Choosing the right pace through the concepts

Hello again,

after you have all been so helpful with my last question, I am looking forward to more! This time I am looking for people who have some experience with the IFR method. I used to call myself an advanced guitarist, but I have decided to change my tuning to all major 3rds and build my knowledge from the ground up, because I was getting nowhere with the fractured ideas and theory band-aids I had before that didn’t make sense as a whole.

Long story short, I am back at the beginning, trying not to skip ahead of important steps again.

In particular, I am wondering what the best approach to becoming comfortable with the harmonic environments would be. I want to really know every one of them by ear and by heart to then move on to mixed harmony and jazz standards without confusion.

I have started to practice in each HE for 5 practice sessions (usually takes about a week), but this will take 7 weeks to go through all of them just once and I fear that by the end, I will have forgotten some details and sounds from the earlier HEs. There is also the option to take things even slower… I guess its possible to work on one harmonic environment for a very long time and become even more familiar. However, if I choose to work on a different HE every day (like it is suggested at some point in the book) I fear I will not be able to really familiarize myself with them on a deeper level and then be left with a superficial understanding.

Any advice or experiences on this? What appraoch people have you taken?

Thank you, and have a great day!

Hi @Polyrism!

I am super happy you asked this question, because that’s one I am struggling with. I am really looking forward to reading what everyone has to say about this.

Regarding the harmonic environments, I tried for a little while to learn all of them at the same time (like one different HE each day). I felt overwhelmed so I decided to focus on the 1st, and move on to the 6th after, and then do the others. Now, after 2 years+ I am still on the first. I don’t feel I have fully internalized all the 7 notes. I feel very familiar with the sounds at this point, but I am still very far from being able to play what I hear in this first HE in real time. I do a lot of sing the numbers, and recently I started to spend more time on the 6th. However, it feels like the amount of work to get as familiar with the sounds for this new HE will also count in years for me. I have been working on IFR almost every day for the last 2+ years, but often just doing the sing the number exercises, or just feeling the numbers of songs I hear.

One thing I like about the IFR method is that the exercises are just suggestions, and David Reed (@ImproviseForReal) regularly reminds us that we should explore things we enjoy and feel connected with, at a pace we feel comfortable with. This approach is a great source of enjoyment for me, where I can focus on the moment on the things I like. However, it is also a source of frustration where I see very slow progress and keep wondering if things would be faster with a more defined learning path, tailored to my needs and abilities. While I know I still have lots of time to continue to learn things, I often have periods where I am demotivated because I don’t know when, or if I will ever be able to…play what I hear…, which is what I want to achieve.

That’s my experience. Everyone is different, and the process can be faster for others. Again, I am really interested in hearing about how others are studying these HEs.


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Hi @Polyrism,
I can say a total ‘+1’ for everything that @Dave has just written. I too started with a broad approach (each day I drew a piece of paper from a jar that started out containing all 84 possible note & number combinations & that was my environment & root note for the session).

For me the biggest help of all, and the period of fastest progress, was taking the IFR ‘Introduction to Melodic Improvising’ workshop run by Jelske. It’s also available as a self-study video course, but I really do feel that the extra value of doing it as a workshop, with access to Jelske as a tutor & interacting with the other students was well worth the extra expense.

In the course the various environments are looked at separately (in some weeks, more than one environment).

It’s not a ‘silver bullet’ instant solution. I don’t recognise ‘environments’. I still have years of work ahead, but that’s a thing I’m looking forward to. I use the framework from the course as a loose basis for my continuing studies, not sticking with one environment for weeks but not chopping & changing randomly daily either. I give greatest prominence to 1, and a fair prominence to 6, but try to bring in others on occasions; that is after all the way it is with the majority of the music that surrounds us.

At the end of the course Jelske asked for feedback, offerering 3 questions as a possible framework. I’m happy to quote my response in full here.

> 1. Why did you join this course, what was your issue or aim or wish?

I first discovered Improvise for Real (IFR) several years ago through hearing David Reed interviewed for a podcast. Following up on that I found that the IFR view of the musical world appealed to me greatly both aesthetically and logically. At that stage I was right at the beginning of discovering my personal musicality after discovering that the ‘tone deaf’ label that had been applied to me almost 60 years ago as a child was nonsense.

That was over 2 years ago. In the meantime I’ve been starting to learn guitar, and a little keyboard, and doing ear training, all the time trying to use IFR as my view of the musical world, and considering improvisation as ‘the thing I want to do’.

