Guts, Tone and Moxie – Bill McBirnie on The Technique and Theory of Improvisation

Bill McBirnie feat c Ottowa Citizen

Flute player Bill McBirnie says he took everything he knows about being a musician and broke it down to the basics in his new book The Technique and Theory of Improvisation: A practical guide for flutists, doublers, and other instrumentalists. Just released in November 2019, it’s accessible, honest and conversational, covering topics like how to identify and stay in lockstep with the rhythm of a piece; the best use for adornments like vibrato when clarity and strength matter more; and the utter importance of studying what he calls the “folkloric idiom” in helping musicians deconstruct a piece to its basic elements and building up one’s improv chops from there.

Juicier yet are McBirnie’s little wisdom-pearls in a section called “Other Important Matters” which covers the fun stuff like not worrying about the notes you miss when playing along with recordings (“…absolute precision is not necessary…if you can imitate some of the shapes and contours…[or] shadings and nuances then you will be making good progress”) and how practicing with other genres like soul, blues and R&B will help make you a better improviser because of the call-and-response elements and the “short, pithy melodic fragments” they’re known for.  

McBirnie’s lifelong journey as a flutist shows an incredible range (aptly, his handle is, where he is a master of funking out to Latin beats but can just as easily kill it on some bluesy jazz. His strongest attributes might just be the total immersion into his craft and unrestrained joy he projects with his music.

Why were you drawn to the flute?

Like most, I started out on the piano, but I didn’t like it at all, and I think it was because the teacher wasn’t very good. In any case, I simply wouldn’t practice because I saw no point to it and soon gave up.

But I really liked music, so I wasn’t entirely happy with my decision. I then heard Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra” and zeroed in on the sound of the flute. I asked my parents if I could have one and, strangely enough, when my parents bought me a cheap flute, they couldn’t stop me from practicing on it, even though I had (yet again) a rather poor teacher to start with. 

What prompted you to write this book?

I was encouraged to get a post-graduate degree in music in the past few years. But this does not interest me, because it would take a lot of effort and time, and I would likely have to write on some obscure topic that no one would care about, including me!

I felt that I would do far better spending my time writing about something I know, understand, and teach; and to share that with others who might take an interest; and whom I might be able to help along their way.

What was it like to work with Library and Archives in Canada and how did they come to publish this?

Actually, Library and Archives Canada merely issued the ISBN number. The Technique and Theory of Improvisation is self-published.

As a first-time author, what were the most surprising things you learned from the process?

This is my first book…and it will likely my last! I say that because I managed to put just about everything I know into those 150 pages. 

Sir James Galway in his foreword to the book said I should have written the book 15 years ago when he first heard me play. However, from my standpoint, it’s just as well that I waited because, in that time, I have done a lot more playing, recording, and writing as a columnist for the Canadian Musician magazine. But more importantly, because I have done a lot of teaching which allowed me to understand what students struggle with, how to communicate with them effectively, and how to enable them to improve.

In terms of what I actually learned in writing and publishing the book, well, although I have produced several high-quality and critically acclaimed recordings under my own name (and I understand that process intimately, as an indie musician), I knew absolutely nothing about publishing a book. So I had to learn that process, from beginning to end. 

At the beginning, I thought I might need a lot of guidance and support. However, I dealt with each step in the process as it came along and, in the end, I did everything myself, single-handedly. All I really needed to do was to buy WORD software for my iMac and to obtain a license from ProWritingAid to assist me with the editing. 

The main thing I learned—and it may sound a little silly—was how to edit my own writing. And, in the final stage, I received some assistance from my wife, Svetlana (who is Russian) with editing. Ostensibly, she had a couple of strikes against her because (1) she doesn’t know anything about the technique or the theory of improvisation, and (2) English is her second language. But she did a FANTASTIC job helping me edit the book! 

And speaking of Sir Galway, what is your favorite quote from his foreword?

The very first sentence which is, “When I first heard Bill play some 15 years ago, I was truly impressed with his work, because I recognized I was listening to flute playing on another level altogether.” 

What is the key to setting out music theory on paper, rather than in a live tutoring session?

The book is actually broken down into two parts: technique and theory.

Setting out theory is not that difficult because there is a clear structure and logic to it (though I take a modal or scalar approach, even with respect to the harmony).

