Category Archives: Improvisation

The sun sets on another session…

This is a time of year I enjoy greatly – and not only because the opportunity to bolster one of Europe’s sun-drenched but struggling economies approaches. There are performances aplenty. In the secondary sector there was MGS Summer Concert – and then a smaller contingent of the Guitar Ensemble played at the MGS Prize Giving last night. It always amazes me how the smaller group (8 members) sounds louder than the full ensemble (20+) – there’s a psychology/physics PhD in there, I’m sure.

In the purely primary zone, there are two nights of Annie at Wallyford PS. My colleague, Ewan Armstong, is the MD for this and puts in the spade work over many weeks. I simply swan in with a bass guitar on the night(s) and join in. On a personal level, this is one of the year’s most enjoyable musical challenges. There is no written part. The trick is to watch what Ewan is playing and decide, on the hoof, the best thing to compliment it. While it’s important that young people grasp the value of rehearsal – of preparing the music as carefully as possible – I think it’s also important for those hoping to pursue the art, that they see other ways of operating – some of which are thrust upon us from time to time. The closing night is this evening. If it’s anything like the miraculous opening night then it will be great.

My final visit to Campie for this session ended with a concert by guitarists in P5-P7 for the P4s – from whose ranks next year’s guitarists will emerge.  I was really thrilled by this event. The pupils played excellently and we were able to squeeze in a few more courageous soloists than was the case during the school’s Musical Evening a couple of weeks earlier. Especially promising was the rapt attention of the P4 pupils and their intelligent questions and observations.

Transition is often where the fun is. Pupils from Campie PS and Wallyford PS joined the MGS Guitar Ensemble in the Summer Concert. Tomorrow, former pupils from Wallyford – currently at MGS –  will visit the school to join with departing P7s in a performance at the Leavers’ Assembly. I’m always touched by the affectionate regard in which the pupils hold their former school, and with the warm reception they receive from their former teachers. It really is the best way to end the year and helps keep a sense of the big picture.

Have an excellent summer, one and all!

Matthew Warnock

Most criticisms of social networking I come across share two common elements: the complainer often has less experience than those at whose ears the comments are aimed; the complaint features accusations of egotism.

I’d like to offer an alternative example – one of someone sharing their learning, free of charge.

Matthew Warnock is a man I have never met. However, he is a guitarist and teacher and posts useful material on his website, which he then mentions on Facebook – I came across this through a mutual friend – that’s the networking bit. This seemed sufficient grounds for making contact.

I was particularly impressed with recent posts on pentatonic scales (general Wikipedia explanation here). For some guitarists, there is only one pentatonic scale – usually used in blues. For many there are two – major and minor. Matthew’s recent posts featured the lesser known:

Dorian Pentatonic Scale

Lydian Pentatonic Scale

Lydian Dominant Pentatonic Scale

Mixolydian Pentatonic Scale

Mixolydian b13 Pentatonic Scale

Locrian Pentatonic Scale

Melodic Minor Pentatonic Scale

Each post features the scale, scale patterns and licks in the context of a chord sequence.

Thanks, Matthew.

Why not try them out?

Creativity

great article in The Guardian (Mon 2 Jan) featured artists from various disciplines offering tips on creativity, inspiration and realising ideas. Placed in the arts section, it would be silly to criticize the piece for lacking a wider field of professionals, but I did find myself wishing for contributions from those in other areas of expertise e.g. science, engineering, social policy, education. The wider the field, the more boldly common themes tend to stand out.

In this regard I have to say that I’ve always found it something of an irrelevance that, in school life, Music is grouped together with, say, Art or Drama. As far as academic side of Music goes, I feel it has most in common with Language(s) and then Maths. Actually, on this point, let me bore you with another possibly pedantic personal opinion: it is often claimed that Music and Maths are very closely related. I think this is an overstatement. Music and Arithmetic are closely intertwined but Calculus, Trigonometry, Algebra and Geometry rarely darken my door – unlike alliteration. Certainly as regards the honing and analysis of technique, then Music has as much in common with PE as any other subject – and let’s not forget teamwork!

Returning to the article, I was pleased to see that composer, Mark Anthony Turnage, scotched the idea of inspiration allowing us to avoid hard graft. Fortifying this take on the creative life, he cited various details of working method: routine; a quiet place to work; the difference that time of day can make. He opines that “the afternoon is the worst time for creativity.” It can feel like the worst time for learning and teaching. Many pupils (and possibly staff) seem to undergo a dip around 2.00-3.00 and perk up when within sight of the home straits. In the unlikely event that I am charged with redesigning the school day, I will opt for 7.00-2.00, freeing up the afternoon for siesta, meditation, reading or sport. Turnage also feels his critical eye/ear to be more lenient in the evening, often necessitating morning revision.

Susan Philipsz, has some very straightforward suggestions: “keep it simple” and “be audacious” and, in similar spirit to Turnage, “if you have a good idea, stick to it. Especially if realising the project is a long and demanding process, try to keep true to the spirit of the initial idea.”

