Learn to improvise. Text of radio program.

On July the 17th 2004 I (Jan) had an interview with the reporter Bert Kranenbarg for the national Dutch radio society NCRV about my approach of learning to improvise. You can hear the interview (be warned: in Dutch) by clicking here: radioprogram in mp3 (2732 kB). But as you will not understand it, I have translated the text in English.

Bert: Do I come at the right moment? As I have had lesson on organ for a number of years and quit because I thought: "I will never become a virtuoso". Is it possible to learn me something in this area?

Jan: You are just the perfect customer for my lessons. I have many people who are capable to play from sheet music, and then I ask: "Play something" and then they say: "No, because I don't have my glasses here". Those people I will teach then how to do it. Of course I have a number of rules they have to learn. Just like you need grammar to improvise a sentence (I compare with speaking for a moment). Those are the chords, modulations, keys (those principles you will have to know), but from there on you must be able to improvise a little piece of music.

Bert: Now a little piece of music I will manage (it sounds poor, but it is a little piece of music), but now you claim I will also be able to express my personality in it.

Jan: Yes, especially that is the point. I define improvising as the whole area between cheating with sheet reading and complete composing, but the most interesting is the capability to express your personality completely in your music. This usually takes a number of years (and in the past I have given private lessons, but there it didn't work, as they wanted to copy the teacher), but in group it suddenly turns out to work well. Weekly we meet with about 10 people round a piano and play by turns 5 minutes, controlled by an egg timer.

Bert: Now 5 minutes comes out right as it is just the time I have, and the piano we have also, as we both sit behind it; let me hear something.

Jan: I have a number of rules, tips that is (apart from those grammar rules) and that is in the first place: 'simplify'. You must avoid complex things as much as possible, and why you will have to simplify? To get a balance between the several musical aspects. So the flowing (streaming), the chords, the keys, the harmony, melody: everything must be in balance. That means a restriction in the number of chords...

Bert: Your hands go to the piano keys; let us hear something.

Jan: E.g. you start with 3 chords C, F and G [the chords can be heard] and with those you can make already nice little songs. We keep the grasp of the chords very simple and we must try to make a melody with right hand. That is the challenge. Of course we start with a tone. E is a good note to start with [note e sounds] and then....

Bert: Yes, and then...

Jan: And then....

Bert: Yes, because there no notes here, one must continue.

Jan: One of the tricks I learn is: you may repeat [note e sounds again]. This has the extra advantage to give a structure to music. But then... yes, at a certain point we have heard enough of it and then...

Bert: I would go to g now [g sounds].

Bert: Yes, that's nice, isn't it? [some notes sound].

Bert: So actually I have been composing now already?

Jan: Yes, that's the way you have to begin; it's the start up. Of course rather soon you will... there has to come more speed in it. But that's just a matter of routine [a nice simple melody sounds]. You just invent it.

Bert: You really invent this on the spot? You have never played this before?

Jan: No, of course not, I just did it right away. But you need some knowledge of certain notes. E.g. the note e-flat gives a jazzy effect [jazz notes sound]. Then you have made jazz. If you want to get a dramatic effect, you must take the note a-flat (in the key of C that is) [a-flat sounds]. It gives dramatics right away.

Bert: So there you may hear the personality?

Jan: Yes, you can express your personality with it, but you have to know these things, of course. And that's where the course is for.

Bert: Yes, because I may by chance hit the a-flat of course, but that hasn't anything to do with personality.

Jan: But now you hold the microphone. That's a bit inconvenient.

Bert: Wait, here I have someone; so I let him take it.

Jan: I will give some chords [C, F and G sound] and you must make music with it, here in this area.

Bert: OK [music sounds; Jan makes the chords, Bert plays a melody to it].

Jan: Yes, nice!

Bert: That's what I always have: you don't know which note to pick. That one or that or that...

Jan: And now you come to another thing: during improvising you must sell yourself; like you tell a story to a child; you must make a voice of conspiracy: [with a soft low voice] "Once upon a time there was a terrible witch...". The same you must do at the piano. So you work strongly with soft [music sounds with contrasts in loudness and timing]....

Bert: You don't hear me, listeners, this is Jan Krammer himself. I am looking full admiration; this is what I also like to be capable of, but...

Jan: You must be a bit clever, yes, sell yourself, that is.

Bert: Yes, exactly.

Jan: And then, you must have a balance between predictability and surprise. For the predictability you just use clichés and the surprise: there your creativity comes in the picture. And that is a nice challenge. It turns out the people in my group are very happy with it, because they get a lot of freedom; there is little criticism; you are not allowed to criticize, because else you will spoil the singularity. I have a man not capable to keep the measure and when the man after him can keep the measure correctly, you hear how boring it is to keep the measure: 1, 2, 3 - 1, 2, 3 - 1, 2, 3- .... for 32 measures.

Bert: That's the best excuse to say to your piano teacher: "No, it is boring to keep the measure; I do it my way improving".

Jan: Exactly, and this gives a very released feeling to the people, and that's why they like to come; they like it very much and this results in tremendously nice and original things...

Bert: In my mind I have passed the threshold. I dare to go on now. I will develop it next week.

Jan: ....

Bert: No, but my little lesson has ended. Only yet one thing: the joke is that people can learn this via the Internet. How is it possible to learn this via Internet, when you don't sit together, like we now, behind a grand piano or a right up one?

Jan: I get many compliments like: "Now finely within an hour has become clear to me what wasn't clear for years"; the Internet has the powerful possibility to add sound examples to the text. But that effect of playing soft or loud or selling yourself can't be illustrated well by a computer as it usually has but a poor sound for the piano.

Bert: Let us finish improvising. If you take care for the chords I will improvise a melody [music sounds: Jan chords, Bert melody].

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