Saturday, July 12, 2014

Gesturing with Chords

In a previous post, I discussed the idea of using gesturing as a creative warm up technique. Gesturing is a technique that visual artists use to quickly capture an image. If you missed that original post you can check it out here.

In that post, we discussed using "gestures" to improvise and warm up with melodic lines. You can use the same technique for harmonic instruments. Gesturing with chords can be a really exciting experience. Not only can you warm up and learn to really hear the harmonies you are playing. You can also discover some exciting new progressions that you otherwise might have missed.

Any instrument that can play chords can use this technique. Of course your chord vocabulary will determine what you could do with this technique. Having a greater knowledge of harmony will give you more options. But that shouldn't exclude beginning musicians. Even musicians that play primarily melodic instruments should sit at the piano and try this exercise.

The process is pretty simple. Close your eyes and play a chord on your instrument. Any chord. Don't think of the name of the chord. Think of only two things: the sound of the chord and how it feels under your fingers.

Now with smooth voice leading you will go to your next chord. That chord doesn't have to be far away from the chord you just played. You may only wish to change one or two notes from the previous chord. This will ensure smooth voice leading. Now that you've played your second chord repeat the process and go into your third and fourth chords and so on.

As you start this exercise you may wish to use smaller chords to begin with. For example, you can even use simple double stops or triads. Later on you may wish to expand to larger chords or chords with more complicated extensions.

Pay careful attention to the top note of each voicing. Even though we're dealing with harmony that top note is actually creating a melody as well. Stay aware of it throughout the process. If as you're gesturing you feel like adding more melodic movement to your soprano line by all means do so.

If you have a strong background in harmony this can be both a blessing and a curse in this process. You have a great vocabulary at your disposal and have a good sense of harmonic direction. But you also know all the rules of Western harmony and how it has developed over the years. If you perform a roman numeral analysis while gesturing, it will defeat the point of the exercise. Just like we did with melody avoid the temptation to create a masterpiece. The point of gesturing is to just experiment with sound; in this case harmony. It is meant to be a very "right brain" activity and the more we can just focus on the sound the better. In the end, the sound will most likely follow some sort of harmonic rules and structure. Just don't let your knowledge of theory close your ears.

One thing you can do with this process is to record yourself.  While I said the goal was not to create a masterpiece, you may find when listening back to your recordings that there may be a little nugget of musical gold in your gesture improvisations. As you listen back to yourself, if there is one or two moments that stand out as memorable, then figure out what you played. Transcribe it. Notate the chord progression and soprano line you created. Now use your knowledge of music theory to figure out why this works. If you like it enough you may want to flesh it out into a fully formed composition .

You don't have to record this process. Just like with melodies, gesturing with harmonies can be a great warm up tool. It gets the fingers moving. It gets your ears focused. And gets you ready for your creative work.

(Joe Diorio, the great jazz guitarist and artist, was the musician that introduced me to these ideas! For that I am very grateful. Check out Joe's video for his take on this.) 

In the example below I demonstrate how I go about gesturing with chords. Now since I'm well versed in jazz harmony, my playing definitely uses a lot of chords more common in jazz playing. However you can use this process with simple triads . And once again if you play a melodic instrument, I encourage you to sit the piano and give this a shot.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Busy Season

The nearly three month hiatus from the blog has inspired this post.

We all have them. That period of time where we are constantly moving. Work, family, and other obligations seem to absorb a sequence of days, weeks or even months. Any creative projects you had planned are put off for a future date.

As a music teacher, April/May always seems to be that time. Right around the end of May, performances finally slow down. I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Excitement about future projects begins to creep in. But until then, my responsibilities keep me from exploring my own creative work.

Prior to this busy season, I started a new habit that lasted a few weeks (yes I know it is not really a "habit" then!) I knew I would be hitting a barren season where it would be hard to find time to work on a project. I needed to find a time in the day that was just mine. Time that couldn't be eaten up by school or family obligations. So I started to wake up two hours earlier.

