Sunday, December 29, 2013

Aleatoric exercise: Let's Deal!

In a previous post on exploring chance, we used dice to come up with some aleatoric ideas. In this post, let's talk about creating decks of cards.

For this activity, all you will need is blank note cards. I will use these to come up with chord progressions, but you can use them for melody, rhythm, or even form. A deck of cards can have an advantage over the dice because once you deal out your musical elements they are right in front off you to play with.                                                                                 
I wanted to work on voice leading and triads. I created a deck of 48 cards consisting of 12 major, minor, diminished and augmented triads. How I use it in my practice is to deal out a random set (anywhere from 2 to a dozen cards) and create a chance chord progression. I then explore ways I can connect these harmonies. This may also result in a composition, but could just be a practice exercise.

Let's deal!

My deal is as follows:

Once I dealt out my six triads, I need to explore them. Here I limit myself to standard closed voicings (I used the enharmonic equivalent of Ebdim and Gbm). I then voice each of the triads to create smooth voice leading. The basic rule is that no voice (especially the top voice) should move more than a minor third. Half steps and whole steps are preferred. Once you work through one set, the other sets are simply inversions of the first.

Each one of these creates a guide tone melody on top. Pay attention to those moments that stand out as a memorable melody.

If the aleatoric exercise ended there, that would be a useful exploration. This is a great way to learn about harmony and voice leading. If that is your goal, deal out another hand and explore. However, since I liked this progression, let's see if I can flesh out a tune.

First, after playing around with these triads I will choose from each set a triad that has a melody note that give me a pleasing guide tone line. This will form the basis of my main melody.

Now, I'm going to play. I am going to take this progression and work out ways to embellish the simple guide tone melody. Don't worry about key while you do this. That will be established more when we add bass notes later on. Right now, just create a melody that fits this progression. Stick to the basic guide tone line, BUT if you hear something that breaks it up, by all means explore. 

You can also change the harmonic rhythm at any time. If you want to stay with one chord longer or shorter please do so. You should spend a decent amount of time on this part of the process. You will want to make sure you are playing and singing WHILE you are composing. Don't just write it out on staff paper and hope it works. 

I recommend recording while you play around with the melody. That way if you stumble across something you like you can go back, listen to it and then write in on the staff. If you sing or play a melodic instrument, make sure you work on this at the piano (or record a chordal accompaniment). 

Here is what I came up with (pardon the rhythmic freedom in the following performances.):

Note I expand each chord to two bars each. I'm hearing this with a light bossa groove but that may change as I add more to the composition. Rhythmically, I will probably add the anticipations to beat 1 (on the + of 4) that you hear in the recording. I played with different rhythms for bar 6 as you can hear in the recording.

This melody cycles back nicely on the repeat. I think it makes for an interesting 12-bar A section of a tune that is not a blues. I like it.

Now it's time to add root motion. Now if you are writing in a style that harmonizes melodies with mostly triads you may not need to change much. However, I would like to thicken up these harmonies and add an interesting root motion. So essentially I will add a bass note below each triad. This may change the function of some of these chords and will definitely change the color.

Here I add the bass notes:

And here is the reharmonization (note that I took the liberty of making the f#m/B a B7sus4 (or B9sus4) even though an E natural is not in the original exercise). The final product of this 12 bar A Section:

In a future post I will show you how I developed the rest of the composition. In the meantime, write out a deck of cards and deal yourself some music!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Creative Scale Practice

Scales in 12 keys and all of their varieties (major, natural/melodic/harmonic minor) are a fundamental every musician must learn. Students learn scales but often don't understand why they are important. Here are some reasons you need to work on this fundamental technique:

  • to develop technique, speed and fluency
  • to understand keys, scale tones and their relationships
  • to develop accurate intonation
  • to have warm-up material
  • to learn to building blocks of composition and improvisation

Scales are often overlooked in practice and seen as boring. Often the argument against scales is that musical passages are rarely scalar. This is just not true. Yes, composed music rarely has a passage that just goes do-re-mi for two to three octaves. But you should think of the scale as musical DNA. In it lies a code to all music. By taking it apart and exploring those 7 notes in every possible permutation you will being to see scales in all types of music.

