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.

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