The morning seemed to be the perfect time. No one was up to disturb me. I was fresh and alert. And I got a lot done. Those two hours seemed surprisingly long. As a bonus, when I started my teaching day I felt accomplished. I had already spent a good chunk of time working on my personal creative projects.

As mentioned above, this lasted for only a few weeks. Once I started getting home from evening obligations later and later, it became hard to set that alarm. Probably, rightfully so since sleep and rest is a prerequisite for creative work.

For me the hardest thing about the post busy season is getting back into that routine. There is a temptation to want to wait until the muse strikes, or until the kids are in bed, or until...

But I know that is not the way to do it. You just need to start writing, playing, practicing. Time to get back into things! I think I need to revisit my previous advice!

In the meantime, you can follow this blog on twitter. https://twitter.com/musicalmuseblog


Friday, April 4, 2014

Listening, Part 2



In part 1, I discussed the importance of focusing your listening time on just one album or musical work. Thoroughly absorbing one work through repeated active listening can be a rich experience. We also discussed the dilemma of today's world of accessible music. By having so much music available to us, we have a tendency just to skim the surface of our music collection.


The challenge? Pick one album or work and thoroughly absorb it. Schedule active listening sessions where you are devoted to exploring the record. Listen to it whenever you have a moment. Isolate individual tracks and spend time analyzing them. Make the recording a part of your musical identity.

I agreed to participate in the experiment. The album I chose: "Seven Days of Falling" (2003) by The Esbjörn Svensson Trio (or e.s.t.)


Unfortunately, I discovered this Swedish piano trio only in the last few years. The leader, Svensson died in a tragic diving accident in 2008 thus ending their musical output. This was a great loss to the music world as they were finding their own voice in the "jazz" tradition. They leave us with about 10 albums. I had no chance of seeing them live. However, the albums remain. There they explore the boundaries of the piano trio tradition by incorporating the lyricism of classic trios (Bill Evans) with adventurous explorations influenced by diverse sources (Bartok to Radiohead).  


Before this project, I listened to the above album in a scattered fashion. Maybe I heard it twice? The listening was sporadic. A track here. Part of the album there. Maybe once, I actually sat down and focused on a larger chunk of it. And this is an album I was really excited about! 


Now, I have scheduled about 5 active listening sessions where I went straight through the album as outlined in the previous post. When I say scheduled, I actually mean that. With everything going on in life that is scheduled (family, teaching, rehearsals, personal practice), I knew that this listening time wouldn't just fall out of the sky. I picked one hour each week to sit and just listen. Sometimes it was by waking up early. Sometimes it was in the evening or weekends. But for me it had to be a dedicated time. 

This is a rich experience. Each repeated listening was more exciting, revealing new elements. I highly recommend this "limitation" activity. If you haven't done it, stop and look through your collection and pick something you have been meaning to explore and schedule some time to dive into it. 


But in this post I want to discuss the benefits of what I lamented about in part 1: the availability of LOTS of music. Can this be a good thing? Can we expand our listening to a variety of artists/genres in a conscientious/intelligent fashion?  Can we explore outside of our listening "comfort" zone?


We all have a comfort zone. In general, we enjoy experiencing things that we are familiar with. When we consuming a piece of art, we want it to fit neatly in some sort of box. We love to label and classify things in genres. Or identify them as "good" or "bad". Or "my music" and "not my music". There was a Genesis song from the 70s with the paradoxical chorus "I Know What I Like (And I Like What I Know)" which describes this phenomenon to a T.


To some extent, this will always exist. We all have our preferences due to our upbringing and exposure to various styles. However, if you are listening to and identifying with only the same music that was "your music" 20 years ago, you aren't developing the appreciation that is required in the 21st century. The world is too interconnected and diverse to ignore:

  • the influence and variety of popular music
  • the tradition of classical Western "art" music
  • world music traditions
  • the wide variety of solo and ensemble types
  • improvisational musics from jazz to flamenco
  • technology's influence on musical genres
  • experimental music 
  • and even more
Each one of the above can be shattered into a million pieces. There are countless artists, masterworks, live footage, scores, or each of the above that we can explore. And once again, it is all mostly available in a few clicks. 