If the only way you ever practice a scale is from tonic to tonic, ascending a few octaves and descending, no wonder you're bored. That is just the tip of the musical iceberg.

Here are other ways you should begin to explore scales (I will use a Bb Major Scale for these examples):

Ascending/descending but also willingly switching directions at random times:

  • Start on the tonic. Ascend. At some point, change directions. Then, change again. Here you are practicing melodic contour. Take this exercise through the whole range of your instrument at different tempi. 
Ascending/descending while changing directions randomly

Through all intervals:
  • Ascending and descending in 2nds is only one tiny way to practice a scale. Run through each scale in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves. If you haven't ever done this you will need to think and work on it. But take a look at any piece of repertoire you are working on. These intervals are everywhere in addition to stepwise movement. Why not make it a part of your fundamentals practice?
  • There are three ways to do this:
    • play each interval ascending (low-high)
    • play each interval descending (high-low)
    • alternate between the two
Diatonic 3rds: alternating between ascending/descending
Diatonic 6ths: ascending (low-high)
  • Play each scale by arpeggiating the diatonic triads in first inversion. 
    • play each triad ascending (do mi sol/re fa la/mi sol ti...)
    • play each triad descending (sol mi do/la fa re/ ti sol mi...)
    • alternate between the two (do mi sol/la fa re/mi sol ti/do la fa...)
    • You can also try other inversions

Diatonic triads: ascending (do-mi-sol, re-fa-la, me-sol-ti...)
Diatonic triads: alternating between ascending/descending 
(do-mi-sol, la-fa-re, mi-sol-ti, do-la-fa)
Seventh chords:
  • Same as above but with seventh chords
Adding a leading tone below the interval, triad or seventh chord:
  • Same as the above but add the note that is a half step below the root of each interval,triad or seventh chord.
Leading tone added below each diatonic triad

"Super arpeggios"
  • This is a technique of taking a scale and playing it in constantly ascending or descending thirds (do mi sol ti re fa la do me sol...). You will notice that the whole scale is there. Just in a different order. There are two of these "super arpeggios" in any key. One starting on Do and one on Re. Practice both.
"Super Arpeggios" 
Adding chromaticism: 
  • Take a scale and add a chromatic passing tone between any whole step interval in the scale. (e.g. Do Re Mi Fa Sol Si La Ti Do). Jazz musicians often practice this technique by using what educators call a "bebop scale".
    Ascending scale with chromatic note added 
    between the 5th and 6th scale degree (Sol Si La)
    F "bebop" scale: note the notes of a F7 chord fall on the beat
    With all rhythmic note values:
    • With a steady pulse play all scales with half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, half note triplets, quarter note triplets, eighth note triplets, swing eighths.
    • Change these values in the middle of the scale (but maintain the pulse).
    • Create a regular rhythmic ostinato that you maintain throughout the scale practice.
    With combination of accents and articulation:
    • Accent every X number of notes. 
    • Create a rhythmic pattern using accents.
    • Play legato. Staccato. Slurred. Tongued. And any combination  (e.g. slur only between half steps. Play every third note staccato. etc.)
    Leave one or more notes out of the scale:
    • Replace one or more notes of the scale with a rest.
    • e.g. Do Re (rest) Fa Sol La (rest) Do
    • This one is harder than you would think! 
    Scale with Mi and Ti replaced with rests
    Mix and match the above! 
    • Take two of these ideas and mash them together.
    • Create your own ideas on how to play scales.

    Finally, create! Compose or improvise melodies using the above techniques.

    Hopefully this is more than enough to give you some ideas. Once you start playing with scales this way your eyes will open to just how much music can be created out of 7 simple notes.

    The important thing is to take each one of these and really play with it. Go slow. Don't take this fast until you feel confident at slower tempi. Speed is not the primary goal. Control, mastery, and exploration are of primary concern.

    Have fun! If it helps, here is a video where I demonstrate some of the above examples.

