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TonyM
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 02:09 AM
How can I improve on the Oud?


Hi everyone,

This is my first post. Just a bit of background first and then a cry for help! Here goes....I have played guitar since childhood (now in my 50's). I took up Classical guitar in a serious way in my 20's and took all the UK graded exams up to grade 8, then a very difficult performer's diploma along with Theory exams. I teach Classical Guitar for a living. I play a bit of banjo, ukulele, piano, mandolin to an okay level.

I took up jazz guitar and electric/Rock guitar for several years and had many, many lessons. Despite the lessons, I never felt like I was getting anywhere with it. Nothing seem to happen. Kept reading the theory and practising from many books but eventually gave up, not being able to improvise beyond something very basic.

I've now taken up the Oud and have been playing it nearly a year. I've studied Navid's courses and understand a lot about the maqams. His 'Maqam Mastery' course is amazing and I've nearly completed it. I've even found a great Oud player near to me and having lessons. I love the sound of this instrument more than any instrument I've ever dabbled with, but I can't seem to get anything authentic out of it yet. My attempts at the briefest of Taqsim sound like a guitarist playing scales in a different order. The advice I've had from my teacher and from Navid is to get totally absorbed, listen to lots of players on youtube and CDs. I have been doing this even before I bought my Oud as I just love the music, but the disappointment I get when I pick up my Oud and try to copy what I hear is getting a bit sad!

Listening and watching doesn't seem to be working for me. I want to have some real specific goals in front of me that I can tackle. I'd like to copy, note for note a Taqsim so that I can get a feel for where to put my fingers! The players I've seen, including my teacher launch into a Taqsim, fingers flying everywhere, pulling up some wonderful rhythms, I know what the Maqam is most of the time now but I still can't do it myself. I play a few notes and a few runs, scales and simple melodic phrases and then it goes back into its box. I don't know what to practice to improve and to know how to create authentic phrases.

Navid, I believe is working on a course to address this. I will definitely be taking the course when its up and running. In the meantime, it would be great to have some part of this forum where people submit their Taqsim improvisations and have them dissected and advice given on how they could be improved - something like that. Maybe a teacher could put up a video of a Taqsim in slow motion, walking through every section.

Has anyone else had the same difficulty and progressed beyond it? If so, what advice would you have for someone like me who feels the Oud in his blood and wants to express it but the fingers don't know how to break away from the basic scale patterns?

Thanks so much in advance.
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Brian Prunka
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 07:39 AM


I've been through this, though my background prepared me for it a bit better than yours seems to have. I am also a guitarist, but my background was in jazz. (Since I don't really know you, I'm making some guesses based on your comments here. Please forgive me is any of this seems presumptuous regarding your personal musical knowledge.)

Your listening has to be active, you are learning a new language. Sit down with a taqasim and learn it from the recording. This is the same process jazz musicians use. Unfortunately, people with Western Classical training often do not develop the habit of learning by ear.

When dealing with an unfamiliar kind of music, it must be learned by ear. If you struggle too much with learning taqasim by ear, try learning some other Arabic music by ear. Compositions are a bit easier to digest when starting out.

This comment by you really makes things clear:
Quote:
I took up jazz guitar and electric/Rock guitar for several years and had many, many lessons. Despite the lessons, I never felt like I was getting anywhere with it. Nothing seem to happen. Kept reading the theory and practising from many books but eventually gave up, not being able to improvise beyond something very basic.


Here's a secret: no one in history ever learned jazz from reading theory and practicing from books.Ever. Your teacher should have pressed you to learn properly, by learning music from recordings, and giving you concrete feedback on your improvisations (something a book can't do).
People don't play by theory. Theory can explain some things and suggest ways to expand on ideas, but the fundamentals are aural, not theoretical.

The same is true of middle-eastern music. You really have to learn it yourself, by ear. It's not that there's no value in pedagogical materials—of course there can be. But too often, people try to solve musical problems with intellectual tools. Intellectual tools are great! But most musical problems must be solved with musical tools—and that means using your ears and developing your musical faculties. Smart people in particular are often prone to this problem—they are used to solving problems intellectually and are often the last to realize that this approach doesn't work with music. Your intellect can certainly help your musicianship in many ways, but the fundamentals must come from a different part of your brain.

