Tuesday, October 20, 2015

MyMusicMasterclass: Will Vinson's "Melodic Improvisation" Review

Playing melodically, hearing what you play and playing what you hear, the essence of melody, true improvisation... These are all subjects Will Vinson discusses in this video lesson from "My Music Masterclass".


I have to admit I've always been somewhat skeptical of self-help literature and videos, and the value they bring to the table. They seem like a great idea at first, but too often fall in the one-size-fits-all trap, only covering the most obvious and general concepts to appeal to the widest audience.

It's slightly different when it comes to material aimed at musicians though. First, all instrumentalists need to have a strong command of the fundamentals of technique, time, tone, harmony and melody. There are many books - some of them considered "Classics" - and videos tackling these essential subjects in depth. In the past few years there have also been a few people approaching age old subjects in fresh, innovative ways. The popularity of blogging has yielded some interesting content as well. If you're curious about what a few of my favorites are, feel free to check this past article mentioning a few fantastic books, websites and blogs.


With this said, when it comes to improvising, it seems that what is offered to aspiring musicians is mainly pattern books, collections of licks, the omnipresent "chord-scale" approach and the on point, but vague advice of "playing the chords" or "playing what you hear".

That's where the masterclass, led by Will Vinson, comes in as a game changer. Will clearly explains, and demonstrates thoroughly, how he developed an approach where melody is created from harmony, how voice leading is essential to playing melodically, and how, as an artist, you have to control your output in order to "sing" on your horn.

Check the video teaser below:


The main subjects Vinson focuses on in "Melodic Improvisation" are voice leading, what makes melodic playing, and "true improvisation".

The masterclass starts off right away with voice leading and why it is a concept not only useful for chord playing instruments, but essential to saxophonists as well. Will explains clearly the relationship between vertical and horizontal harmony, its importance, and why and how they're both expressions of the same thing. The topic is further explored and explained through using the great classical composer J.S. Bach as an example, and how masterful he was as an architect of pure melody.

Will gets rather critical of the chord-scale approach to improvising in the next bit. He briefly explains the concept, and does again a short while later in different words. Describing a subject, concept, or exercise, in a variety of ways, is something Will does a lot throughout the video. Instead of sounding redundant, it makes everything easy to understand, and gently drills the ideas into your mind. He goes on with why improvising exclusively with the chord-scale approach has many drawbacks, especially if you're trying to play melodically. He goes even as far as demonstrating this approach on his horn, over the changes of Jerome Kerns' All The Things You Are. The tune is used as the framework for all following demonstrations.

This leads into the next main section, in which Will Vinson talks about a counterpoint exercise you can do on the piano. Will takes ample time to explain the basis of the exercise, demonstrates it on the piano, then follows with how it can be adapted and applied to the saxophone, which then becomes the basis for a wide variety of exercises, each demonstrated brilliantly on the saxophone by Mr.Vinson himself. Starting from a fundamental approach, with obvious chord tones, the method gradually introduces variants using more complex note choices, and a few ways to build an improvisation from these fundamental building blocks.

The last section of the video focuses on what makes an improvised melody, "true improvisation" and pacing. Again, Will demonstrates a short improvisation over All The Things, then comes back to it and gradually strips it down to what he calls the "truly melodic" part of his short improvisation; this introduces several of the main topics of discussion of that section: pacing, artistic choice and playing less, among others. Will also lays great emphasis upon the importance of having a strong time feel, and how playing too much can be a crutch used to keep the beat, or the form. This is again explained concisely and meaningfully, with a playing demonstration.

For a deeper look into the subject of "time", Will has another video on www.mymusicmasterclass.com called "Rhythmic Independence". A long section of this other masterclass is dedicated to explaining various ways through which you can develop a strong sense of time - because without having strong fundamental time, how can you hope to achieve any kind of rhythmic independence? This masterclass video, just like "Melodic Improvisation", is definitely worth checking out.

Vinson constructs the masterclass in a logical, incremental way, building from simple ideas that eventually lead to practical examples, exercises you can practice at home and adapt to your goals, as well as a reflection on how artistic decisions can create style and melody. Will Vinson is also quite the witty guy, as well as a great orator; his pronunciation and pacing are delightful (as is his British accent). It's also comforting to hear such a great musician talk about the process he used to get there, and some of the obstacles he had to break through.

It's important to note that there is a lot from the video that I did not cover above, as I tried not to spoil too much of the details of the content. Hopefully, it should give a good idea of how complete and detailed the masterclass is, and how competent Mr.Vinson is as an instructor.


Before wrapping this up, let's get the technical aspect of the video out of the way: the encoding quality and resolution (1080p) is more than satisfactory. The sound production is also well handled, and doesn't suffer from the typical oversight found in many amateur videos, where the spoken voice is not loud enough, and the horn is too loud and distorted. Voice and saxophone are both crystal clear and balanced, making for a great watching experience.

The video was shot with a few different cameras, and whoever edited this masterclass did a great job; there are enough cuts between cameras to avoid visual monotony, but not too many that it distracts from the content.

Worth mentioning is the fact that the video is not chaptered; in other words, there are no chapters embedded into the video that you can use to skip ahead and back. This makes navigating it a bit awkward, but you could always use the free software Drax (Windows) to add your own chapters, or bookmarks. Although the process is laborious, Drax is intuitive to use. There are a few apps in the Mac App Store with similar functions like (mChapters), but it is possible to make it happen simply using GarageBand.

There is also no accompanying document offered with the video. Everything is explained so well that it isn't a deal breaker though. On top of this, the chord changes used in the demonstrations are displayed on screen, as the music goes by, as seen in the video preview. Transcribing the various demonstrations would also be a great exercise for anyone, and including them with the purchase would have probably increased the production costs significantly.

Still, providing written transcriptions for some of the more fundamental exercises would still have been welcomed. It took me just a few minutes to transcribe, annotate and print them, but this obstacle will definitely restrict how much less advanced musicians, who may not be used to transcribing, or analyzing note relationships to chords, can get out of the masterclass. In spite of this, I would still recommend it as an essential resource to musicians of all levels. Even if some of the exercises may be out of reach for some, being exposed to the approach itself is worth the watch.


The video masterclass is available on www.mymusicmasterclass.com, for $8.99 as a 5-day stream, or $17.99 as a download. You also have the option, after purchasing it, to upgrade the 5-day stream to a download if you'd prefer to check out the video beforehand. Click HERE for a link to the video.

Any question, please comment below, and I'll try my best to answer.



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