    Saturday, December 7, 2013

    Gesturing: A Creative Warm-up Routine

    There is an exercise in Betty Edward's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that has always stuck with me. It is called blind contour drawing. The basic idea is to look an object with a piece of paper and pencil in front of you. You are then instructed to draw that object without looking at your paper. At first it is an uneasy experience. You just want peek and see how it is coming along. This is not allowed until you are "finished". You can only keep your eyes on the object you are drawing.
    Blind Contour Drawing

    Of course, without looking at your lines you shouldn't expect a masterpiece. You shouldn't even expect it to look like the object you are drawing. The point of the exercise is the experience. The only thing you are able to do is look at the subject you are drawing and then feel the movement on the page. The point is to learn how to see better. The point is to learn how it feels to touch pencil to paper. Too many young artists spend the majority of their time looking at the paper and not enough time actually learning to see what you are drawing. This exercise encourages the artist to play. There is no final product. The now is all that matters.

    Gesture drawing (gesturing) becomes a similar useful tool for the artist to get into that zone, or that special creative state I discuss in the first post. In gesturing, the artist can look at their paper but must complete the drawing in a short amount of time (30 seconds to two minutes). The focus here is on capturing the essence of the subject with broad strokes, not the details. This is a common warmup exercise in a life drawing class.
    Gesture Drawing

    Without worrying about how the finished product will look, the artist learns to get lost in seeing. Is there a parallel exercise in music that could provide this function? A way to just focus your complete attention pure sound, and not worry about the final product. A way to not think about style, form, theory, or harmony on an intellectual level. A method to experience those musical elements just by playing with sound.

    I think most beginners experience this even before their first lesson. They take their instrument out of the case and just start to explore. It may honk, squeak, and create all sorts of dissonance. Their fingers explore the range and combination of the white and black keys. They discover what they can coax out of a set of open strings. It doesn't matter. They are having a blast exploring the sound spectrum. 

    How about this? Have you ever picked up an unfamiliar instrument and tried to play it? Our first inclination is not to master technique, develop a repertoire, or even play the right notes. I find I want to explore the sounds it can produce. I play with the instrument. I learn how changing my physiology also changes the sound. I have fun. There is no pressure to sound good. "Its not my instrument. I'm just messing around!"

    Here's my gesturing exercise for a performer. It is very open ended and you can add to it and alter it as needed. The goal is to warm up in a more creative fashion that will get you listening.
    • Sit with your instrument in a location where you can be uninterrupted for at least 10 minutes.
    • Close your eyes BEFORE you put your hands on the instrument.
    • Put your hands on the instrument.
    • Play the first note.
    • Listen.
    • Play a second note.
    • Listen. 
    • Keep your eyes closed.
    • Continue with the following notes.
    Start off with long note values. You should still play in time. Feel a pulse. Eventually shorten the note values. Within a few minutes you should be playing continuous eighth notes. For this exercise don't worry about rhythm or space. Just keep the flow going. Do not play anything familiar. This should be pure improvisation. No changes, key, or form. Just a steady pulse and the forward motion of notes. 

    You can and should explore the whole range of your axe or voice. But don't think of the names of the notes, arpeggios, scales or chords. Just play. At first you may keep the notes moving in a conjunct motion. Eventually, you should explore larger intervals. Harmonic players can work on adding chord with the notes. But there should be no set progressions. Just play.

    At some point you may also wish to add space, but I find that at the beginning this may defeat the purpose of the exercise. The space may give you too much time to intellectually "think" about what you want to play next.

    Jozefowicz's handscroll prints illustrate one way to visualize this exercise.
    Every instrument (except voice) is visual in some respect. At some point in the gesturing open your eyes. Use them to play melodies (but still listen!). What shapes can you create? Pretend you are drawing lines with a pencil; but instead of paper you are making gestures on a keyboard, fingerboard, keys, or even embouchure.

    You can also picture a staff in your head. Throughout the exercise, make these "lines" create interesting contours. For an even more "out there" idea, maybe look at an object and draw it with your instrument. Make the direction of the lines you play match the contours of the object.

