Berklee Blogs

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Improvisation Symposium

Berklee profs (and friends) held a freewheeling dialogue on improvisation last night at a DIT-hosted symposium. Frequently insightful and sometimes hilarious, the room was packed all night with students from the program as well as a few outside visitors.

At the pre-event reception, I ran into Richard Hawkins, editor of the very cool Bluegrass Ireland Blog. We had a long, interesting chat about what it means to be an improviser and how those skills relate to non-jazz styles (bluegrass, classical, rock, r&b, etc). This, of course, also happened to be the very subject of the symposium – what a coincidence.

The panelists were Berklee faculty Greg Badolato, Michael Farquharson, Matt Glaser, Jim Kelly, and John McGann; Berklee Director of Admissions Damien Bracken; and special guest Keith Donald, saxophonist for Moving Hearts, a popular Irish folk-rock act that combined Irish traditional music with elements of rock and jazz, which made him an ideal commentator for the night’s discussion topic.

Highlights and observations:

Matt Glaser is a formidable air guitar/banjo/piano/fiddle player. Note-for-note, he flawlessly “pick-synched” and “plunk-synched” along with entire recordings by Charlie Christian and Oscar Peterson, while simultaneously explaining the theory behind the solos. Truly prodigious stuff. His almost child-like enthusiasm for the music was contagious, often recalling his segment on Ken Burns’ Jazz talking about Louis Armstrong. While playing a bluegrass recording, he pointed out subtle variations in the song’s deceptively simple melody to show how “improvisation has long existed in all types of music,” though later claiming “it’s been brought to its highest fruition in jazz.”

Kelly had encouraging words for impatient young improvisers,”music, unlike sports where you can get washed up early, is never ending, so don’t fret, you guys have quite a few years left,” and then on to the always reliable car analogy, “at first, you’re thinking about when to break, shift, and not running people over, then one day it’s second nature.” McGann compared improv’s laborious learning curve to a “river of suck” that can only be crossed after hours of time put in practicing scales, chords, and exercises. 

The consensus answer among all panelists to the question “what goes through your head when improvising?” was … “absolutely nothing” – though Farquharson admitted that while locked into a simple bass line, he’ll start planning what he’s making for dinner that night.

Donald’s learning process was more accidental: “I’d learn tunes but add my own decoration, then I’d experiment playing out of time while keeping my foot steady – I was never told what I should or should not do.”

Badolato drew the night’s biggest laughs describing improvisation as a coping mechanism: “in times of great stress – fights with friends or co-workers – I’ll be having a regular conversation, but in my head it’s…” (breaks into scat singing … kinda had to be there, but take my word for it –it was gold, Jerry!).


Impromptu student jam session


Bill Whelan- redefining tradition


  1. Guys. These dispatches are so great. Keep ‘em coming! while I sit here, with allergies, in cold, cold Boston, and mope. Oh hey, what seems to be the share of jazz musicians at the seminars vs. traditional vs. bluegrass? Not that some people don’t play more than one genre….

  2. Nick Balkin

    Danielle – it me it seems most Irish musicians are coming from a trad background, though many are well versed in jazz and bluegrass. A few students have mentioned to me that the workshops are allowing them to think differently about the inner-workings of music — new skills that they’re excited about applying.

  3. Nick Balkin

    Oh and sorry about your allergies, but weather-wise it’s not that different here than in Boston… foggy, cold, and rainy — not exactly tropical. Every so often the sun comes out and the city looks completely different.

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