However, even with the superb IFR book and raw materials, there’s only so much you can do on your own. Yes I could improvise a bit, but it didn’t feel to have any shape or direction. In particular I didn’t seem to enjoy working with backing tracks - a big drawback when working on your own (I live in a remote area)!

Jelske’s course looked to be the logical next step, a course steeped in the IFR ethos and aimed directly at what I wanted to do.

> 2. How did you experience the 12 week program?

I thought I was already familiar with IFR, but this course has supercharged that. We looked at things in a new light, and led by Jelske I experienced revelation after revelation & gained insight after insight about possibilities & approaches. I started to enjoy playing with backing tracks. I started to feel I was playing improvised melody, not just poking semi-random notes.

> 3. What did this bring you, what are you capable of doing now?

I thought I used to enjoy playing. I did used to enjoy playing. Now I enjoy it more. Along the way I’ve learnt that to ‘tell a story’ you don’t need to know where the story is going before you start. I can put on a backing track, work out the key, start playing, and feel I’m going somewhere. I can do the same with at least some of the ‘real’ music I enjoy listening to. I can just pick up my instrument and play something, unplanned, unaccompanied. I’m no prodigy. What I do is probably simple. However, what I’m playing is certainly musical, and is immensely satisfying. I look forward to working with, developing, and improving on these ideas over time. I’m still a beginner, but less so than I was. I have a very long way to go, but I’m moving along the path so much more clearly than I was 12 weeks ago.

Only you can judge if it might be of use to you.

I wish you well on your journey & look forward to hearing other responses.

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I’m no expert in IFR and I am still returning to basics often. Without doubt, David’s advice to spend as much time as needed on the major scale is the right thing. It’s the foundation from which everything else flows. The other environments are much easier to grasp once the foundation is solid. There will be no need to spend anywhere near as much time on the other environments. Plus, as I go through the HEs, I try and add a separate revision section during my daily practice.

The single best exercise for me is (and still is) taking any 2 notes of the major scale and building simple improvisations around moving between their respective chords. My practice time always includes 10 minutes or so of adding a random 2 chords to a looper then improvising over the resulting loop. I do it slowly enough to name the notes (1-7 with any flats or sharps). I’ll stick to one area of the neck at first, but as it gets easier I try moving around - always naming every note out loud.

The worst shortcut is to play so fast that you lose sight of which number note you are playing. In fact that is a good indicator of whether your speed is right or not. So the most productive periods of practice for have been the slow tedious non-creative improvisations. Actually, they limit themselves because you lose attention span. Give up, do something different, and come back in a while to try again when you can focus for another 10 minutes or so. Doing 6 10 minute sessions throughout the day (or parts of the day when you can practice) is significantly more effective than 1 session of one hour in my humble experience.

Another really good exercise for me is to run through all the seven chords in a fixed position singing each number as I go.

When experimenting with mixed harmony, these 2 exercises are what I do too, just choosing one of the chords to modify.

Singing the numbers on my daily walk or on a drive or in the shower has also been a good thing. If you can sing the 4 note chords for each chord in the harmonised major scale it really helps when you get back to your instrument.

Just a few of the things I do that seem to help me. Hope it helps.

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As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before I use the ‘Sing The Numbers’ (& ‘Feel The Numbers’ a variation using tracks I have from @MireiaClua 's “Ear Training for Musical Creativity” course) materials while I’m on my stationary exercise bike. I have playlists set up to provide a mix of tracks relevant to the parts that I’m working on. If I’m out in the car or gardening I’ll play the whole of STN1, or STN2 or STN3, and maybe some tracks of classic progressions (also IFR material). It’s fun & I’m (I hope!) absorbing the material while doing something else…

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Hello again, very helpful responses so far, thank you. Seems like taking things slowly is (as usual) the right way to go.

I was especially encouraged by this paragraph by Neil:

I have actually just started to learn “Truth” by Kamasi Washington (recommended even just for listening). Its a jazz song that only ever moves slowly between the 2- and the 1 chords, so its entirely diatonic (pure harmony) but combines ideas from the first and second HE. You get a very beautiful melody to learn aswell, that is ideal to study the chord notes of the 2- and the 1 chord. I think I will stick to these two HEs while learning the song and picking some ideas from it. Maybe then I will look for a song that connects a new HEs to the ones I already know. Along the way, I will continue to play and sing the numbers etc. to set myself up for later chord progressions.

