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Posts tagged ‘improvising’

Stepping into the shed

This month I’m taking a course with violinist Zach Brock called ‘In the shed with Zach Brock, Structuring Practice for Spontaneous Performance’. I first met Zach when were were both students at Northwestern University and I still have a cassette tape he gave me of the Turtle Island String Quartet. (that’s a link to them playing Night in Tunisia, have a listen) He said, hey these guys are cool. They are indeed.

My musical training started with dots on the page, and has moved from all dots to far fewer dots as time goes by. I don’t mean that I play fewer notes, but that the quest for expression and communication has taken me off the page and more and more into the realm of plasticity and personal control over the different components of expression under my fingers. As a classical player, there is endless scope for expression with tone quality, colour, nuance of tempo, connection between the notes, vibrato, and dynamics. I am sure you could add to this list. However, in classical music the notes are one parameter of the music that is relatively fixed.

I have become more and more interested in how the mind maps without the dots in front of you. We each have different minds. The possibilities for both studying the brain and music, and implications for life and health are staggering. Below is just one diversion to show just how intense and diverse the research and the brain can be. I would LOVE to do something with a cello in an MRI scanner. This is the first experiment of its type with a cello:

Learning theory and self-regulation, metacognition, and skill acquisition all interest me very much (along with self-efficacy of course!). I have traced my own learning and explored the differences (in me) when I learn classical music and when I learn non-classical musics. For example, I learn singing without dots. No dots at all – just listening, and that means the mental conception of the music and all its components start from a different place inside, a different vantage point somewhere in the brain. I don’t quite have the words to explain it, but it’s a bit like following a map and then later learning your route as opposed to actively finding your way through something and perhaps the map emerges, but it might be made of different clues beside the road names.

Up to now I have pretty much done dots on the cello. I dabble without the dots on cello – I compose and record music, usually for films/documentaries, as improvised music that I never score, and work out the layers as I go, but I don’t ‘name’ the chords or notes, just play. For example here’s the end of a little jingle I wrote this for a friend last week:

I’m also comfortable in certain keys, with certain scales, or with a limited vocabulary. I stress the ‘limited’. I’m still in the children’s section of the dot-free library. Maybe dot free is free range music making, or conversational music. Whatever it is, I know that it is a different skill set, a different part of the brain (for me) than learning a classical piece. What really interested me in Zach’s course is his thinking of course, his music making as well, and personally the systematic approach is hugely intriguing. I have never systematically learned  how to work without the dots on the cello. With singing, yes. With cello, maybe I wasn’t ready. I am now. (That’s where the self-efficacy kicks in – turning what may have remained potential, into something possible. No guarantees on the results, but I am willing to take that step.)

I very much looking forward to stretching my brain, crossing over, and lighting up some new places in my brain.

Featured image CC BY-SA by Photos_by_Angela

Expression, improvising, and the audience with Will Wallace #MUS654

I like to broaden the #MUS654 content each time I revisit these topics, and so here’s something completely new. Will Wallace has kindly spoken to me about his musical experiences and practices. Will is Director at Christ Church College Choir at Oxford, where he is also Senior Organ Scholar. During the half-hour interview he discusses improvising, dissecting how he learned to improvise, and points out some of the challenges he faces as an organist. How does he utilise the different sonorities available on the instrument? How does he achieve sound that fits the setting? Does he adapt if he is playing within a church service or for a certain group of people? What are the limits of musical expression?

Will takes us through an example of what he might do, talking through his thought processes as he demonstrates. It is fascinating. And, if you, like me, have never played the organ, please don’t skip this. I find that listening to other musicians explain about their craft, especially as Will does, in such a clear and approachable manner, is always enlightening and gives me ideas and inspiration for my own playing and teaching.

Many classically trained teachers and performers shy away from improvising, and the mere mention of it downright frightens some people. I challenge you to watch, listen, and see if you can apply even a small bit of what Will shares to your own instrument. If you have any comments, please share them below, or via Twitter using the #MUS564 hashtag, or on your own blog. It would be a pleasure to hear what you think.

In conversation with Will Wallace:

The video begins with Will testing out the instrument. Organists don’t bring their own instrument with them of course… I left that bit in so you could see – these are some of the behind-the-scenes ‘musician’ things that we don’t normally have the chance to see and have explained… and our conversation begins at about 45 seconds. Enjoy.

California Dreamin’

I’ve had another adventure in learning and teaching… and sometimes when things are so good, it is hard to begin to put them on paper. This post is a glimpse.

I’ll call it: ‘Part 1: Of Many’

I know that my students will have to carve their places in the world of music- that there are few traditional ‘jobs’ that exist anywhere. Graduates don’t walk out of education and walk into a single full time secure job in music. Part of what I do is work to develop experiences that hold a bank of skills so that as people progress they can build their metaphorical pantry. …With shelves full of ingredients someone can make more than a PB&J sandwich in the restaurant of their musical lives. I like (and feel the need) to grow and develop my repertoire of musical skills and experiences. Read more