Communicating technique is a different matter. I tried to make it clear what the player must do in order to succeed on that dimension. Ultimately, technique requires a lot of intuitive understanding, and really comes from listening to—and imitating—a lot of great players.

The overall structure of the book is essentially this:

Part I – The Technique – Articulation, Vibrato and Breathing

Part II – The Theory – Rhythm, Melody and Harmony

Part III – Integrating Technique with Theory

Part IV – Other Important Matters

Part V – Closing Summary

First Appendix – Suggested Listening

If you had to distill the book into a sentence, what would you say is the most important thing a flute player needs to know?

This may sound silly, but it’s true, for both classical and non-classical players…Don’t use a lot of vibrato!

What is the jazz scene like in Toronto?

It is a very difficult scene. Both live music and recording situations have collapsed significantly over the course of the last 15-20 years. And most gigs pay no more now than they did back then (and often less!). That is not a happy situation, but it is the reality.

Fortunately, I do okay. However, truth be told, playing professionally provides me with, at best, a partial living. What tends to make it worthwhile is the extraordinary caliber of musicians I get to work with here in Toronto.

I have to say that I am very happy with every single gig I do, and every once in a while, one of those gigs actually pays well.

How has the flute’s role in jazz changed or expanded?

I really don’t think in those terms. I tend to see it very plainly. Either the instrument is played well or it isn’t. Most often, it’s not.

I take the flute seriously, and so I have chosen not to double on any of the other reeds. I had a lot of classical background, once upon a time, and that enabled me to develop a strong technique and a good sound. 

In my twenties, I decided to learn how to improvise which was a major change for me musically, in terms of both technique and theory. I didn’t really care about the context or the idiom, as long as I could get away from the page.

I started out learning bebop and swing, because that’s what everyone was doing in terms of improvising at the time. Of course, I have had to learn other idioms along the way. So now I play Latin, pop, R&B, free, whatever comes along.

The real question regarding how the role of the flute in jazz has changed or evolved (at least for me) is, “What do I want to play?” And the answer to that question is very simple. “Anything…as long as I can improvise!”

Talk about the highlights of your work as performer and sideman: your favorite performances or collaborations.

My recordings (eight of them to date) always represent highlights in my career, because they crystallize destinations along my musical journey. And I have been very pleased with each and every one of them, and so have critics and reviewers.

It’s difficult to pick just a few other highlights, because I have had the opportunity to work with so many great players and singers and I wouldn’t want to risk leaving anyone out!

However, perhaps the most obvious milestone would be when Sir James Galway asked me to perform with him here in Toronto for the Opening Season Gala Concert at Koerner Hall in 2014. He had not performed in Toronto in probably a couple of decades. So when I learned that he was coming to town, I ordered tickets for my wife and me, right away, because as I said to her, “This will sell out in no time.” I was utterly shocked when Sir James called me about a month and a half before the concert and asked me to play with him. I immediately told him that Svet and I already had our tickets, so we would likely be there anyway!

How would you characterize your sound and style?

I am essentially orthodox in my approach. And the listener is important to me. I want the audience to relate to what I am playing and to feel included in that process. I learned this basic principle from old players like Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and Errol Garner. 

My biggest influences are players like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. But I also listen to a lot of soul and R&B (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Etta James and James Brown), and they have also had a strong influence on how I play.

All of these players, and many more as well, have had an effect on me, and how I approach music.

Do you have a marketing strategy for this book?

Ultimately, the book is for a rather limited market segment. Making it available is the essence of my “marketing strategy.” 

I have about 4,000 people world-wide in my address book whom I make announcements to regarding things like this. I also have 5,000 friends on Facebook (which is the maximum).

This launch has gone amazingly well! I have been genuinely astonished at how people have responded to this book.

The great thing is that the book doesn’t have a shelf life. I am really hoping that it becomes better known over time, and that it will be sought out by people well beyond my own circle, because although there is a picture of a flute on the cover, it’s really about improvisation in its broadest sense, and it was written for improvisors in general.

What are you working on now?

I’m simply practicing and preparing material for my next gigs.

Other comments?

Thanks so much for all the questions, Debbie!

For more information visit

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Bill McBirnie
(c) Debbie Burke 2019

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