Improv breaks in slow songs

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    It’s not very common to hear an improv break in a slow song, is it? For example, (in my limited experience), I’ve never heard improv breaks in Silent Night, Ashokan Farewell, Lover’s Waltz, Tennessee Waltz, Long Long Ago, etc.

    But breaks are very common in faster songs, including Jingle Bells (eg John’s recent work), I’ll Fly Away, almost all faster bluegrass songs, and even in rags (Beaumont Rag), syncopated / blues songs (Frankie and Johnny), and of course in show tunes (Orange Blossom Special).

    Why is that? What is it about slower songs that discourage improvised breaks?

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Hmm, good question! Slow songs are usually more melody-driven, and so the variations must be more subtle. Although you don’t see much improvisation on slow songs that change the melody, variations are added in the form of grace notes and the time-flexing of notes within the melody. The superposition of grace notes will naturally cause the timing of notes to flex. This often requires additional notes to be added to the melody in order to transition in or out of the desired gracing. I have videos planned which will teach all of this, but until then I will post a video highlighting two of my favorite gracings, including where and when to use them, based on the song “Silent Night.”


    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    OK this went longer than I meant it to. I am using this video as practice for creating lessons on ornamentation placement.


    “Flex” time and “platform” notes are very helpful concepts in using the two types of ornamentation.


    Love it ! Great stuff, thanks , mind opening , good feel, excellent lesson ! as always…

    Thanks John.



    Hi John, thank you so much for having a shot at trying to explain the playing magic that you can conjure up with only your favourite two gracing techniques.

    I thought that the video addressed such an important topic, and because it was your first (I think) practice video that seriously engaged the topic of gracing magic, I thought it wanted a good effort from me providing specific feedback that might help for future videos. So this reply might also seem fairly long.

    Of course I do not mean this posting to be critical in any way. My only goal is to provide some specific feedback that you can put into the mix on future videos, so they can help everyone more easily. And of course my comments reflect only my own views – I do not mean to speak for other people (who may have their own suggestions).


    (1) My first and biggest point – by far – is that this kind of video is EXACTLY the kind of video that I think us students need to become better-sounding players who can conjure up some magic of their own. I hope to see a lot more of these kinds of videos in the future, and will do what I can to share in the labour of their production.

    Just off the top of my head, and judging by the length and content of this video on only two gracing techniques, I can easily imagine that we probably will need 20 – 50 videos a reasonable length to take a first cut across the magic landscape. This video alone could easily be split into at least 5 other videos, or even 10 if you did a thorough and detailed job (or so I think).

    (2) You explicitly said (in text above the the video) that this video was a first practice attempt at explaining ornamentation magic , so no one should expect it to be perfect.

    So with that thought in mind, my second overall point is that it seemed to me the video was largely a “stream of consciousness” (think “improv”) recording of you trying to create and execute a structured presentation in your mind, while simultaneously wrestling with ideas of presentation structure, concepts, questions (where, why, how), techniques, and so on.

    I remember from my past life as student, teacher, technical writer, and especially as a conference speaker and book author that “stream of consciousness” teaching presentations of anything are usually far below the quality of instruction that is possible with more structured and focused lesson materials. I’ve spent many, many hours of my life carefully separating concepts out of the stream of ideas in my mind, so that I could explain them better.

    And I think I recognized my old stream of consciousness friends in your video – an interwoven mix of un-separated ideas that flowed and changed and was only partially explained as the video went on.



    I can see that ornamentation magic – even in small doses of only two favourite gracing techniques – is a complex topic to explain. Even explaining the typical questions of what, why, where, and how for only one gracing technique is worthy of a video by itself.

    (a) The wealth of ideas in one video is overwhelming.

    The current video presented quite a few ideas against the background of a single song – Silent Night. The video included at least the ideas of hammer on, pull off, double pull off, flexing note lengths, creating platform notes, what sounds beautiful, three instances of the same gracing in a row is too much, too many gracings overall, bringing back the notes to the melody in the last line of the song, and probably more that I can think of at the moment.

    (b) Separate ideas, and present each one separately and completely.