Still overwhelming, right? Nonetheless, it is out there and the most creative music that is being produced is drawing from diverse influences. The jazz tradition is a great example of this. For awhile in the 70s, the word "fusion" meant only combining elements of "rock" with "jazz". Now, artists are fusing the jazz tradition with many diverse styles in interesting ways. Jazz with country music (Bill Frisell). Jazz with hip hop/R&B (Robert Glasper). Jazz with progressive rock (The Bad Plus).  

It can be subtle or overt, but contemporary musicians need to come to grips with ways to develop the language. And for any art form that has already largely been defined, the next step is to draw upon diverse influences. 

My challenge: pick one genre/style/artist/region of the world whose music you are not familiar with. You can step outside your comfort zone a little bit! Spend some time exploring what makes this music tick. Explore the history, development and current state of the art form. Don't immediately discount something because it is unfamiliar. Although, if you are having trouble getting into it, go to a different area. You can't force yourself to "like" something. However, maybe you will come back to it later and find something valuable in it.

Once you find something appealing, spend some time with it. Avoid the temptation to explore ALL that is out there. That won't happen. So once you have discovered something new, try to schedule an active listening session that we discuss in Part 1. 

The more you know, the more you will "like what you know". 


Friday, March 14, 2014

Focus, Drive and Coltrane




John Coltrane was intense. 

There have been many accounts of this great saxophonist's singular purpose and drive. Those who observed him practicing have said it is unlike anything they have every seen. I remember Denis Diblasio sharing a story about Coltrane's extended sessions blowing in the mechanical room of a venue he was performing in. Despite the gig every night, he was still exploring up to 12 hours at a time. It was a wild sight.


Anyone who saw Coltrane or listened to his recordings from the late 1950s to 1960s knows that this man was reaching for something. And he had the focus and attention to someday grab it.
Now Coltrane, like many jazz musicians of that era, struggled with drug use in his past (particularly heroin). Interestingly, once he kicked the habit, he entered his most exciting, creative period of his career.  He was exploring new harmonic progressions (Giant Steps, 1960). He was extending the modal vocabulary defined by Miles and Shorter (My Favorite Things, 1961). And he was reaching to experience the free-est of the "free" jazz (Ascension, 1966). All while sober.




How was he able to focus this intensely? How did he keep his mind from wandering? How did he keep himself from being interrupted in the middle of the creative explorations? Was he ever distracted to just go watch some TV? These are questions many people ask about Coltrane's practice ethic. 


Coltrane attributed his work to forces beyond himself. He was a very spiritual person (he carried with him a variety of religious texts) and said his music came from a higher power. I think Coltrane tapped into that same power that  Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes as "flow". In positive psychology, flow is "mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity". That seems to describe Coltrane to a T.


From sax player Mel Martin:


In a private interview, John Coltrane spoke of a higher power. He felt that there were forces beyond himself that were driving his music to higher planes of consciousness. He certainly was on to something because he developed in a way that has never been seen before or since. This, however, never stopped him from practicing and developing his skills to the utmost. Jimmy Heath called him the greatest "practicer" that ever lived and, indeed, I witnessed him with his Quartet in the 'sixties where he would solo at great length and then go into the dressing room and keep playing while McCoy Tyner and the others soloed. This phenomenon was observed by many and led to a kind of blind imitation of both his style and approach. It is not possible to duplicate the spirituality that drove John Coltrane. It certainly is possible to be inspired by the man and his music and many were. But the important thing is for every artist to follow their own muse. Music is many things to many people. It can be a philosophy, a style, a way of life. Music, like all art, is never merely technical.



So what can we learn from Trane and adopt into our own creative practice? After all, most of us will not ever be able to devote the length of time to our craft as described in the above encounters with Coltrane. However, I think we can all strive to emulate that intensity in the time we do have. If you have half an hour for a creative project, milk that 30 minutes for all it is worth. Instead of only giving part of your attention, try to focus on your output with the same simmering intensity that you see when Coltrane plays.