    Joe Diorio
    This will seem strange, uncomfortable and silly for many. It may seem to be a waste of your practice time. Maybe it is. Just try it. Even if you don't think of yourself as an improvising musician I think it is a great way to "warmup". It is much more creative than merely playing ascending/descending scales (although this has value as well). It will get your chops going and get you focused and in a different place. A place more receptive to deep, active listening.

    I borrowed some of these ideas from the great jazz guitarist Joe Diorio. In his clinics he has suggested similar techniques. The goal is not to create a masterpiece. The goal is just to play with sound, pitches, shapes and to listen. For more on this, check out Joe's great video "Creative Jazz Guitar". This would be illuminating to not just guitar players but all musicians.

    The following video is a brief demonstration on how I use this gesturing concept. Keep in mind, the goal is not to create "great" music or even to worry about being musical. To goal is to listen carefully, keep the flow going, and to let the direction of the line guide you. In creating "real" music, I would never ignore space and play constant notes of the same value. However, this gesturing process is simply an exercise. For me it is a perfect combination of warm-up and meditation.

    Thursday, November 28, 2013

    Oblique Strategies

    Musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt produced their first set of Oblique Strategies in 1975. It was subtitled One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas and featured a deck of cards with a suggestion on each card. The cards can be used to inspire lateral thinking in any situation that requires problem solving. After a question is posed or problem encountered you simply draw a card and go. 

    Each card is open ended in its direction. Some are deliberately obscure (Water) while some are more direct (Don't be afraid of cliches). When drawing a card the authors encourage us to trust it "even if it's appropriateness is quite unclear".

    Some examples of the strategies:
    • Use an old idea.
    • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
    • Only one element of each kind.
    • What would your closest friend do?
    • What to increase? What to reduce?
    • Are there sections? Consider transitions.
    • Try faking it!
    • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
    • Ask your body.
    • Work at a different speed.
    I received the latest edition of these cards from a good friend for my birthday. They have been very enjoyable to work with and apply to situations. I often pull one out and use it as I explore a concept in improvisation or composition. Sometimes I will draw the card and use the idea when playing through a familiar tune or modal vamp. 

    Let me try some. To be consistent I'll play over the same vamp. It is a simple I-VI-ii-V progression with bass and drums at a medium swing groove. I did one take and played with each idea for a few minutes. Really though, I could explore these for a long time and in a variety of ways.

     My first draw.

    For this one, I decided to improvise lines that begin quite busy. Each bar is filled up. Then I begin to subtract notes upon each pass of the progression. It becomes more sparse as time goes on until I have one note per change. Usually improvised solos start sparse and become busier. This is the opposite and felt interesting.

    My second:

    Here I decided to comp. The first passes are very much "inside" the harmony. Then I step "outside" by using ambiguous quartal voicings that move all over the place. I really enjoy basking in the dissonance. However, the trick is to know when to resolve them and to do it with grace. 

    And the third:

    There a few licks that I have tried to avoid lately. In the past I found myself overusing these "sweep" arpeggios. It is a technique on the guitar that helps us get a little closer to what sax players can do. However, they are flashy and quite tempting to pull out. This card spoke to me and said to play these flashy lines with gusto. After playing, I realized that I need to spend more time on these. Not only to clean them up but to find more clever ways of using them. 

    Monday, November 18, 2013

    Creativity Killer: Anxiety and Stress

    The life of a performing musician is stressful. Why? One reason is time. Music is an art form whose canvas is temporal. It exists in a finite space. As a result, anything that goes wrong in that little window of time cannot be corrected. The flaw remains.

    I often envy some of the more "asychronous" artists such as painters, novelists, poets, sculptors. These artists create outside the boundaries of time. They can stretch their projects out for days or years. They can add or take away as needed until they have a finished project. There is much less urgency in these arts.

    I'm sure many still work with deadlines and as a result feel a bit of anxiety. But it isn't the same. A mistake to a painter may only cost some materials and the time already spent on the project. They can go back and make corrections as needed. Sometimes a mistake may even open up new options. However, an error in a musical or dance performance if not handled correctly could derail the whole experience. There is no going back and correcting anything. It has happened and will always exist.