    It seems to me that that is way too many ideas for one video, because as the poor – but keen! – Student is standing at the back of the dump truck of ideas, it’s easy to get buried and overwhelmed under the slew of jumbled ideas as they come rolling through the tailgate. (Hopefully you liked my analogy (smiling). Students are getting lots of ideas that they hunger for, but a truck full all at once, unseparated, is too much for effective education and learning.)

    (c) Single technique against multiple songs.

    I imagined that it would be more effective if a single technique was illustrated against the background of multiple songs with slightly different song contexts, instead of multiple ideas against the background of a single song. When I temporarily grasped the concept, technique, and sound of one of the gracings at various points in the video, I wanted to hear that same gracing in a couple of other song phrasings, so that I could practice isolating the sound of the gracing in different contexts.

    (d) Visual diagrams of timing relationships.

    It seemed to me that a few more words, pictures, or notation would have been helpful to show the visual timing relationships at work in hammer-ons. For example, I am thinking that a hammer-on makes room for itself by stealing time from the following note duration. Is that correct? Is that also correct for single and double pull offs?

    A visual diagram with explicit mention of possible note lengths would be helpful to show these relationships, I think. For example, may be a typical grace note or hammer-on is a 1/64th note against a typical 1/8th note (or whatever). How many grace notes can you fit into an eighth note?

    (e) Provide end to end playings using only a single technique.

    I thought it would be very useful to play Silent Night (the main background song) end to end using only a single technique, such as hammer-ons. That way we could see the overall impact of a single gracing technique on a whole song.

    Then later, perhaps in a video that summarized several gracing techniques, you could build up the ornamented song in layers, first no ornaments, then add hammer-ons, then add single pull-offs, then add double pull-offs, and so on. That way students could hear the incremental effects of a particular gracing technique. Kind of like a loop station experience, where the artist builds up the final performance in layers by adding to the previous loops.



    Show Contra-examples as well. Whenever I felt that you hinted at a rule in the video, such as doing hammer-on’s upward into longer notes, I wondered what the hammer-on would sound like if you broke that rule. I think it would be useful to cite a rule, and then show both positive and negative examples of the rule.

    In one place, you look at the camera surprised, and said something like “Oh, I guess that broke my rule, but it still sounds beautiful.” In cases like that, I think more explanation and demonstration is needed, to show positive and negative examples to illustrate the concept.

    At 10:18 in the video, you are searching three long notes for opportunities to place gracings, apparently confident that there are opportunities there. But then you play the notes again, and look up and say something like “Oh, I guess you can see there are any opportunities here.” But of course, that was not obvious to me. I was hoping for some explicit explanation why, involving some rule that clearly did not fit, but no further discussion was given.

    Okay, this posting is long enough, I think. I want to thank you once again for taking the time to make the video.

    Everyone can see that this is a complex topic, which is probably why no one really teaches it, and why it takes years of osmosis and hanging around other players to build up your own understanding and repertoire of ornament magic.

    Hopefully because of your efforts we can all make faster progress than normal. Thanks again. We’re lucky to have someone like you to wrestle with these difficult educational / presentation problems.


    Thanks, John.  That is really helpful.

    I am finding that I have two completely different “brains.”  One is the “thinking” brain and the other is the “listening” brain.  That might sound goofy, but it’s really true for me.  If I let go and listen, I play totally different from if I’m thinking about the notes, the key, etc…

    I have learned some songs totally by ear.  And other songs…like the SD Jingle Bells break, I had to lean really heavily on the tabs.  I can play the break really slow by ear, but playing it fast, I still have to lean on the tabs.

    Also, playing with a group, I can think about the key and the chord structures and look at the lead sheet….OR….I can just listen and play and let it go.  Usually, I’m a lot more successful if I just listen and let it go.

    Does that sound crazy????  It helps to have a little knowledge.  But, I can’t seem to fuse the two very well yet.

    Your descriptions here really help me understand what I’m hearing.  AND…it helps me hear the possibilities.


