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.

    Melodic Contour Exercise

    An effective and quite creative method for composing/improvising strong melodies would be to connect it with the visual artist's techniq...