    Stage fright is a very real phenomenon that every musician has experienced at least once in their life, usually at the beginning of their career. Sometimes the effects can be debilitating. No matter how much mastery was achieved in the practice room, when that adrenaline kicks in the novice performer stalls. Their body tenses. They forget to breathe. Mentally, they tell themselves, "Don't mess up!". Which, of course, results in another mistake. Which will snowball into more errors. They feel trapped, yet there is no place to go but forward in the performance.

    This performance anxiety can be debilitating and it affects some more than others. To some extent it is always present, even in the most seasoned performer. However, the masters know how to channel this energy into creating a positive performance. How can we get to that point?

    There are techniques one can use to help with this. The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green is often recommended as a manual for overcoming stress in performance. This principal bassist of the Cincinnati Symphony outlines a method for quieting that inner chatter that causes stage fright by defining two "selves". Quoting Green:
    "Self 1 is our interference. It contains our concepts about how things should be, our judgments and associations. It is particularly fond of the words 'should' and 'should not' and often sees things in terms of what 'could have been. Self 2 is the vast reservoir of potential within each one of us. It contains our natural talents and abilities, and is a virtually unlimited resource that we can tap and develop. Left to its own devices it performs with gracefulness and ease."
    Green's techniques are very helpful. The tricky part is practicing it. If you only perform intermittently, you will not be able to master these techniques. The more you perform, the more you will be able control the fears. It may even be the case that forcing yourself to perform a lot works as a kind of exposure therapy. In extreme cases, medicine like beta-blockers can assist if needed. However, none of these techniques will work one bit if the musician hasn't properly prepared. If you haven't put the time in the woodshed learning every nook and cranny of your art, no self-help book or psychopharmaceutical will help.

    The Brill Building
    However, there are some artists who work at their creative peak when they are stressed. In the 1960s, Aldon Music Publishing employed professional songwriters to work in the Brill Building in NYC. Their daily task was straightforward: write a hit pop song. Each morning songwriters like Carole King, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond and Burt Bacharach would clock in for a day of menial labor. Their task was to slave on the piano in their cubicle and write a tune. At the end of the work day they had to present their songs to the their boss, Donny Kirshner. Their paycheck depended on their creative output. To ramp up the anxiety, Kirshner would even pit the composers against each other. Despite this (or maybe because of it), many of the top hits of the early 1960s came out of this building.

    In improvised music like jazz, the seasoned musician will note that there can be no mistakes if you are listening and reacting carefully. Because even if you start a melody on an unintended note, the best jazz musicians craft the notes AFTER the mistake to make the mistake sound correct. Sometimes these "mistakes" wind up creating some very interesting lines. The rest of the ensemble may respond in kind. Beginning improvisers often hear their mistake and cringe, thus making more mistakes. Master improvisers hear the mistake, embrace it and make it their own.

    I leave you with this TED talk with Stefon Harris entitled "There are no Mistakes in Jazz". They start with a free jam that morphs into a tune. The talk begins at 6:30. He highlights the importance of not only embracing your mistakes but also the mistakes of your ensemble mates.

    Monday, November 11, 2013

    Aleatoric Exercise: Let's Roll!

    Karlheinz Stockhausen 
    presenting a graphical score
    Aleatoric (or "chance") music is any music where some of the performance or composition elements are left up to chance. 20th century classical composers such as Pierre Boulez,  Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage used a variety of techniques to incorporate randomness in their compositions. Boulez would compose a number of musical options that the musician could choose during a performance. This would create what Boulez called a "mobile form". Stockhausen would often use non-standard graphic notation which provides the performer with a general guide to interpret the music in her own manner. Thus the piece would change from performance to performance depending on the interpretation of the graphic. Cage composed his Music for Changes by consulting the I Ching (an ancient Chinese book that is used for divination) to determine duration and pitch as used in the composition.