Essentially, you already know this and you know the answer:
Quote:

I want to have some real specific goals in front of me that I can tackle. I'd like to copy, note for note a Taqsim so that I can get a feel for where to put my fingers!

Yes, that is exactly what you should do.
When people say "listening" they mean "listen and learn". I don't know how good your ears are, but if listening isn't helping, then you probably need to work on more focused listening, and learning from recordings by ear in order to develop your aural sensitivity. A good reference for assessing your ability is whether you can transcribe a recording by ear without your instrument, and how many listens it takes for you to do so, and how quickly/accurately you can play back something you hear after hearing it. The highest level would be to transcribe a live performance as it happens (heard one time, no breaks), or to be able to play back anything you heard perfectly after hearing it once. (fwiw, I'm not there yet! But getting closer all the time :D )

Quote:
I don't know what to practice to improve and to know how to create authentic phrases.

You're not going to "know how to create authentic phrases" unless you learn a bunch of them. When you learn a language, first you learn a bunch of words (vocabulary), then some simple phrases to fit them together, and eventually full sentences to master the grammar. A baby doesn't just suddenly begin extemporaneously soliloquizing in iambic pentameter. It's the same with music. You can't create authentic phrases because you don't know enough vocabulary and haven't learned any authentic phrases. You need to learn some basic musical vocabulary and copy phrases to develop an intuitive understanding of how the music works. This includes rhythmic vocabulary; it's important for any improvising musician to have as expansive a vocabulary of rhythmic ideas as possible.

Because you don't seem to have a high comfort level with improvising in general, I'd suggest you spend a lot of time improvising (not particularly trying to create taqasim). It's going to be kind of terrible at first, that's to be expected. Like all things, you have to spend a period of time being terrible in order to get any better. Make a mental note of what works, what doesn't work, if you like or don't like something you played, figure out why. Study phrasing and try to make phrases when you play. The same principles are behind composition and improvisation.
Improvise on guitar and try to create something in a genre you are more familiar with.


Sorry if this rambled a bit, hope it's helpful and not too brutal.
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 08:06 AM


Hello Tony!

I really don't know if I can give lots of help, but since I come from the guitar too, playing oud for just two months I have similar problems. The oud is totally different for me, since I can't play chords. I've always been a chord man, always in search for interesting voicings. Playing melodies was never as important as chords. So now I'm in the situation of having to concentrate on melodies. A totally new approach, especially when you have nobody to jam with, which I find essential for making music. Improvising on oud for me means having the chords in my head I want to improvise to. I often tend to imagine a simple progression like A major, Bb major and C major, then back with Bb major and A mojor and improvise some flamenco style melodies, I mean playing phrygian mode or kurd as preferred by serious oud players. Doing this you soon realize that other maqamat fit that progression too.

Another way for me to get in contact with the oud was that song Desert Rose with Sting and Cheb Mami. I always liked the instrumental passage in the middle with the strings. So I thought, well, I'll figure that out like I did my whole life when playing guitar. Listening and transscribing was my way learninh, I never had that many lessons by teachers. So I transscribed that passage, and playing was great fun! Also playing along with the melody Sting sings. You can take any song that means something to you! Just try to get connected and play what you hear inside when you touch your oud!

A friend of mine, Roman Bunka - you will find some of his stuff on youtube or on his homepage http://www.romanbunka.de - told me that in the beginning I should better not concentrate on microtones and all that stuff, better recognize that I have grown up as european having totally different listening habits. I have internalized his advice and feel good with it. Other - stranger to my ears - maqams will come when I feel safer playing stuff I can hear inside myself. There's lots to discover on the oud, it's an everyday challenge for me, lots ot things to learn like arpeggios for example, as a replacement for chords when playing alone.

