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Background Patterns for Improvisation

br2002_018FSSaintilan, Paul (2001). Background Patterns for Improvisation [CD+Booklet] Australia: Ice Calm.
E-mail for contact or order: paul@icecalm.com

Reviewed by Tom Næss, Ass. Prof., Norwegian State Academy of Music.


There has not been much material published about practical improvisation within the field of music therapy. Therefore it is a rare and exciting event when a new contribution can be achieved.

Paul Saintilan has published a CD and booklet about a concept he has called: Background Patterns for Improvisation. In his introduction of the booklet he gives a special acknowledgement: “I am indebted to Robin Howat, who first made me aware of the importance of improvisation in Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy.” – Howat is an outstanding Nordoff-Robbins music therapist and was previously head of training at the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre in London. He emigrated to Australia with his family in 1993 to help set up a similar training program in Sydney. This CD/booklet seems to have grown out of the inspiration from Howat’s influence in Australia.

The Basic Idea

The CD/booklet is based on the idea of repeated chords or musical patterns as a foundation for improvised melodies. Saintilan refers to the fact that several composers like Purcell, Chopin, Ravel and Satie all wrote music built on short repeated patterns. Saintilan also focus on the ostinato music styles and the 12 bars blues as a basis for improvised music.

The Content

The CD presents seven pieces based on repeated patterns. Four pieces are from classical compositions: One is from Chopin and three from Satie. Then three pieces are from other styles: One from a kind of pop/jazz ballad form, one is a latin pattern and the third is a twelve bar blues. Except for this blues, the patterns consist of one or two bars that are repeated. The classical pieces are played on piano and the other pieces are played on the base, drums and piano – all done by competent musicians.

The booklet tells us that each of these pieces have generally two versions: One where a melody is present ( to serve as a model or an example) and another where only the pattern is played as a ground for your improvisation. The booklet following the CD contains all patterns as music notation. Each pattern is followed by a suggested scale you can freely improvise within.

Practical Use

Any melody-instrument can be used together with these background patterns. You simply put on the CD and improvise along with it using the suggested (or your own) scale. It can be used as an improvisation exercise and for personal musical growth. I can also imagine it can be used for clients, where both therapist and client can improvise to it, whether they both have a melody instrument or one of them (the therapist?) has a rhythm instrument. Saintilan even suggests that the CD can be used by clients to enjoy the benefit of improvisation at times when a therapist can’t be present. It can be very exciting to play together with such professional people.

The music notation in the booklet can make it easier to perform the background patterns live. There is not much concrete instruction for how, but I can imagine that a pianist alone, can learn the pattern by heart by reading the music notation in the booklet (or listening to the CD). If s/he put the pattern in the left hand, then s/he can improvise melodies in the right hand and in this way create his/her own music without using the CD. I would add that also two people (teacher/student therapist/client) could be at the piano keyboard together, where for instance the therapist is playing the pattern in the base, and the client is improvising in the treble. Other suggestions are that two pianists can play on two pianos, one playing the pattern and creating “fill inns” and the other playing matching patterns with melodies on the top. A pianist could also learn the patterns and use them as an accompaniment for an improvising soloist to play or sing!


I think the concept Background patterns for improvisation is a valuable contribution to the poor market of practical improvisation material. Studying this material has offered me new musical input, which simply can become new musical output! The CD starts (and ends) with “The white key improvisation”. We hear the pattern and the pianist’s inspiring improvising. The example is followed by the same pattern alone, so one can improvise oneself. This structure is repeated in the next examples.

I was looking forward to listening to the improvised part over the repeating pattern in Chopin, “Berceuse” in D flat Op.57. It is a brilliant idea to use repeated accompanying patterns from classical compositions as ostinatos for improvisation. We get the impression from the first 3 examples in the booklet that this is the basic idea of this concept. But when it comes to Chopin, the pianist is just playing what Chopin wrote, so here there is no improvisation! The same happens in the examples of Satie: Gymnopèdie no. 1 and 2, and Le Yachting. Those pieces of Chopin and Satie are beautiful! We are not presented any improvisation here, but you can at least study and learn how these composers are putting their exciting and beautiful melodies to their more or less steady patterns! But I think the exciting challenge in this concept is to stay with the pattern and improvise, not reproduce. Although I experience this nonimprovising phenomenon as a disorder in the structure of this concept, the CD is true to the structure of giving the user the opportunity to make her or his improvisation over constantly repeated one-or two bar patterns taken from Chopin and Satie. These bars are also repeated for a long enough time to really get it under your skin. This gives you the chance to explore your musical experiments and ideas.

We are told in the booklet that this CD is appropriate for both novices and experienced musicians. I agree with this statement, but I could have wished for more on the novice-side. The White Key Improvisation is a pearl because it is easy to play, and you can not fail. The same can be said about the two-bar pattern from Gymnopedie No.1 and 2 by Satie. As a music therapist and teacher of therapeutic improvisation for 25 years I have experienced that students and clients can not get enough of such pearls. But somebody could possibly also experience an exciting challenge to work with the Latin Pattern in 7/8 which is on the other end of the progression parameter on this CD.

For students, music therapists, some of their clients, and for people interested in being musicaly creative, this CD can be very inspiring. I think that the idea of this concept is of the greatest value! When we have got this idea, we can pick patterns from any “classic” composition, or just create patterns ourselves. On top of such repeating patterns we can improvise our own genuine melodies. Thank you Paul Saintilan and your inspirer Robin Howat for an exciting and important contribution to the landscape of improvisation.

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