INTERVIEW: Buster Birch (Author of new iBook How To Learn To Improvise using Minor Pentatonic Scales)

Buster Birch
Publicity picture
Buster Birch, award-winning jazz educator, has an impressive CV. Co-director of the UK’s longest running summer school (it’s at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama), course leader for BYMT Jazz School (it won an award last year for “outstanding commitment to jazz education”), a professorial member of the jazz faculty at Trinity Laban, visiting lecturer at the Royal Academy, the Guildhall and Middlesex Uni,  – it’s all there, as well as much-in-demand drummer. And now can be added: author of a very practical book (book launch Friday 13 April – see end of interview for details) on learning to improvise.

Nick Smart, Head of Jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, has this to say about How To Learn To Improvise…: “Highly recommended for players new to improvising and looking for an engaging way to get started with this component of jazz vocabulary. Buster has created a well thought-out and easy to follow guide with embedded audio examples that make it very immediate and interactive. It… will make a valuable on-the-go addition to your practice routines.” 

Peter Bacon interviewed Buster:

LondonJazz News: Your new book, How To Learn To Improvise using Minor Pentatonic Scales – who is it aimed at? And does it depend on the instrument?

Buster Birch: The book is available in Concert Pitch, Bass Clef, Bb and Eb versions, which means it is suitable for virtually any instrument. This book is primarily aimed at less experienced musicians like the adult learners and school children I teach regularly at my workshops and see each year at our summer school.

There is a lot of excellent jazz education material on the market nowadays, but I think most of it is aimed at college level students. So I wanted to try and produce something that would be helpful for those people who don’t necessarily have the foundation of such a sound musical training to work from. Maybe they started late, or early, and haven’t got through it all yet. Nevertheless they are keen and brave enough to want to have a go at learning to improvise. I’m not offering any short cuts, quite the opposite. I’m trying to bring some of the rigour that one acquires from a conservatoire training to those that may not have experienced that, but apply it to a simple concept in a way that is clear and easy to follow and progresses in small, manageable steps.

LJN: But it’s useful for jazz teachers as well? Just jazz teachers? 

BB: This book is based on a particular method I’ve used many times in workshops to get people improvising who have never done it before. The basic idea is to move away from playing scales up and down and towards creating melodic phrases. It is such a simple and natural process that I believe any instrumental teacher could adopt it to help their students improvise with confidence, whatever their background.

LJN: Some jazz education books can feel overwhelming to the learner – they are so full of theory. Can I use this one in a practical way?

BB: Of course theory is very important and a lot has been written about it, but you don’t really want to be thinking of all that whilst you are in the act of improvising. This book includes an explanation of what the Minor Pentatonic Scale is and how it relates to the chord sequences in the various play-alongs, but it is fundamentally about the process of learning to improvise rather than the theory of it. The basic premise is creating melodies, but with some clear guidelines to help generate musical sounding phrases. The book includes a series of practical exercises (369 notated examples) in all 12 keys with audio files to play along with at different tempos. The student can hear every example and have the sound of the phrase in their head as they play along with it. I think this is one of the most important parts of the process and one which many students struggle with. You should always try to hear what you play and play what you hear. When students learn to think in, what I refer to as, “musical sentences” their rhythm and phrasing is usually much better and they tend not to get lost in the form.

LJN: The advent of the digital book has provided new interactive opportunities. How have you been able to exploit these?

BB: When I first got the idea for this series of books it didn’t take me long to realise what a fantastic resource Apple’s iBook technology would be. To be able to embed audio, video, animation and hyperlinks directly in the books is fantastic and makes it much more like using an app than reading a book. This book includes 1340 audio files which are immediately accessible at the touch of the screen. Once purchased and downloaded everything works off-line, so there is never a problem with wifi signal or running out of data. Like other Apple purchases it stays on your account and is usable on all of your devices (laptop, desktop, iPad or iPhone) which means it is always with you. And should anyone find any typos or errors with the audio files I can fix it and everyone gets a free update, which is a great improvement on traditional print.

LJN: The jazz improvisation methods I’ve come across before concentrate on scales and harmony. Is yours like them?

BB: Of course scales and harmony are very important to study if you want to learn to play jazz, but there are many different ways to approach improvising. Jazz has evolved over 100 years or more, and is still evolving. Each new generation that came along found new ways to approach this music and in doing so introduced new concepts and devices that can be used. Great improvisers will often use many different concepts and devices within the one solo, so as students of this music we have to look at all of them.

However, I have found that less experienced musicians struggle to process all of the data in real time that some methods require. They can end up with their brains “buffering” and this stops the creative process. So by focussing on melodic phrases rather than all the “maths” of the music this method allows the student to create musical sounding solos in real time, which is something we can really build on.

LJN: How can I get hold of one? And how much is it?

BB: This book is available world wide now in the iBooks app, which is already on every mac, iPad and iPhone. However, if people purchase it via the link on the publishers website (www.savvyinteractivemusicpublishing.com) then I get a slightly better royalty payment. The book costs £4.99 and can be downloaded in a minute or so.

LJN: Do you have plans for any more of these interactive books?

BB: I’m already about a third of the way through my next book in the series, How To Learn To Improvise using Licks (Vol 1), which hopefully will be published in the early summer. My plan is to publish a whole series of different interactive iBooks, each focussing on one particular method, concept or device used for improvising. I’m also working on some ideas for general musicianship skills, which I think would be really useful for everyone. (pp)

Buster Birch’s How To Learn To Improvise using Minor Pentatonic Scales will be launched on Friday 13 April at at 7.30pm at Orpington Liberal Club, 7 Station Road, Orpington, BR6 0RZ.

LINKS: Buy How To Learn To Improvise using Minor Pentatonic Scales here
A LondonJazz News feature about the Welsh Summer School, where Buster is Co-Director 

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