I know that (technically) the song always stays in the first HE overall, but the 2- chord stays long enough to get some valueable tonal attention.


I’m still learning harmonic environment 1 deeper, but my plan is to then move on to 6. My goal is to play tunes and improvise… and 1 and 6 is about all I’m gonna need. But I admire y’all who want to be able to do it all.

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A tuning in major 3rds? I think that @Improviseforreal David Reed tunes all strings in fourths. I play double bass myself, and I have always loved the logic of tuning in fourths, because it offers comfortable steps in the circle of fourths that occur everywhere in music, just by placing your finger on the adjacent string. So why tuning in 3rds?

Further: You write ‘I want to really know every one of them… to then move on…’ etc.
That has a connotation of struggle to me. Before reading and using IFR, I was inspired by the double bassist Francois Rabbath, and by Kenny Werner’s wonderful book on Effortless Mastery.
It has led me to the insight that music is not about struggle, absolute control, full knowledge, etc. Of course, technique matters, but it is a means, not an end.
The only thing I practice in playing is: having a good posture, standing without locked knees, with a slight tightening of the abdomen, and with a deliberate putting the fingers on the strings and the fingerboard. The only exercise is not to loose the slight tightening and the feeling of the fingers, and then the rest will just come up.

To give a nice example: when I played with the track of one of the ‘seven worlds’ tracks, I always had problems in hearing when the end of the track was. I had to stare to my laptop screen to see if the end of a track was near.
But when I just tighten my abdomen and feel my fingers, I have the right sensitivity. (Kenny Werner would say: you enter the space.) And then I always arrive at a nice ending, at the right moment, without staring at a small sliding bar on my screen.

Mind that you are exploring seven worlds. You can never fathom an entire world. And even if you could: your mood is changeable, and music is created when your mood and a world go together. So there are endless opportunities.

It is like wandering through a museum. You may systematically consider and analyse every painting in a room, before going to the next room. But that is exhausting. And even if you have achieved your goal, there will be a visitor that just jumps into the room and points out a detail that you had not noticed.
So why not just wander around in the seven worlds and enjoy?


Hi @TheoL, welcome to the forum!

I really like the analogy of wandering through a museum to illustrate your point on the exploration of the 7 worlds. That made me think quite a bit actually.

For instance, I wrote previously I felt overwhelmed when I was working on all 7 worlds and decided to only focus on them sequentially. Your post made me realize that I have similar feelings in a museum. While many people will try to see as many things as they can, I don’t enjoy this. I need to look deeply at each thing, read everything on the signs, etc. Even if this means I will only see one room. I have more satisfaction in understanding a few things deeply than experiencing many things superficially.

It took me many years to realize that the way I tend to “hyperfocus” on things is not the way most people do. I recently learned more about neurodiversity and that so many people are wired differently.

I think the short answer for me could be: it’s because it wouldn’t be enjoyable. But then, one could ask: can you change what things you will enjoy?, I don’t know, and I don’t really know I want to. What’s for sure is, to the original question of “Choosing the right pace through the concepts”, there isn’t an answer. Because it depends on so many variables… However, sharing and discussing about this is really interesting and can help in getting our own answers.

Great post @TheoL Welcome to the forum.

‘It takes all sorts’ is one possible answer. ‘Why not?’ is another. To extend your analogy further, just as you have freedom to wander around the museum, the artists also have freedom to choose their media? :slight_smile:

As for a proper answer, that’s for @Polyrism to answer, but he’s far from the first to consider it
Here’s Ralph Platt’s page on 3rd Tuning.

I have a feeling that there maye be some traditions that also employ tuning in 3rds too? Somewhere in Eastern Europe maybe?

At the risk if diverting off topic…

This guy tunes his Chapman Stick in all 3rds[1]. This video is primarily about him receiving a replacement after his original was stolen, but I’ve cued it to start just where he briefly plays the new instrument (The Girl from Ipanema).

Here’s an earlier video with his original Stick, after some initial chat he plays.

[1] An extremely unusal choice even for the Stick, an instrument where there are already many ‘recomended’ tunings to choose from ( Most Stick tuings have a bass side and a melody side. with some variations of all 4ths on the melody side, and ‘reciprocal[2]’ all 5ths on the bass side.

[2] i.e. with the interval steps in the reverse direction; as a result the lowest strings for both melody & bass are in in the middle of the fretboard.