    Kevin, I very much appreciate your original question where you asked about slow songs. John answered that slow songs are melody driven and can be ornamented with grace notes, platform notes, and slight variations in timing. I believe that John’s video was perfect going through the song Silent Night which we’ve been working on and pointing out how to enhance each line. To me, it’s helpful to take a song which is familiar, take it phrase by phrase, and apply several techniques. I would be very frustated to learn one technique applied to a bunch of songs which I might not know and probably can’t play. Also, I’m not analytical and want the song to sound good soon. I don’t want to hear Silent Night played through with one ornament snd then played through with another ornament, etc. I like the way John showed how he might ornament the whole song in about 25 minutes. Watching what he did, I might extrapolate some of his ideas to other slow songs.

    Angela, I’m wondering if you are describing right-brain and left-brain approaches but am not sure if I correctly understand what you meant. I use sheet music, etc. to get started on a song (especially important to know the key and play some scales) but feel successful when I can just play the song from memory. Also, sometimes, when practicing, a song will just pop into my mind and I will play it easily. This happened recently with the songs “Country Gardens” and ” Goodnight Irene”Of course this only happens with songs which are within my capabilities.


    Justine…it might really be a right brain/left brain approach.  Wish I could get a “whole brain” thing going!!


    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Kevin, your engineer is showing 🙂

    WOW, what kind of student gives this kind of in-depth, immediate feedback? I should be paying YOU! Your ideas are fantastic. I’ll respond to a few of them here:

    (a) Man, did you ever get this one right. When I began the video, I thought I had a plan, but I quickly discovered that the undertaking was much more ambitious than I realized. As you could probably tell, I wasn’t even sure whether to call ornament #2 a “double,” a “double pull-off,” a “half roll,” or something else. This video really should come after several videos which define and give examples and variations for all the different types of ornamentation, as well as the concepts of flexed timing (a term I think I got from a Garage Band DSP function) and “platform notes” (a term I coined on the spot). I probably bypassed 10 videos in order to give this one a go.

    (b) I blushingly admit that you hit the nail on the head about my “stream of consciousness” (“stream of garbage?”) attempt. Ideas weren’t just rolling through the tailgate. The tarp was of the top and ideas were flying across all four lanes and into the woods on either side.

    (c) Single technique against multiple songs. This is probably something I could flesh out after my initial set. But that means the price goes up. 🙂

    (d) Visual diagrams of timing relationships. YES, YES, and YES. I’ll think about how to do this. Actually, a gracing makes room for itself by stealing time from either the preceding or following note duration, depending on the desired effect.

    (e) Provide end to end playings using only a single technique.

    See (c). Though I did like your idea of superimposed ornaments. Kind of like layered transparencies. Possibly more helpful would be to teach individual ornaments in previous videos, including shorter examples of when and where to use them. Then in a video like this one, I would teach and explain four or five different ornamentation combinations, not just limited to two possible ornamentations, for each line of the song. I would do this for several songs of various genres.


    Love the idea of Contra-examples as well. Though, I don’t think any of it really sounds bad, just not-as-good-as-it-could-be. I would also need to show some exceptions to various rules.


    Thanks for encouraging me to slow down and dig a little deeper! It is much easier to tell someone to copy what you are doing than to try to explain what you are doing.

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Angela and Justine – There are generally two reasons I improvise, and they seem to book-end my learning process.

    1) Someone plays a song and I don’t know the melody, so I start “noodling” within the chord structure. Yes, it sounds fantastic, but it’s not the song.

    2) I learn the song, and am temporarily enamored with the melody. No improvision happens here.

    3) I grow tired of the same old melody and decide to show off my interesting hot licks instead. The song has now come full-circle.

    Great ScottGreat Scott

    Very cool, John!  Love it!  Yet another great masterpiece created in the wee early hours of the morning.   🙂

    Just wish I could hear the song you are singing!  Or is that you in the green duds on the fiddle?

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Yes, that is me on the soap box. I am wearing my Christmas best.


    John, I still like the video as practice for creating lessons on ornamentation placement posted above and think it’s done perfectly. It makes me feel that you are explaining concepts in person as if I were standing across from you. However technical or organized you get on coming videos, I hope that your personal approach remains.