    The I Ching: 64 hexagrams used by 
    composer John Cage 
    and jazz guitarist Pat Martino
    As jazz musicians explored "free" jazz and the avant-garde in the 1960s they would also add chance elements to their playing. In improvisation, musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra would make one or more elements of the performance "free". They may abandon a defined meter, tonality, harmonic progressions, or even the beat. These elements would be free to the improvisor and their ensemble to collectively determine during the performance. Jazz guitarist Pat Martino has also used the above mentioned I Ching to explore string combinations available on the guitar.

    An important aspect of all of the above examples is to recognize that the artist only uses chance for a part of the project. If the entire creation was left up to chance there would be no human input. It would not be music. However, using varying degrees of chance to lock in certain elements can get the musician to explore those other elements more freely (see the previous post on Limitation Exercises).

    Let's explore. Any element of music can be left up to chance. Melody, harmony, chord progression, rhythm, and form are all fair game. It is best to start with just one and explore that thoroughly. You can also explore this as composition or as a spontaneous improvisation.

    A set of polyhedral dice 
    (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20)
    The first thing we need is a random generator. I don't think you need anything as esoteric as the I Ching. A simple set of polyhedral dice that you would would find at a game or hobby shop (or Amazon) would work well. For our purposes the most useful would be the following dice: d4, d6 (which you probably have already), d8, and d12. You can actually create any sided dice by always rerolling certain numbers (a d6 can be a d5 by rerolling any 6s).

    I recommend real dice because nothing beats the feel of chance in your hands. But if you must, here is a useful "virtual dice" website.

    I hesitate to define this process too much. Part of the fun is the exploration and the freedom. If one of these ideas sounds intriguing go for it. Don't be afraid to change it as you go or to even abandon the chance technique. If you hear something in your ear so strongly, then by all means stop the chance and start creating.

    To get you going, I recommend you follow these steps:
    1. Choose a main element of composition or improvisation you would like to explore (harmony, melody, rhythm, form). 
    2. Define one aspect of that element (intervals, measures, chord tones, sections, chord quality, rhythm, meter, etc.)
    3. Match that aspect with the dice (d2/coin, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) that you feel is most appropriate. This is where you can be creative. Eventually you can combine these elements as well.
    Here are some ideas to get you going. Choose one of them that seems interesting. Or let them inspire you to create your own. However, DO NOT do all of them at once. You will be overwhelmed. Choose just one for now! Later on you may combine them. Let's roll!

    • Roll a dice to determine the interval from one pitch of a melody to the next. You can make the melody ascend/descend as needed to determine an appropriate contour. Use larger dice for a more disjunct melody. You can make the intervals major or minor depending on the key. 
      • Example: A roll of : 4, 2, 5 would yield a four-note motive. You can choose if you wish to ascend or descend with each interval.  Keeping it diatonic in the key of C Major and starting on Do could yield: C (up a 4th) F (down a 2nd) E (up a 5th) B.
      • Or you can ignore the key and use a coin or dice to determine if the interval is major/minor/augmented/diminished.
    • Roll a 12 sided dice to create a pseudo-"tone row". Designate 1 as a pitch with the other 11 forming the chromatic scale. You could ignore repeated notes or embrace them.
    • Choose a pitch collection that fits a particular dice. Some examples:
      • d4 - tones of a 7th chord; a tetrachord (like Do Re Me Fa or Fa So La Ti)
      • d6 - a hexatonic structure (like Do Re Mi So La Ti); a whole tone scale; a pentatonic scale (reroll 6s); a blues scale (1 b3, 4, b5, 5, b7)
      • d8 - any 7 note scale (major, harmonic/melodic minor, or their modes (reroll 8s), octatonic (diminished scale)
      • d12 - the chromatic scale
      • Then with that chosen pitch collection/dice, roll to compose a melody. Assign a value of the dice to each note. Roll until you feel you have a complete melody/phrase. Or you can even predetermine randomly how many rolls you will make. The choice of octave is up to you.
      • You can also any of the above to determine root motion (see harmony below).
    • You will need to create the rhythm and harmonic accompaniment of the "chance" melodies. This is how you will make this chance process musical and human. So once you have your notes, add rhythm and harmony to make it your own.
    • Roll a d4 to determine the quality of the next chord (major, minor, diminished, augmented).
    • Roll a d6, d8, or d12 to determine the root of the next chord.
    • Roll a d8 to determine the function (roman numeral of the next chord).
    • Roll a d12 to determine a single pitch that MUST be present in all of the chords you place in a piece (or a section of a piece). That tone may be in the basic triad or in one of the extensions (7th, 9th, 11th, 13th or altered sounds).
    • Roll any dice to choose a meter.
    • Roll a d4 to build an irregular compound meter. (e.g. You roll 3, 2, 2, 3. That could be a 10/8 time signature with the following pulse in bold (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10) or in konokol (ta-ki-ta, ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ki-ta)
    • Roll a d6 to determine the rhythmic value of the next note or group of notes. Assign a value to each number (e.g. 1 - whole, 2 - dotted half, 3 - half, 4 - quarter, 5 - eighth, 6 - sixteenth).
    • Roll a d20 to determine a length of a section (# of bars)
    • Roll a d4, d6, or d8 to determine the number of sections.