Singer/song-writer, Martha Wainwright, confesses to a piecemeal approach: “I write in short spurts – for five, 10, 15 minutes – then I pace around the room, or go and get a snack.” Playwright, Polly Stenham, touches on the physical side, advising us to “go for a walk.” Author, Haruki Murakami (in another article) takes this much further. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing.”

Artist, Polly Morgan, stresses the fruitfulness of a cross-curricular approach: “Don’t restrict yourself to your own medium. It is just as possible to be inspired by a film-maker, fashion designer, writer or friend than another artist. Cross-pollination makes for an interesting outcome.” Harking back to my first paragraph, I would widen this field considerably. Morgan also seems willing to embrace the tough choices which many of us would prefer to avoid: “Don’t be afraid to scrap all your hard work and planning and do it differently at the last minute.” I have certainly found this approach indispensable upon arrival at gigs which differ widely from their description.

Director, Ian Rickson, encourages us to “embrace new challenges. When we’re reaching for things, we tend to be more creative.” This reminded me of an inspirational idea by Joe Zawinul, keyboard player and founder member of Weather Report (and incidentally one of the few who seemed able to write music which was happy but not inane). In his 7th decade, there was more chance than ever that his improvising would fall into favoured patterns. In a bid to stumble upon new sounds, he programmed one of his keyboards so that pitch ran in reverse order. Playing this, along with others formatted in the normal way, many novel ideas emerged which would not have occurred to a trained hand and ear.

Musician, Gus Garvey (Elbow), recommends the practice of bringing together two unrelated ideas. I recall coming across this in Edward de Bono‘s 1973 book, Po.

Perhaps my favourite sound bite from the piece comes from opera singer, Kate Royal who reminds us that, “art is everywhere.” Taking the word art as a synonym for inspirational practice then, with providers and consumers of public service having to produce more with less, this seems like as good a way to step into 2012 as I can imagine. Happy New Year!

You can access the full article here.

But let’s leave Joe Zawinul with the last word:[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/Ae0nwSv6cTU?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Morten Faerestrand

I was pleased to receive a Youtube friend request from a great jazz guitarist and teacher – Morten Faerestrand. In addition to great videos – nice sound good film quality – there is the option to sign up for TABS for each of the lessons – all of it FREE.

You can find Morten’s site here.

In the meantime, here are a couple of samples: [kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/7u3QL8RroO0?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/mkpY2WahsQ8?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Prosody Revisited

Tidying up at the end of a primary school day, I was delighted when two P5 girls helped out without being asked. For some reason, best known to themselves, they burst into an animated version of Two Little Dickie Birds. Then one suggested, “why don’t we play that song?” I replied,  “we could, but I’m wondering if it’s more of a poem than a song. If we took the words away, would there be any tune left for us to play?”  After a moment’s reflection, one said:

Da dada dada da,  dada dada da  -

Da da dada – ,  da da da -

Dada da dada – ,  dada da da -

Da da dada – ,  da da da  -

The inflections in the voice were identical to the version with words.

So, what is the prosodic equivalent of the popular line, “I’m a poet and didn’t know it?”

Your Brain on Improv

Many musicians are in awe of the ability to improvise in others and nervous at the prospect of being called upon to do it themselves. Many non-musicians find it bewildering that anyone can create on the hoof in solo or ensemble situations. Dr. Charles Limb, takes a look at the workings of the brain, comparing particularly memorised and improvised content in this TED video At the beginning of the talk, he stresses how he will be asking more questions than providing answers – the science is in its infancy, after all. But these are good questions:

  • What is creative genius?
  • Why does the brain seek creativity?
  • How do we acquire creativity?
  • What factors disrupt creativity?
  • Can creative behaviour be learned?

The title of the talk, Your Brain on Improv is, I feel certain, a nod to Daniel Levitin‘s great book, This is Your Brain on Music (look inside it here).

If you’ve ever wondered what jazzers are referring to by the expression playing outside, then pay particular attention to what Keith Jarret does at 2:12 in the video within the video. As you lead up to this moment, try to focus on the key – the centre of gravity of the piece – and see if the outside playing threatens it. Then imagine how he feels!

Showcase Rehearsal No. 3

Esteemed Pupils,

You may already have discovered that schools are to remain closed to pupils until Monday 6 December. Sadly, this means that our East Lothian Guitar Ensemble rehearsal, scheduled for Friday, will not be able to go ahead. However, rest assured that parts for our 3rd piece will be distributed to you on Tue 7th, Wed 8th & Thu 9th respectively. Play-along midi files for this mystery piece will be posted along with those already there for two pieces already underway.

The next scheduled Showcase rehearsal is Friday 21 Jan. See Dates For Your Diary for the complete list.

Thanks for your hard work and savoir faire, so far. Enjoy the snow while it lasts.

photo by Lesley Pearson

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain - a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nuvzMq0YZ3k?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.

International Guitar Night

As part of next weekend’s Edinburgh International Guitar Festival, there will be an International Guitar Night in Duddingston Kirk (map here). The concert will features solos and ensemble pieces by:

Pino Forastiere:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/qOgNfxURpzw?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Alexandre Gismonti:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/T1Z_bxJD4WE?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Brian Gore:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/flys8VqaszM?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Why not forward this poster to anyone you feel might enjoy this evening?

IGN poster