Category Archives: Improvised Music

Reflections on the nature of improvised music and how it relates to my life and study of music.

The Craft & The Creative

GarDel rehearsal

It’s hard to remember a lot of things about being a kid but one thing I do know is that I loved (and still love) Legos. Saturday morning was celebrated with a bowl of corn pops, a full helping of “Duck Tales” (woo-oo!), and then hours of imagining sieges by invading forces or bloody battles on the high seas with Lego pirate ships and castles. Oh, how many little men in blue tumbled helplessly down the stairs of their seaside fort under the swords of those swashbuckling pirates only to come back to life a moment later to turn the tables and drive the attacking ships away. I could have sworn I had a medieval fortress set complete with catapults, drawbridges, and the like but I can’t for the life of me find it.

Of course, first thing was first, you had to build the damn thing, which if you can recall the “War and Peace”-sized blueprints they gave you, was no small task. It became all the more frustrating with the search for that one tiny keystone piece in a haystack of identical looking pieces. Where the hell was it?! The sugar buzz from the corn pops was wearing off and elation was quickly turning exasperation as the contents of the entire box were examined over and over again but to no avail. The morning had started off so well but the dread of having to find some alternate source of entertainment was growing as the piece remained unaccounted for. Until…YES! the missing piece was found (it had disguised itself with some nearby furniture). The morning proceedings would continue as planned (after another bowl of corn pops)!

While these mega construction projects provided no shortage of entertainment, I also had a big red plastic box with the word “Legos” indented in the top that was full of a different kind of potential. When you opened it up there was no blueprint or guide, just random Legos of all shapes sizes and colors. Mind you, It wasn’t a collection of spare parts or discarded pieces, not a Lego graveyard, but rather a box of raw materials urging you to make something with them. It was a warehouse you could visit that held all of the building supplies needed to construct an array of towers, a strange martian city, a bridge out of some Dr. Seuss book, a house with wheels on it (yes, there were wheels you could attach!), or whatever else the imagination could hold. Most of the time I had no idea what was going to come out until I started building and then it would often morph and change as the hours passed.

Of course, as a little kid you don’t think about the activities that you are engaged in as being particularly useful or even essential for the development of your professional life. That’s the whole point of playing! You aren’t focusing on anything except the world you’ve created and the tasks necessary to survive and thrive in your imaginary realm. But reflecting back on it as someone who has dedicated the last two decades to the study of the sound, composition, and improvisation, I am struck by how formative these Saturday morning adventures were and how they may have provided some foretelling as to what I would do with my life. After all, as an improvising musician, I’m really just playing with Legos all over again, building ships of sound and towers of tone.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit two middle schools, Culbreth and A.L. Stanback, to talk with students about a variety of subjects and concepts related to music that I labeled “The Craft and the Creative”. First, I’d like to take a minute to tell you a little bit about Sam Berryhill, the man  who runs the band program at Culbreth and has been a good friend for many years now. Even on my busiest days where I’m teaching lessons all over town and then playing a gig in the evening while also writing a thousand emails and trying to practice, I don’t think that I come close to the amount of energy, focus, and enthusiasm that Sam exudes day in and day out. I watched in awe as he pulled every last drop of focus that was possible out of his kids for hours on end. His is someone who has mastered the craft of teaching and has turned it into an art. I am truly grateful that he is teaching our future musicians!

“What is a craft?” I would ask each class.

“An art project!” said one girl

“A macaroni necklace!” said another boy

“Witchcraft!” said another

“Exactly right!” I said. A craft is something that you make or do requiring specific skills and tools to do the job. “You” I said, “are going to be master-craftsmen of sound. Your tools are your instrument, your ears, and your imagination and with them you can create something beautiful.”

I think it can be hard for young kids to really grasp that they can become a master at something. I mean, it makes sense. You’ve only been around in this world for like 11 or 12 years. You’ve only been reading and doing math for like half of that time. Everything is still pretty new…especially playing an instrument. It’s hard to keep in mind that when you first pick up the horn, you are an infant musician. I have two crazy-cute nieces who are both toddlers and like all of us they couldn’t do much of anything when they were infants except eat, sleep, and…you know. I’d say that even that is more than we can do when we first pick up a trombone and try to buzz into the mouthpiece to create a sound. It comes out sounding like…poop! But that’s okay! You have to start somewhere. I’m sure Mozart sounded like garbage when he first played the violin. I bet the neighbors thought a cat was dying somewhere nearby. However, aside from his natural talent, he spent more time playing music, thinking about music, and writing music than most of us spent on anything by the time he was 6 years old. He was a grown-up musician before he was an actual grown-up. More than anyone during his time, he became a master-craftsman of sound. The craft is essential but the creative is the goal. “I want you to get so good at playing your instruments” I told the classes, “that you don’t ever have to think about how to play. You can just play!”