    Good luck. In future posts I will pick one of these and demonstrate the process. Keep in mind that these techniques do not have to be used to compose a whole piece. You may use it just to get going, or to get you out of a dead end. You also may not wish to create a whole piece with the technique. You may just wish to use this as an exploration tool. I explore that in future posts as well.

    Thursday, November 7, 2013

    Limitation Exercise: Playing on a Single String

    One of the best ways I have found to open up new doorways in composition, improvisation and general music exploration is creating a limitation exercise.

    The limitation exercise is a very powerful tool that at first seems counterintuitive. The basic idea is to limit your creative output to just one (or sometimes two) elements. You will put a restriction of some kind on your music. This may seem contrary to the whole creative process. Why would you restrict the options of your creative output? Isn't the whole point of divergent thinking to take many different ideas and make connections? If you exclude some ideas, how does that encourage creativity?

    I think when it come to making any art, including music, there are just TOO many options. When you have the option of exploring every aspect of harmony, melody, form, rhythm, lyrics, and tone color it becomes just too much. The creative mind shuts down. Even though you have all of those options available, without restrictions you just wind up returning to the tried and true. You stick with those musical elements in which you are most comfortable. The result winds up being the opposite of breaking new creative ground.

    I was first clued into this idea of limitations through clinics with John Abercrombie, the jazz guitarist. He describes a limitation exercise he took from Boston guru Mick Goodrick. Goodrick calls this exercise the science of the "unitar". Guitarists have a tendency to play very much in "position". That is their hand stays in one location and plays only the notes available on those six strings in the area of the neck. By observing Eastern musicians like sitar players, Goodrick noticed that they tend to move their hand up and down a single string to create their melodies. Goodrick then asks the questions what kind of music would you make if you had only one string: a "unitar". This exercise works for any string instrument: guitar, violin, bass, mandolin, etc.

    Mick Goodrick's "The Advancing Guitarist"

    The exercise is thus: pick one string. Spend about ten minutes exploring creating melodies on just the one string. He sets up additional limitations as well. Only stick to one mode or key (you may want to keep a drone going on a lower string or other tone source). No chromaticism, just those seven notes. Bend only notes that are a half step apart.  (Check out Mick's book "The Advancing Guitarist" for other great limitation exercises.)

    Seems pretty strict. What can a guitar player learn through this process? Well after about ten minutes, one finds themselves playing quite differently. In a sense, your playing is more melodic. Sometimes it sounds more like Eastern music. But for those ten minutes all the guitarist must focus on is ONE mode, ONE string and that is it. There is no worry about making changes, playing hot licks, or playing many notes.They can now explore other elements that are often neglected: dynamics, rhythmic motives, tone color, expression, articulation, and even silence.

    Just creating a limitation exercise won't necessarily result in a masterpiece. It is often just an exercise. A way of practice. A method to let the muse explore every nook and cranny of that particular limitation. As a result, these limitations can bring about more freedom.

