Stefon Harris Clinic: Do you know your Major Scale?

There is no way for me to capture the impact of Stefon Harris’ improvisation clinic in a brief blog. The information he presented was insightful, especially for the non-improviser, and very easy to understand and implement. The first question he presented was at the beginning of the clinic was, “Do you know your major scale?” As an audience of professional percussionists, we were intrigued, as were all pretty sure we knew our major scales. However, Stefon proceeded to prove to us that we did not know them as intimately as we should.

He began by telling us how good improvisation has many of the same characteristics of good melody, which we all agreed with. After this, he addressed our first three notes of the day, the major triad. For the rest of the clinic we would consider this our “melodic tonic.” Obviously, the members of the tonic triad each have a different character, but they can all achieve a sense of arrival when you used properly. After the tonic triad, he proceeded to address each of the pitches within the major scale and how we could effectively use each one while improvising.

The basic principle is that each of the other pitches has a distinct pull and a distinct character, and if we have an intimate relationship with each of these pitches, then we can more effectively craft our improvised melodies. This is the point where this blog format falls short. He didn’t really use words to characterize the pitches, and I really liked this approach. He used facial expressions and physical motions to describe the pitches. I am not going to attempt to use words to describe these feelings, but instead, I’m going to make this interactive and give you a brief “assignment.”

The next time you are taking a break from practicing, or just have the opportunity, start improvising, but there are some ground rules. You must start by only using the tonic triad. Try to be melodic, you don’t need to make any large leaps or try to do anything crazy, just establish the tonic triad in your ear and get your blood flowing. After you’ve done this, you get to add one additional pitch, we’ll start with the fourth. So, now you are using the tonic triad and the fourth. There is one additional rule, you must resolve the fourth, acknowledging its specific pull. Now, if you weren’t at the clinic, I want you to get a bit dramatic. Try to assign a feeling to the note, and give it a face, or a gesture. When Stefon did this, it really seemed to hammer home the function of each note.

After you’ve spent some time with the fourth, replace it with a different “non-tonic” pitch. The sixth, second, or seventh. Only experiment with one pitch at a time so you can really understand the character and pull of each pitch. After you’ve been through each pitch, you can then start improvising using the entire major scale, the whole time remaining aware of each pitches characteristics.

Stefon did this with the masterclass participants and demonstrated each pitch himself. It was so effective, and just working through this process has helped me begin to feel comfortable improvising a bit (I am not generally much of an improviser).

Do you know your major scale? What words would you assign to each pitch? It would be great if we could compile a list of adjectives that people think about for each pitch in the comments.

Originally posted on DrumChattr on November 27, 2010 by Shane Griffin.


The photo in this post is used under the Creative Commons License: Attribution – NonCommercial – No Derivs 2.0 by Alex Ortiz de Guinea on

Dave Gerhart
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