I fear that's all I can tell you at the moment from my view. I hope I could help a little! Just keep on, play what you like and stay in touch with your oud!
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 08:13 AM


Brian, your response is brilliant. All of it. A comment on the last part:

The most musically liberating words I ever heard were spoken by a seasoned percussionist in a small jam session of North Indian classical raga students in the early 1970s. We were presumptuously taking turns creating spontaneous 16 beat solos in a very nuanced and demanding raga that was beyond our abilities. I froze when my turn came. "Aw go on" the tabla player said , "IT'S BOUND TO BE BAD".

I laughed and took the plunge. It was bad but not without a few good moments. It was a start. Students are expected to play like students. One must begin somehow.
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 09:06 AM


Thanks to all three of you. I appreciate it a lot!

Brian, could you just clarify a bit more on how to learn through active listening?The music goes by so fast with so many nuances that my attempts might yield just the first few notes and then it goes by too quickly to catch. I have tried to do this with the easiest sounding Taqsim I could find on my large CD collection. I thought Youtube might be easier where you can see what's going on too, but even like this, too much is going on to imitate. Should I just keep trying, gradually picking up the odd phrase here and there and be content with that for a while? I'm amazed that anyone could listen and copy such complex music and I could be that I'm not up to the task....Won't give up yet!
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 09:44 AM


Hi Tony, I have to go to a gig but I'll write a bit more later . . . one thing you can try is use a program like Transcribe! to slow down sections, or loop them so you can hear it multiple times. It's also helpful for re-tuning recordings that aren't at 440 (a common occurrence with traditional middle-eastern music).

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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 06:48 PM



Quote:

Smart people in particular are often prone to this problem—they are used to solving problems intellectually and are often the last to realize that this approach doesn't work with music.


Ha! Of all the ways to say "you're doing it wrong!" this is probably the kindest I've ever heard.
Brian, your response is very useful. I don't know if I'm smart but, as a university professor, I'm certainly used to trying to solve problems with my brain. And I also have been (unsuccessfully) trying to solve the "problem" of being a beginner that way.
Of course, my teacher has already told me much the same thing, but it's always good to hear something from multiple perspectives and multiple people.
I won't say that you gave me a lot to think about, but I will listen to what you've said.
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 10:04 PM


If you sing me a few phrases, I can sing them back perfectly, at the right pitch and rhythm. I have to teach aural to kids and a lot of them cannot pitch a note. So, I think that my ear must be okay if I can pass and teach all the exams there are for classical guitar. So, assuming there's nothing fundamentally wrong with my listening and my musical ear, I am still baffled how anyone could listen to an Oud player and imitate it. The music goes by too fast to pick anything up. Even the slow passages have all sorts of subtleties that you can only approximate to. I've sat at my CD player, pressed 'play' listened to the first few notes, pressed 'pause' and tried to copy what I hear. My imitation is about as good as me trying to copy a great drawing or painting - it's a cartoon and not a very good one!

I have tried using 'Transcribe' too. I don't get on well with computer technology but I managed to get a simple Taqsim on the software but even at a slow speed, I couldn't pick up what was going on. It's like asking an electric guitarist to learn by listening to Jimi Hendrix launch into one of his frenzied solos. Can't be done! I don't actually have a real, do-able, practical solution.
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[*] posted on 6-26-2016 at 10:16 PM


The Amazing Slowdowner is an easy-to-use computer device. Some versions of Quicktime have slow down capability. One does not need to be the slightest bit computer savvy to use these.
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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 01:19 AM


Great advices above. and yes Amazing Slowdowner is very good specially as a phone App, it works great.
I would suggest 2 useful ressources the D'Erlanger Tome 5:
//www.mikeouds.com/messageboard/viewthread.php?tid=16465

and the recent taqasim book of Kisserwan:
http://www.mikeouds.com/messageboard/viewthread.php?tid=16249

2 different approaoaches: the 2nd one is note by note transcribed taqsims, very good technical exercises and ressource for "The Vocabulary" that Brian talked about and by great masters.

