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.

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