That’s one thing I’m not sure kids do much of these days. Just play! Just open the box, pick out some pieces, and let your imagination and curiosity be your map and compass. As a kid these days it would not surprise me if there was constant fear of doing something the wrong way. With so much testing and so much at stake for teachers in the scores there seems to be an emphasis on doing things the right way. Fill in the right bubble. Remember the right way to solve the problem. Make sure you write an essay that has the right composition. With all of that, I would never want to pick up a pen and paper and just write a story or pick up my instrument and play spontaneously. I’d never want to let my imagination take me anywhere because I’d be afraid it would take me to the “wrong” place.

The great thing about kids is that while they are still young they have no problem letting go of their inhibitions and taking a trip with you to some imaginary place. I love spending twenty minutes running around with my little 3-year old niece pretending that we found a leaf with special magic powers that turns us into dragons that fly around the big rock city on top of the hill. When I play improvised music, I want to have all of the skills to run, jump, hide, crawl, scream, shout, and whisper so that I can pretend and imagine without inhibition. I want to be a master-craftsman of sound building ships of sound and towers of tone.

 

Point and Counterpoint

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It is such a simple concept. First you begin with a seed, a thought or intuitive sense extracted from somewhere inside of yourself, whether deep down in the depths of the subconscious hidden from view or floating lightly on the surface newly tilled and expectant of attention.  With time, you allow the seed to grow and change until it has developed into an entity with it’s own unique shape and character. Upon reflecting on the thing which you created, you allow your curiosity to take hold and the engine of elaboration grinds into gear turning that which you had into something not dissimilar from the first but with a distinctly different character. The beauty of creation.

It is a wonder that this process happens a billion times over in every moment that our world exists. Life is curious and adaptive, always surveying the landscape while trying to figure out how to fit in to whatever tiny niche may be available. It is also wonderful how we have been able to harness this natural creative impulse to create fantastic art. What begins as a simple melody twists and turns and develops into an entire symphony before our eyes (and ears). Part of the joy of playing music for me, in particular improvised music, is searching for new melodies. There is so much melodic possibility in a simple triad turned upside down, inside out, stretched or compressed. Inversions, retrogrades, ascending or descending, octave displacement, pattern movement by various intervals, and jumbling of notes in a sequence provide endless hours of variation on a particular theme. Applying this process to the creation of meaningful melodies is the ultimate goal but there is still so much fun in seeing what new sound is just around the corner.

Back to the shed…

Getting in the groove…

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Throughout my life I have experienced the slight sinking feeling in my stomach before beginning a practice session. It can be such a struggle to pick up the horn when you feel like you can’t play what you want to play. This is the struggle of someone who has lots of ideas but hasn’t spent enough time on the horn to realize them on the instrument. When I was practicing in preparation for my graduate school auditions I remember a moment when I could consciously hear myself playing things that I had once only been able to hear in my head. I was playing faster, my range seemed to suddenly expand, my intonation was solid, and best of all I could focus on what I was playing instead of how to play the instrument.

What a rush to feel that you are a master of your own expression! That moment of excitement provides so much momentum and as Conrad Herwig has noted in our lessons, that is the time where you put in the extra hours. Don’t sit back content in your recent achievements. Forge on ahead! It is almost painful to put the horn down at the end of the day and the next morning it is invigorating to pick it back up. For some, this surge of momentum happens early in their musical lives and I would be lying if I said I was not a bit envious of those people. For while I have enjoyed performing for many years, it has been a relatively new experience to feel compelled to practice. There are many technical and expressive plateaus that we will discover as musicians and the only way to move forward is to get into a groove and keep charging ahead. When you reach a new height, keep on moving forward. While there is certainly talent to be accounted for in those who develop their voice quickly, nothing beats the hours and hours spent on the instrument learning how to work with it so that it becomes a part of your natural voice instead of an obstacle for expression. Of course this is challenging but when those hours are spent in the groove, slowly digging deeper and deeper, there are few things more satisfying than being able to reach out and grab something that was previously unattainable.

Back to the shed…