Hey Theo,
I chose tuning in thirds because it allows to play the chromatic scale in one position (four frets) so you do not have to do any stretches to move along the songs. Also I prefer the chord shapes it creates compared to fourths tuning. And if you get a 7 string guitar (which I plan to), you can actually get the octave on top and bottom strings just like with a regular guitar.

Major downside is that on a 6 string, your musical range on the instrument is somewhat limited, you lose some high and low notes, depending on how you tune.

I really enjoy it and will not go back anytime soon.

Oh! I can imagine how smooth it is to play the Cloud and Mobility exercises with a 3rd tuning.

There is a thread in this forum on tuning the guitar in 4ths, I found: All Fourths tuning on guitar - #2 by DavidW. Conclusion: it is wonderful for improvising, but not for existing compositions.
How are those arguments for you?

Well, @Dave, I am grateful that the museums I visit don’t have signs at the entrance how much time I must spend or how to enjoy a painting.
I like the museums without a clear fixed route. And that’s what I definitively appreciate in IFR.

Last week I was playing in the fourth world. As a practice tip David suggests in the accompanying text: ‘Because the fourth harmonic environment is so similar to the first, a good exercise is to practice improvising in these two harmonic environments back to back.’
That makes me turn to another room in the IFR museum: the IFR Jam Tracks Level 2: Pure Harmony Essentials. Lesson 1, 2 and 7 are devoted to the 1 and 4 chords progression, and I can use tracks from those lessons to deepen my experience of the fourth world. Then I go back to the ‘seven worlds’ department of the museum and play in the fifth world. After that I take Lesson 3 or 4 from the Pure Harmony Essentials, or dive into Lesson 4-6.
So: deepening one element (hyperfocus as you call it) opens up to other elements to explore, for me.
Do you recognise that?

@Polyrism I couldn’t resist sketching out a Major 3rds fretboard. Here’s my ‘text sketch’ with IFR numbers for a full octave along each string, and adding that ‘7th’ string you mentioned

1 3 . 1 3 . 1
. 4 6 . 4 6 .
2 . . 2 . . 2
. 5 7 . 5 7 .
3 . 1 3 . 1 3
4 6 . 4 6 . 4
. . 2 . . 2 .
5 7 . 5 7 . 5
. 1 3 . 1 3 .
6 . 4 6 . 4 6
. 2 . . 2 . .
7 . 5 7 . 5 7
1 3 . 1 3 . 1

My first reaction is to observe the beautfully simple & consistent relationships. I can certainly see a lot of appeal.

At first glance you loose the lovely simple Circle of 4ths / Circle of 5ths inter-string relationships that you get with all 4ths, except that on second glance they are still there, but now they’re on the ‘NW to SE’ diagonal instead of across a fret. The opposite diagonal gives minor 3rds.

Very neat.

Hi all,

Welcome @TheoL to the forum! And thank you @Polyrism for provoking a fantastic conversation thread with many interesting side topics.

I am struck by a common theme running through our conversation, which is this personal choice between enjoyment and struggle.

And it is, I think, a personal choice. As obvious as it seems to one person that we need to master the material, improve our skills, acquire an ability, it seems just as obvious to another person that all of this ambition is mere folly.

So maybe it would be helpful to confront this question head on, and for each person in this conversation to do some soul searching and come to a personal clarity about it. What do YOU feel is the role of enjoyment vs. struggle in your music practice? Do we need both? Is one of them superfluous, or even toxic?

We don’t all have to make the same decision. I have my own bias, but I can’t say what’s right for others. But for example, when @Neil_Burnett shares his enthusiasm for his current musical explorations, or when @TheoL describes playing his bass as a kind of personal meditation, don’t we all want a piece of that joy? Does anybody really care whether their practicing is the most “efficient” path to a given goal?

In your music practice, you have an incredible opportunity to define who you are. Since there are no rules, your music practice can be just as free and beautiful as you want it to be. So why not make THAT your personal paradise? Why not just set up a music practice that you enjoy so deeply that it no longer even matters where it’s leading?

But I’m already going too far down the road of my own personal bias. I really do understand that some people find their own personal paradise in the simplicity of hard work, and I totally respect that. So truly I think there is no right answer. But it does seem that this is the fundamental question that we keep coming back to in this conversation. So it might be interesting for each one of us to confront our own biases, fears and beliefs around this subject. My only advice about that would be to accept @TheoL’s gentle nudging to think of this as more of a philosophical/spiritual question than a musical/technical one.

