or you can make it even simpler by playing only A and E, or even only A. That’s right–you can improvise with only one repeated note in your left hand. Let’s say it’s the A below middle C, with or without any other notes from the chord above it. Play the note (or chord) on beat one, and count 2, 3, and 4 for the rest of the measure (this is an arbitrary choice, but one that’s easy for everyone).

Now, for the right hand, we’re going to say you can use 5 notes: The A above middle C, and (going up) B, C, D, and E. Use your second finger, remembering keep your thumb high and allow all your fingers to open and close. (If that’s new to you, visit the learn to play the harp page to learn more).

Why the limits on what notes I use?

Music improvisation is like cooking. There are an unlimited number of ingredients, but if you try to put them all in one recipe, you will have an inedible stew. If you’ve never cooked before, a three-ingredient recipe is much easier to make, don’t you think? Later, you won’t need a recipe at all, but for now, it gives you less to think about.

As it is, we’ve got two hands to coordinate, so limiting the right hand to five notes makes your first assignment easier. If you’re chafing at being limited, consider this: you can make music out of one note. (I’ll bet you can play a soul-stirring piece of music with only middle C. Go try it; I’ll wait for you right here).

Here’s where it gets more and more fun. Play the left hand chord (or note), keeping a steady rhythm of playing on beat one (called the downbeat). See if you can keep doing that while you play a few of your right hand notes.

And here’s where your playful attitude comes in. Play your right hand like you’re in love. Play your right hand like you’re angry. Play your right hand like you just watched a hawk dive for its prey. What changes? Nothing, perhaps, and everything, definitely.

Congratulations! You’ve just created your first music improvisation on the Celtic Harp!

As you continue to experiment with this simple exercise, pay attention to what you do with your right hand. If you want it to sound like music, you will want to create a little bit of structure. For example, you will want some repetition in melody and/or rhthym. So if you like something you play, play it again. Sometimes, that can be a challenge, but it trains you to pay some attention and use your ear.

Music Improvisation: More Ideas

You can improvise in any key, with major, minor or modal scales. Here are a few ideas to start with:

~ Try adding a second chord, either G or F, to your Am improvisation.  Play four Am chords, then 2 of your second chord, then 2 Am (this makes a pleasing 8 measure progression).

~ Try the Mixolydian mode, for a typical Celtic sound. In the key of C, you would play G chords and F chords (no F# like you would find in G major; G mixolydian has a whole different sound). Right hand could be limited to G-D on the G chord and F-C on the F chord. Alternate the chords in whatever pattern you want to.

~ Play a longer minor progression with A-minor, G, F, and E-minor chords (or root notes). Keep your right hand focused on notes that fall within the same chords.

~ Vary your time signatures. Start by trying 3/4 and 6/8.

~ Try another common Celtic mode, the Dorian. In the key of C, you would use Dm and C chords.

More Advanced Music Improvisation Ideas:

~ Tune the pentatonic scale with your levers so you can play any notes on the harp. All this requires is taking out the two extra notes where the half steps are (your levers will create repeated notes instead. If your harp is tuned in C, put up your B and E levers (to take out the half-steps in the scale) and play any right hand notes with F and C chords. If your harp is tuned in E-flat, put up your D and G levers; play with A-flat and E-flat chords. (Once you set your levers, this improv is really easy; it just sounds complicated).

~ Try an improvisation using these chords: Am and D7 (so there is an F# here). Again, let your right hand find notes that fall within the chords, or in the five sequential notes starting with the root of each chord.

~ Try a I IV V pattern, or the famous Blue Moon pattern of I VI IV V. (You know this if you ever banged out the Heart and Soul duet on the piano). In C, the chords are C, Am, F, and G. Just play the chords until you can do so smoothly, and then add the same chord tones into the right hand in any order. See if you can add one of these famous melodies, and then improvise before and after it.

~ Try a blues pattern (12-bars); the basic chords are C C C C, F F C C, G F C C.

~ Start with the sheet music of a song you love. Play the chords in your left hand and improvise with your right hand.

For more information and resources about the music theory behind any of these ideas, please visit the Music Theory for the Celtic harp page.  For lots of other improvisation ideas, follow the blog.  You can subscribe for free and get new improvisation ideas in your email box regularly.

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