    Great ScottGreat Scott

    Ditto!  Too technical and I am totally lost!  Too organized and I feel like a pork chop at a bar mitzva.  🙂

    The 13th through  19th Commandments (A.K.A. Scotty’s commandments) command the following:

    Thou shalt not deviate from the known and the comfortable.

    Thou shall remain true to form, and please the multitudes.

    Thou shalt not become over-technical.

    Thou shalt not lead thy flocks to graze on different pastures.

    Thou shall remain faithful to all lowly beginners who like the master’s teachings kept simple.

    Thou shall understand the meaning of “simplicity without adornment”.

    Thou must get some sleep.


    And how many stone tablets were there?  🙂

    John (BGD)John (BGD)

    Hey, who is lecturing whom here? How about

    thou shalt turn off thy computer and stretch thine hamstrings?

    Great ScottGreat Scott

    No hamstrings in our house.  Vegetarian, remember.

    The pain killers are starting to wear off now.  I have one more post to do and then I will get back in my wheel chair and then arrange for traction to begin.


    Hey Scott, do you have one of those wheel chairs with a pole and straps on it so you can apply traction however many times a day you’re supposed to do it? Also after a session of traction, do you feel better for a while? Double prayers from me on your healing!


    Hi John, thank you for your positive response to my feedback posting. As you can imagine, it’s hard enough to have the courage and take the time and thought to provide public feedback “in depth?” like I did, without people seeing me as criticizing an honest effort. I really only want to help you to reach your goals and make BGD a better place, so when I take a risk by posting suggestions for improvement, it _really_ helps my spirit to get a positive (or at least neutral) response from you.

    And I emphasize once again (as I tried to do in my posting), I know a lot about “stream of consciousness” information flow because I’ve fought it all my life in various forms. I loved your parenthetical (“stream of garbage?”) quip too — I knew you were plenty ok with my posting when I read that! 🙂

    On playing a song end to end with one ornament: To be more specific, my intent here was to suggest a longer piece of music (maybe the whole song would be a bit much) to make it easier to hear the effect of the grace note against the background of the whole song, in a larger context than just the 1 measure in which the ornament is taught.

    Ditto for playing the same ornament in other pieces of music — my intent was not to play huge numbers of songs, but to show how the same ornament might sound a bit different (more impact, less impact, more noticeable, less powerful, etc) against the different fabrics of different songs.

    It’s fine to learn gracings against Silent Night, but what do I do, and how do they sound, when I try to use them on some different songs, of different speeds, of different character, and so on. Showing a gracing in multiple contexts broadens the student’s understanding of the technique without hardly any work on the part of the instructor, because the gracing lesson is already learned – no further instruction (beyond a comment or two) is required to just play the gracing in a couple of different songs and make some closing comments.

    Probably it’s worthwhile to make a comment on student learning styles here too. People like to learn in different ways, at different rates, etc. My own preference is to be a curling rock sliding down a smooth educational surface, with the teacher (John) sweeping obstacles out of the way, and explaining stuff on my journey through the lesson, so that I cover lots of educational ground in a fairly straight path toward the educational goal. That way, I learn more, faster, in less time, and with less effort.

    But I also recognize that other people might prefer to dig through a kind of tangled jungle of ideas, focusing on a particular interesting micro minute of a video, and listening and practicing that bit to copy the sound, then find another interesting point of focus, repeat, etc. To each his own, of course. But hopefully this shows you the point of view where my post was coming from (that and having decades of experience at trying to present complex ideas to people of all kinds, in various speaking / writing / slide show / teaching forums).

    Regardless of what I posted, I would guess that it is clear to everyone that John stepped up and wrestled with trying to explain his own magic in that video, and that a huge amount of information was presented. It’s a challenging project (which is why I offered to help, thinking I might be able to help with a table of contents structure for a series of videos or something). Thanks again to John. I think we’re lucky to be part of this BGD project. (And I’ll try to be the curling broom, instead of the rock, where I can help… :-))


    Thanks for your clarification, Kevin, and your extensive comments on how we might become better fiddlers by learning how to play ornaments in different songs.


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