Thanks for listening. All other opinions are welcomed, respected and appreciated.


Incidentally, I also LOVE the side discussion about alternate tunings, and especially the interesting perspectives shared by @Polyrism, @TheoL and @DavidW. I didn’t know how to weave that into my last comment so I just set it aside. But you probably all know that I am deeply grateful to the P4 tuning because it allowed me to see so much farther into harmony. I never realized how much I was mentally blocked by the irregular tuning of the guitar. But when I switched to P4, suddenly I was able to see shapes, connections and relationships that I had never even thought of before. Even more importantly, once I freed myself from the mental taxation of the irregular tuning, I was able to use that mental energy to see much farther and to imagine new complexities that had been previously beyond my field of vision.

For a couple of years I experimented constantly with M3, P4, P5 and even P#4 (or whatever that should be called). Each has its own intellectual charms and practical advantages:

M3: A Cloud with just four half steps per string! Marvelous! Just the same number of fingers we have so there’s no stretching, as observed by @Polyrism.

P4: Chord relationships of dominant to tonic just hop up to the next string, bringing entire chord progressions into focus. Now I can see an entire chord progression like Autumn Leaves like so many pieces on a chess board, just waiting to interact with one another.

P5: Chord relationships of dominant to tonic just hop DOWN to the next string. Equally useful for tonal visualization. But the downside is that we now have SEVEN half steps per string! This is doable on violin where the distances are tiny. But it’s a doctor’s nightmare on the guitar.

P#4: Sorry for the nomenclature, but I don’t know what else to call it. This tuning has the intellectual appeal of dividing the octave perfectly across two strings. The Cloud has six half steps per string which is uncomfortable to be sure. And bar chords are quite poor because your “bar” ends up giving you the same note in many octaves. But for melodic soloing (which was always my main interest) the mathematical simplicity of splitting the octave in two was appealing. I also have to admit that I kind of liked the idea of promoting #4 to this important position as the bridge between two octaves. Mathematically correct and socially contrarian. What’s not to love? But alas, this tuning was horrible to play despite its many theoretical charms.

The Chapman stick obviously takes all of these considerations to another dimension, expanding our whole notion of string instruments. I’m not sure how it’s best to tune that thing. :slight_smile:

And the Chapman Stick has P5 (bass side only) on a 34" scale length! Fortunately hand movement is part of the playing style so the distance is less of an issue (you are not grasping the ‘neck’ and you use hand movement to provide some of the energy when striking the string). Distance is of course an issue if playing a chord on the P5 bass side, which influences voicings but that’s seen as a pro not a con as the convenient shapes tend to give more open voicing which is helpful especially at the low end of the range (while tuning up a new set of strings I got a lovely A0 on the lowest string, I was almost reluctant to tune it up to the correct C1 :smiley: ).

It’s said that if you have 5 Stickists in a room & ask what tunings they use, the total may well be more than 5 since some will have more than one instrument! :wink:
A few days ago I even found a youtube video of someone who had restrung a 10 string in all fourths right across with the normal low to high order reversed! It takes all sorts…

However the Stick is small beer compared to some instruments.This guy has instruments with up to 36 strings! Words fail me, except maybe gobsmacked?

Ah, that makes so much sense @DavidW. I hadn’t even thought about what a difference it makes to be hammering the notes like Stanley Jordan versus fretting them in the traditional way. So that explains why the huge distances on the Chapman Stick aren’t a problem.

Thanks for bringing this perspective into our group. Regardless of the comparative advantages or disadvantages of any particular instrument configuration, I find that the mere possibility of alternate tunings and non-traditional instruments is already very liberating. It frames our entire conversation in the proper context, reminding us that musical expression goes across all instruments. That alone is a wonderful antidote to the feeling that we have to compete with other famous musicians who play the same instrument we do.

I personally will probably always play the 6-string nylon guitar because I love it so much. At most, I could imagine playing a 7-string nylon guitar (also tuned in 4ths) someday. But even if my own preference is quite traditional, I like thinking of the guitar as just another object for producing sound, exactly equal to the Chapman Stick or any other instrument. Otherwise it’s so easy to feel crushed by the weight of your own instrument’s cultural legacy. Sometimes we just need to step back and lighten up, and the Chapman Stick seems like a wonderful invitation to do just that.