I leave with you a video from 1963 of Coltrane's "Alabama". It is a haunting ballad written a mere few days after a church bombing enacted by a chapter of the Klan killed four children in Birmingham. While Coltrane is not playing as fast and frenetic as he does in his more exuberant explorations, I think this clip illustrates his focus and intensity in a unique way. Just watch his presence throughout the clip. Many describe his reverence in playing as a musical prayer. To me, it is the perfect portrait of man in the deepest state of concentration and flow.









Sunday, March 2, 2014

Review: Victor Wooten's "Groove Workshop"


Once in a while I would like to showcase books/videos/podcasts that I have found inspirational and useful. Today, let's check out a DVD by the bassist Victor Wooten.


A few years ago, I read Victor Wooten's "The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music". It is a book filled with some stellar musical concepts. However, I think some people have trouble getting into this book for two reasons. One is the phrase "spiritual search". Depending on your cosmological perspective, this could be either welcoming or off-putting. The second is more of a barrier. It is presented in a fiction format. It stars a guru like figure named Michael who imparts his musical wisdom in almost a Carlos Castaneda fashion. Although I found the musical ideas great, I often wished it was more of a proper non-fiction book. But I give Victor credit in finding a creative way to publish a method book.

Wooten's "Groove Workshop" cuts to the chase and features Victor running a clinic with his band mate Anthony Wellington (it's funny when a bass player needs a bass player in his band!). In the video, Wooten imparts the same wisdom from "The Music Lesson" but in a more practical hands on way with a small class of bass students.


Now I want to say this off the bat. This is not just for bass players. It is not just for improvising musicians. EVERY musician would benefit from the ideas in this film. Even though the bass is Victor's vehicle, 95% of this 5 hour/2 DVD set is about music, pure and simple. He presents concepts that have not been explored elsewhere. I don't know why they haven't been explored, because they are paramount to all music creation and experience. (There are a few "bass geek" moments; like when the students are dying to know how Victor does his "double thumbing technique". But these instances make up a minority of the DVD.)


The basic premise is of Wooten's clinic is this:



  • What are the elements of music? 
  • What elements do we normally focus on in our practice?
  • What elements are we ignoring?
Victor quizzes the groups as to what makes up music. They flesh out a list of the following:
  1. Notes
  2. Rhythm
  3. Space
  4. Dynamics
  5. Articulation
  6. Technique
  7. Tone
  8. Listening 
  9. Emotion 
  10. Phrasing
Now, he asks the group an important question. Which of these elements do you focus on? Which are you practicing? Which element have you been taught the most in music lessons/classes? 

Number one. Notes. That is the overwhelming answer. Victor's premise is that it is easy to think and talk about notes. Keep in mind the notes category includes: pitches, chords, intervals, progressions, scales, modes. All of these involve "notes". 

Notes are important of course. But as Wooten demonstrates throughout the video, they are only part of the story. For some reason, the other 9 elements the make music come alive are often glossed over. We are just worried about playing, improvising, or composing with just the "right" notes. But what makes music come to life are ALL of these elements in consort. For some reason, the other ones are often overlooked (or at least not given the attention that we have given "notes".)

Now more mature musicians will recognize how all of the above are equally important. And a good music educator will teach ALL of these elements (And they do so even if they don't use the word "groove". Well played Bach has a "groove"!). 

But since the other nine elements tend to be a little more "abstract" they can be overlooked in favor of teaching the more logical side to "notes" (harmony, scales, etc.) Wooten has us explore ALL of these elements. In each chapter, Wooten explores these other elements in depth. He gives some very creative exercises to isolate and explore these elements. Once, again any musician would benefit.

As an aside, I am very impressed with Wooten as a teacher. Music educators need to check this video out just to observe his enthusiasm and mannerisms. He has a class of bass players of varying ability levels who he has never met before. Yet he has an impressive ability to coax musical results from each students regardless of their level. His positive nature is infectious. You can't help but just feel good listening to this man talk about music.