With the first one I'd suggest a different approach, use it as road map for impros. Start by playing few times the Maqam as in the book, familiarize with and then you can try a "mind game" that I found very useful for improvisation for the "rest of us" who cannot just improvise from scratch: choose a poem you know by heart (not a song, just a poem) and associate it with this maqam in your mind and just try to play like if you want to express the words with "sentences" from this maqam, first using the ones in the book then your own variations on the same Jins than you move to another jins, it won't be magic at first but then you can start feeling that things are making more sense and you may end up "composing" an impro which is not wrong but then try to add to it between the parts you like and memorized.

The magic of the oud id this feeling of freedom that I never felt with other instruments, when you start feeling it, walls will fall. Not all of us can be great Taqasim players but getting to the "freedom" side of the oud is the real pleasure, go for the freedom quest and impros will find you.
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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 05:12 AM


Quote: Originally posted by TonyM  
If you sing me a few phrases, I can sing them back perfectly, at the right pitch and rhythm. I have to teach aural to kids and a lot of them cannot pitch a note. So, I think that my ear must be okay if I can pass and teach all the exams there are for classical guitar. So, assuming there's nothing fundamentally wrong with my listening and my musical ear, I am still baffled how anyone could listen to an Oud player and imitate it. The music goes by too fast to pick anything up. Even the slow passages have all sorts of subtleties that you can only approximate to. I've sat at my CD player, pressed 'play' listened to the first few notes, pressed 'pause' and tried to copy what I hear. My imitation is about as good as me trying to copy a great drawing or painting - it's a cartoon and not a very good one!

I have tried using 'Transcribe' too. I don't get on well with computer technology but I managed to get a simple Taqsim on the software but even at a slow speed, I couldn't pick up what was going on. It's like asking an electric guitarist to learn by listening to Jimi Hendrix launch into one of his frenzied solos. Can't be done! I don't actually have a real, do-able, practical solution.


It absolutely can be done. How do you think people like Stevie Ray Vaughan learned? He obviously listened to Hendrix and picked out what he was playing. Every saxophonist (and many other jazz musicians) learned by picking out what people like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderly were playing, which I can tell you is a hell of a lot more difficult than figuring out what Hendrix is playing!

When you sing the phrases back, do you know what notes you are singing (if given the key note)? So you could write it down if you wanted?
I don't think there is anything "fundamentally wrong" with your ear, but it does sound like it may be underdeveloped in some ways if you can't imitate what you hear.

You're also dealing with technical issues on the oud, so don't expect your imitation to be perfect immediately. With the subtleties of ornamentation and intonation, you will be engaging in a process of gradual refinement. Many of the subtleties of the oud require a lot of practice to master, even if they seem like the simplest thing (such as a unison grace note, a very common ornament that is as simple as can be but still requires time to master).

One of the things that makes it hard to learn new music or instruments as an adult (and for adults that already play music well, this can be even worse), is that you have a better understanding of how far from the mark you are, which makes the learning period more frustrating . . . kids are blessed by ignorance, which makes it easier for them to tolerate the necessary period of sounding bad (since they don't realize how bad they sound). The fact that you realize how far off you are shouldn't be a discouragement, but just emphasizes that you actually do hear the difference. If you can hear the difference, then through consistent effort, you will be able to close the gap.

If you have a teacher, then bring in a taqasim and point to the spots you can't figure out and ask them to demonstrate what is happening. Some of these ornaments are much easier to understanding technically if you see someone do it.

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Brian Prunka
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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 05:33 AM


Quote: Originally posted by TonyM  
Thanks to all three of you. I appreciate it a lot!

Brian, could you just clarify a bit more on how to learn through active listening?


By active listening, I mean listening as if you are playing the music. So, as much as possible, visualize the notes on the instrument as you hear them, and imagine your fingers playing them. It's good that you say that you can mostly recognize the maqam, so extend that to focusing on which note in the maqam is being played at any moment. Of course, this is difficult at first, but with practice, it gets easier. General visualization helps also, imagining the music and mentally playing it on the instrument. Eventually you will be able to practice without the instrument.

