I grew up listening to Ben Folds on the radio as frontman of the alt rock group Ben Folds Five. At the time, I didn’t know much about him, and certainly didn’t know about his exceptional improvisational skills.
As string players, we spend a lot of time listening, repeating what we hear, and working on developing the techniques required to play our instrument, which are numerous. Improvising – or making up melodies on the spot – takes a whole other set of skills, or perhaps demonstrates a true mastery of the skills we all work so hard to develop.
Improvising requires that we know the principles of how melodies are built and what makes them sound right to our ears so well that we can put them into practice on the spot, without any prior preparation. We have to know scales better than we know our arithmetic. We have to be able to walk through chord progressions as well as we can walk to the fridge when the house is pitch black at night. In short, music has to be living and breathing naturally inside us. Getting to this place takes a lot of work!
We get an opportunity to practice some of these skills in the Doflein books that many of us are using for sight reading. Those blank exercises where they ask you to fill in scales or melodies give us a chance to try out own hand at making something up, and then seeing whether it sounds appropriate or not. If yes, why? If not, why not?
In any case, enjoy watching Ben Folds demonstrate his mastery of the piano and improvising in this short video!