Here is the official preview video. It is sort of a good introduction, but it focuses a bit on Victor's chops (which are top-notch of course). There is a lot more to the 5 hour DVD that would appeal to every musician.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Alvin Lucier

I would like to occasionally highlight a composer or performer that I think breaks creative ground. So let's start an "Artist Spotlight" series. I will explore the creative process and output of household names as well as more obscure artists. All genres are up for exploration. If you have any artist recommendations, feel free to suggest some in the comments below (or better yet, contribute a guest post!)


Lucier plugs in



Let's begin with the work of modern composer and tinkerer, Mr. Alvin Lucier (1931).

Lucier's compositions dwell in that twilight area between art and science. I first encountered his work referenced in a psychology of music textbook. His experimental sound installations were cited as examples of a variety acoustic and psychological phenomenon. His work poses many questions. How do we perceive sound? What are ways to manipulate the basic properties of the sound? What are the variety of ways we can manipulate it with technology? Can the brain actually play music? The 20th century had created an explosion of new methods for creating sounds. Composers don't often consider the fields of neuroscience and psychoacoustics when working. Lucier not only considers these fields, he makes them paramount.


Let's highlight his important works. Just a warning before we continue. Lucier is definitely a modern composer bordering on the side of the avant-garde. As you explore the pieces in the post, you may even wonder if what he creates is actually "music". That's fine and we could debate that. But what strikes me about his work is how each piece was created out of a series of "what if" questions (see the previous post). I may not want to necessarily create music that sounds like Lucier's compositions. But I do want to embrace the creative wonder that was the catalyst in bring these experiments to life.


Music for Solo Performer (1965)


 This was the first piece I discovered of Lucier's. I find it fascinating. The casual audience member would probably think they walked into a mad scientist's laboratory. Lucier is seated. For the first few minutes of the performance (which get tedious, feel free to jump ahead in the video), an assistant attaches electrodes to the performer's scalp. These are wired to an EEG (electroencephalography) machine. This machine is used by neuroscientists to pick up electric signals emitted by the brain. These signals vary depending on the specific brain wave states you are experiencing. Human beings always have a combination of brainwaves in our neurology. Delta and theta waves are the lower frequency brainwave commonly found while sleeping or in a drowsy state. Beta and gamma waves are the higher frequencies found when we are cognitively active. The alpha state is often found while relaxing or in a meditative state (note that when musicians enter a state of "flow" they are often in this alpha state). It is this alpha wave that Lucier uses in this composition.After the EEG picks up the alpha brainwaves, Lucier processes that signal by using it to control various percussion instruments on the stage. The strength of his meditative alpha state affect the movements of the mallets mechanized to strike timpani and other assorted instruments. Lucier is able to actually create music with his mind!



I am Sitting in a Room (1969)


This is another one of Lucier's well known works. In this one, the performer records a simple statement into a tape recorder: “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…” After this statement, Lucier plays back the recording. This playback is then recorded again. Then the rerecorded statement is played back and recorded again. This goes on for 20 minutes. Try to guess what happens? Now watch the performance (feel free to jump ahead to hear the final result).

Pretty interesting, right? I didn't expect that when I first saw this. Lucier's goal in this performance was to isolate the "resonant frequencies" of the room the piece is performed in. The size, shape and reflection of the surfaces in a room have an effect on these frequencies. By the last re-recording of the statement we are left with nothing but a very interesting set of pitches and overtones. This brings to fruition the tail end of his statement: “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” Wild stuff...


Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977)


The final work further illustrates Lucier's fascination with acoustics. In this piece, he takes a thick piece of piano wire and sets it in motion with magnets and an amplified oscillator. This produces a set of fascinating overtones that constantly change. In his own words: "Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed as follows: the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator is connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddles the wire at one end. Wooden bridges are inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones are imbedded, routed to the stereo sound system. The microphones pick up the vibrations that the wire imparts to the bridges and are sent through the playback system. By varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, a rich variety of slides, frequency shifts, audible beats and other sonic phenomena may be produced."