    They next steps would be to:

    • try the other strings
    • try the other modes/keys
    • play it through a chord progression (or a tune)
    • add chromaticism
    • combine two strings (adjacent or non-adjacent)
    • use only one finger
    • use all four fingers
    • use both hands (tapping)
    • change tone color
    • come up with other additions on your own
    Each of these additions can be added gradually on an as needed basis. Avoid the temptation to go through them all at once. This can be a concept you come back to for years to come. Each time you want to explore a fresh way of playing, revisit this or any of the other limitations we will explore in the future blogs.

    Non-string players don't fret (ugh!). We will explore limitations that will work for you as well. For right now, try to think of a limitation you can apply to your instrument/voice. It doesn't have to be just a limitation on technique either. There are many musical limitations you can impose as well.

    Tuesday, November 5, 2013

    Side Projects and Hobbies

    This first technique has nothing to do with music. That's right. Well then how in the world will it enhance your musical creativity? We shall see.

    Austin Kleon's fifth bullet point in Steal Like an Artist is "side projects and hobbies are important". His thesis is that if your are a writer, you shouldn't only write. If you are a painter, you shouldn't only paint. And if you are a musician you shouldn't only play music.

    Occasionally, artists will devote time to a singular passion with great success. Andrés Segovia, the pioneering classical guitarist, was devoted to the cause of elevating his instrument to the status of the concert hall. I could be wrong but I don't think Segovia dabbled in many "side projects and hobbies". His singular devotion to the classical guitar was so great that it is said he even practiced for 3 hours on the morning when he died (age 94).

    Andres Segovia (1893-1987)
    Now Segovia achieved great success in making the guitar a serious musical instrument. Thanks to him, one could now study what was a simple folk instrument in the conservatory. However, some have criticized his overly dogmatic approach to musical interpretation on the instrument. He was very much steeped in the Romantic style and was not interested in what was going on in the modern music world. One of his most celebrated students, John Williams, recently criticized Segovia's teaching style, saying he stifled his students creativity and that the Segovia's only acceptable interpretation of the music was his own.

    Now if Segovia was involved with painting, dance, or poetry as a side project, would that have opened him up to new ideas and interpretations? Or would he have lost valuable focus time and would not have had the impact on the guitar world that he did? I don't know. There is a fear that some of us have about side projects and the road to mastery. The "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" can be a compliment or a slam depending on your perspective.  However, I am finding more artists who need to explore all of what life has to offer, beyond just their art. And those side projects can make you see your main project in a different light.

    By exploring other mediums, arts, philosophies, and hobbies you will discover interesting connections that encourage divergent thought. You will make connections that can enhance your own art. Occasionally, you may be able to fuse the two together in exciting ways.

    Of course, if you have the inclination to be a "dabbler" (as George Leonard describes in his book "Mastery") you want to tread carefully here. These side projects may have a tendency to become the dabbler's siren song. You will keep looking for the hot new hobby to explore and get all excited about, as opposed to mastering what you have already undertaken. There is a fine line here.

    Nonetheless, it is clear that many artists find refuge in their side projects. Here is a short list of famous musicians and their extended hobbies/interests:

    Joe Diorio, jazz guitarist - painting

    Steve Vai, rock guitarist - beekeeping
    David Bowie, rock musician - chess
    Mos Def (Yaslin Bey), hip hop artist - acting
    Neil Young, rock musician - model railroading
    Frank Sinatra, jazz crooner - crossword puzzles
    Johnny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead - chicken rearing
    Jim Martin, guitarist for Faith no More - pumpkin farming
    John Coltrane, jazz saxophone - inter-religious studies
    Don Glen Viot (Captain Beefheart), avant-garde rock muscian - painting
    Patti Smith, punk rock musician - poetry (good poetry, too!)

    And my favorite:

    Arnold Schoenberg, modern classical composer - playing ping-pong

    So think about the side project you would love to explore or return to and get to it. And you don't have to limit it to just one thing. There is a lot of knowledge out there to discover and a lot of things to create.

    And for a more open-ended perspective: the following is from an interview in Downbeat magazine where jazz pianist Thelonious Monk provides his take on hobbies:

    Interviewer: What other interests do you have?
    Monk: Life in general.
    Interviewer: What do you do about it?
    Monk: Keep breathing.

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