I recently had some gigs coming up and had very little time to practice the music (which was mostly new to me), so I had to make extensive use of this kind of listening—I put it on my ipod and actively listened on the subway, walking to the gym, etc. This way I could practice it even when I couldn't physically play the instrument.

Quote: Originally posted by TonyM  
The music goes by so fast with so many nuances that my attempts might yield just the first few notes and then it goes by too quickly to catch. I have tried to do this with the easiest sounding Taqsim I could find on my large CD collection. I thought Youtube might be easier where you can see what's going on too, but even like this, too much is going on to imitate. Should I just keep trying, gradually picking up the odd phrase here and there and be content with that for a while? I'm amazed that anyone could listen and copy such complex music and I could be that I'm not up to the task....Won't give up yet!


You just don't have enough practice with this. It will be slow going and painstaking at first. It sounds like you are just getting frustrated, which is understandable. If you can get two notes, then you go back and try to get the next two, and then the next two. The first one will probably take you days, if not weeks to get. But the second one will be a little easier. Gradually, with a lot of hard work, you will eventually be able to catch what people are playing in real time.
I think you may expecting too much of yourself too quickly. It may seem unbearably slow and frustrating to spend two hours and just get one phrase out of a taqsim, but that is what you need to do as part of the learning process. If you are patient and work through it, you will improve.

Improvisation is not an intellectual process, for the most part. Improvisational ability is acquired by practice methods that internalize musical principles in such a way that they are immediately accessible by your intuition. It's not unlike playing sports. A golfer is not a physicist, calculating velocities and trajectories like a rocket scientist. Through focused practice, hehas trained himself to have an intuitive understanding of how to have the desired effect. "Choking" is actually the phenomenon where stress leads a trained athlete to inadvertently substitute their vastly inferior intellect for their well-honed intuition.
Intelligence may be applied to the learning process, but the actual skill must be intuitive and near-automatic.
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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 07:31 AM


Thanks again for this very clear advice. I will certainly be following it up and getting stuck in with listening. If this is the only way to do it, it's what I will do.

Alami, I clicked on your link but it doesn't work. Can you do it again as I definitely want to follow it up. Thanks!



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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 07:55 AM


Quote: Originally posted by TonyM  

Alami, I clicked on your link but it doesn't work. Can you do it again as I definitely want to follow it up. Thanks!



fixed
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[*] posted on 6-27-2016 at 04:00 PM


This has been such a helpful and encouraging discussion. Thanks everyone, especially Brian. The analogy with learning a new language word by word, phrase by phrase anf then slowly beginning to speak yourself is the one that makes the most sense to me.
For those of you like me who are old adult learners of music I recommend a wonderful book by the radical educator John holt, called never too late. It is a journal of his attempt to learn cello in his sixties.
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[*] posted on 6-28-2016 at 01:43 AM


That seems a very interesting book to me! You can read it here

https://archive.org/details/NeverTooLate-JohnHolt
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[*] posted on 6-28-2016 at 04:51 AM


I'd like to add one point from my perspective. Much of what makes oud music, both improvisation and classical compositions, is all of the ornamentation. There is a TON of it, and it gives the oud it's "alive" sound. After a bit over 3 years of playing 1-2 hours/day (still a beginner), I'm still unable to play many of the ornaments at the speed that they are commonly played at. I'm focusing on that now. But because I can't play them well yet, it's very hard to figure out what exactly is being played and how, in certain performances. Some of this ornamentation is played incredibly quickly. There are one or two second passages that I listen to and I have no idea how many notes were actually played. Was it 6, 12, or 15? I don't know.

My point is that I think it is more than helpful, maybe necessary, to develop certain base technical skills on the oud before you can really figure out what is going on and how.
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[*] posted on 6-28-2016 at 07:12 AM


Hi David, I absolutely agree with you here. My 'live' teacher ornaments almost every note he plays and they are not like ornamentation on a classical guitar. My ornaments sound 'Spanish' which sound completely inauthentic on the Oud and I'm working on copying my teacher's way of playing them. Hearing chords and harmony also instantly stands out as 'wrong' on the Oud, unless it's Greek music and then they sound fine. This is instrument is mysterious and amazing!
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[*] posted on 6-28-2016 at 08:26 AM


Hey Tony,

I'm working almost exclusively on the Turkish makam system...classical compositions, ornamentation, and improvisation. From what I have seen, and I realize there is a spectrum here with lots of exceptions, "Turkish style" playing uses a larger variety of ornamentation and more of it.

