The basics of improvisation on the ocarina

If you watch someone who is experienced with improvisation it could appear that they are just pulling a melody from thin air, but that's not how it works. Improvising music on the ocarina is a lot like speaking a language. When you speak in your native language, you don't assemble words a letter at a time - rather you think in concepts, and sentences 'just happen'.

Learning how to improvise means learning the conceptual 'words' of melody and rhythm, and the basic structures of melody to assemble those into a 'musical conversation'. Like any skill, its essential to start with the basics.

The pentatonic scale

The pentatonic scale is an awesome place to start learning to improvise on the ocarina. Like its name implies, pentatonic scales are 5 note scales. They are special as they allow you to play any note over any scale chord, and the result won't sound bad.

You can hear what the C major pentatonic scale sounds like below.

The first step in learning to improvise is learning the scale. Much of improvisation is acting on instinct, and so its extremely important that you practice the scale until you don't need to think about it any more:

  • Practice moving through the notes of the scale in linier order, from the lowest note to highest, and back down.
  • Practice leaping through the notes of the scale, with different intervals.

Some exercises for practising these things are provided below. These have been written out for the range of an alto C ocarina, but if you are playing an ocarina in G, or another key, feel free to transpose them:

Pentatonic scale (for single alto C)

Pentatonic intervals 1:

Pentatonic intervals 2:

Pentatonic intervals 3:

Backing tracks

Once you've got the basics of moving between the notes in the scale, have a shot at playing them over a chord backing track. It's super easy to find a large assortment of these on websites like YouTube, if you search for 'C major backing track', or 'C major jam track'.

Just mess around with the notes of the pentatonic scale over the chords, and see how it sounds:

  • Hold each note as a long tone, and listen to how they sound over different chords.
  • Try creating melodies, such as playing a quarter note rhythm and using different notes.

Improvising with a backing track can be a lot of fun, and is a great way of learning to play in tune.

Melodic figures

What you might find if you just randomly play notes from the scale is that the music sounds a bit dull, like it's just wandering around with no reason.

One of the things that makes music sound like music is structure and repetition. Improvisers don't usually work in single notes, but make use of melodic figures - short melodic patterns, which are repeated. We will be starting with just one figure, one bar in 4/4:

Have a go at forming different figures, for example: how does it sound when the notes in the figure are all close together, vs farther apart?

Its super useful to listen to other people to get figure ideas. Perhaps listen to someone improvising, and try to identify the common patterns that they are using. Also do the same for other music, you don't need to learn figures just from improvisation.

Improvising a melody

Like figures, melodies on a larger scale often have a lot of structure. To start, the number of bars in a melody often follows the powers of two: 2, 4, 8, 16, or 32 bars.

Further still, within this structure, there is often another overarching structure called call and response. You have one melodic phrase that's the call, then a second melodic phrase that's the response. Its like asking a question, and getting an answer.

You may notice that the response here is actually the same figure shifted up in the scale. The pattern in its base form is the notes C,D,E,C. If you shift it up by one 1 in the scale, you'd get the notes. D,E,G,D. The previous example shows the figure shifted up three steps.

A demonstration of shifting a figure within the pentatonic scale.

Have a play around with improvising melodies using calls, responses, and shifting the same figure around in the scale. You may get something like this:

Adding variation

But using just one melody fragment, it can sound a bit dull right? So you can add a second one to add some variation. The goal is to find complimentary figures: contrary motion (ascending vs descending), or mirroring tend to sound good. Also, try experimenting with the rhythms within the figures.

Introducing this figure in a few places to the previous melody results in this. The thing here is to not go overboard introducing variations. Add a small number of variations and see how it sounds, then experiment from there.

Take notes of the functions of figures in music. A sequence of ascending or descending notes creates an expectation that the following notes will be higher or lower. Repeating a single note on the other hand tends to create resolution.

What's next?

That's the absolute basics of improvisation, and you now know enough to experiment with improvisation, and possibly start introducing some variations when playing other people's music. If you'd like to learn more, looking up the following is a great place to start:

  • Other common melody structures.
  • Improvising with 7 note scales.
  • How chord progressions work, and how different notes work with different chords.

And listen to other musicians. See if you can hear any figures. Is the melody following common structures like call and response?