Interesting music. Perhaps not something you will rush to put on your Ipod, but hopefully something that gets you thinking a little bit about sound and its role in the creative process.


Friday, February 7, 2014

Mastery, Grit, and 10,000 Hours

Novelist Stephen King
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” 
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft


Another Mr. King quote! King's novels are fine, but I sure do love his quotes! I find them inspiring and with a few tweaks can be very applicable to the musical muse. Allow me to replace a few words...


“If you want to be a composer/musician/improviser, you must do two things above all others: listen a lot and compose/play/improvise a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” 

- My variant of Stephen King's quote 

That's basically it. I could end this post here. Mr. King has laid out a simple formula for mastery that cannot be denied. Listen and create. Repeat.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 hour" rule in his 2008 book Outliers. The summation of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to develop mastery. Gladwell cites cases from the Beatles cutting their teeth by playing cover songs in Hamburg dives to Bill Gates who had access to a computer in 1968 when they weren't as common as they were today. 

An important aspect of this 10,000 hours is the idea of mastering what has already been created in your art form. The Beatles spent their time in Hamburg not writing original "creative" works. They covered American rock and roll songs. The U.S. troops station there demanded the music of Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Chuck Berry. This forced the Fab Four to develop a solid vocabulary of rock and roll. It taught them to groove. It taught them stage presence. It taught them about the art of songcraft. By the time they penned their first number one hit in England ("Please Please Me") they have logged in 10,000 hours of mastering the art of performing and writing a hit song.

This "10,000 rule" is based on the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson. It has its critics who feel this rule has been misused as it has become quoted in many pop-psychology articles and blogs. Merely putting in time won't make one a master the critics argue. Even Ericsson has said, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” 

So that seems to be an important point. Practice involves repetition AND correction. There needs to be a high level of focus and determination to make those corrections. Cognitive psychologists have labeled this trait as "grit".  Daniel Coleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence explores this idea of grit as being a crucial pairing in making the "10,000 hour" rule work. Without getting your hands dirty in your practice and putting in some serious, focused labor the bulk of those 10,000 hours can be wasted time. (I just finished this book and highly recommend it. This combined with Robert Greene's Mastery takes off where Gladwell left us.)
Everyone can be creative. It seems to be a trite statement but its true. On some level, everyone has the ability to be inspired. Even the beginner musician can experience the thrill of exploration that even the greatest musical innovators experience. It would be very frustrating if you had to lock in 10,000 hours BEFORE you could create. 

However, you must know that these early creative attempts will not be original. They won't be masterpieces. They will probably not even be good. At least not without developing a solid foundation of skills and knowledge. It is impossible to create a truly unique, quality piece of work until you have created a LOT of derivative works. 


Students with a creative urge are often frustrated by this. They have a strong desire to create something groundbreaking but they haven't yet mastered the basics. Without a command of what has already been created in their field, that won't know how to be original. What rules should you break? What is the basic vocabulary of style? What elements of preexisting works can be borrowed and combined to create new, original works?

A solid creative foundation needs:
  • A command of musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, timbre)
  • A deep knowledge of style and genre (not all styles and genres, but at least the ones in your purview)
  • The study of repertoire in that genre from the earliest days to the present
  • An apprenticeship of two types. A formal student-teacher relationship AND the tutelage of the great artists in the field through recordings and live performances. 
  • A venue. The student needs an outlet to showcase the mastery of the above.
 In addition, you need to have a desire to explore. "What if?" should be a regular part of this stage. 
  • "What if I harmonize this melody in fourths?"
  • "What if I play this tune in 7?"
  • "What if I add more dissonance? More consonance?"
  • "What if I add more space?"
  • "What if I ..."
With each new question you will be creating something new. Evaluate the new product. If it is good, go on from there asking a new "what if" question. If it doesn't work out, ask a different question.

So wherever you are at in laying your foundation, ask these questions. Focus and develop your inner grit. And start clocking in some of those 10,000 hours!