I've had two excellent teachers via Skype, Mavrothi Kontanis (http://www.oudcafe.com/) and Zeynel Demirtas (https://www.facebook.com/zeynel). Both of them ornament almost every note in some way, like your teacher. I highly recommend both of them if you're looking for extra instruction. I just started with Zeynel though (~3 months ago), to get another perspective from another teacher (only great things to say about Mavrothi), and Zeynel has been focusing only on exercises with me...to perfect my picking, positioning, and ornamentation. These exercises have really taken my playing to another level. They are pretty quickly giving me the ability to not only play the ornaments at speed, but to know what I'm hearing when I hear them in recordings. I'm finding the exercises invaluable. My playing is finally starting to sound "Turkish" instead of like I'm playing the oud like a guitar (I've never played guitar). So for that purpose, I would very highly recommend taking at least a few lessons with Zeynel and having him teach you these exercises. Of course, I would also recommend taking lessons with Mavrothi! As I'm sure you know, you can get different things from different teachers.
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[*] posted on 6-30-2016 at 03:13 AM


That sounds like a good idea. I'll add that to my 'to do' list.

I've started work on trying to copy this Hijaz taqsim:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnTmBmUhpho

I'm getting somewhere in the first minute but it's all the ornamentation that make it hard to copy. I've got a very vague approximation and will battle on. I think it might help if I knew exactly where each modulation was and to what maqam. I can see that he moves from Hijaz to Saba but not sure what happens after that.
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[*] posted on 6-30-2016 at 04:11 AM


One more idea that I learned from Mavrothi... Once you are comfortable adding ornamentation to notes/phrases, you can use the first hane and teslim of a saz semai as your guide for a taksim. Look at the melodic progression, and just play around with it, trying different ornamentation options, etc..

I think some of the older recordings of taksims where the musicians were limited to ~3 mintues might be easier than the longer modern taksims you'll find on YouTube. I think there are often less modulations, or sometimes none. Search for Cemil Bey, and although the taksims aren't with an oud, you can still follow along.
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[*] posted on 7-10-2016 at 02:26 PM


Jody - thanks for the ASD app... That has made learning a lot easier. I had the old version years ago on my PC but I had no idea they made a phone app.





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[*] posted on 11-24-2016 at 08:36 PM


Try and keep your practice simple by just sticking to Pentatonic scales. That way there is no pressure to get the micro quarter tone notes correct. I generally use pentatonic scales to improvise as I personally find it pleasing and melodic to the ear.

If I were a beginner to intermediate wanting to progress, I would use the pentatonic scale, but more specifically focus on my right hand techniques such as arpeggio picking and string skipping (pedal notes- playing a pentatonic scale on the bass notes whilst tremolo picking the C string).

Try not to get hooked up on all the theory you have learnt. Have a go at playing with the oud-not play it as if you were a child playing with something. After all, a lot of things were discovered by accident. Just mess about with the oud. pretend you are a child with a pen scribbling on a blank piece of paper as opposed to some one who holds the pen carefully and slowly approaches the paper hoping to do a neat artwork neatly. Out of the two I described, the scribbling child will probably end up to become an artist that produces art with character and confidence whereas the careful nervous child will become a not so good artist producing neat and skilled art, but dull and boring artwork.

Listening and watching youtube is still good. Perhaps just pick one song you like and learn it bit by bit. Take your time to learn each phrase of that song until you are confident in improving your own version of it and then move to the next phrase. Soon, you will have a bunch of phrases you can use and re-perfume in your own way.

Also make friends with another oud player and compare techniques. After playing together for a while, you will both form a connected style. as in you two will morph into a coupled style in some way or another.

Lastly, be patient. Take time to practice.
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