The Alchemy of Synergy, Part II
25 Wednesday Nov 2009
In Part I talked about the fun and benefits of working together with another player, as coaches, mentors, and playing partners, especially in playing duets with the great benefits of sight-reading and transposition, among others.
There is another kind of duet and another kind of benefit to be had if you make up the duets yourselves. That is: improvising them.
Improvising means “thinking in music,” something that is nearly never done is traditional pedagogy of horn or any other instrument. More’s the pity. Now, why would you want to do something like that?
One great thing about improvisation of any kind is that brings together all elements of music: performance, theory, history, composition, ear training – you need it all to invent music on the spot.
What, me, improvise? [you say] I can’t do that! I can’t play 16th notes at MM=220!
Neither can I. But what I can do is revise my definition of what improvisation is so that I can do it.
First of all, improvisation does not have to be jazz. I’m not a jazz player. I’m a classical player. So I’ll play something that is like the stuff I play all the time. You don’t have to be able to play Donna Lee to make up your own music. A sarabande will do just fine. Start with some long tones. Start with one long tone. Listen to it. See where it wants to go next. As a duet, perhaps start with a common scale and listen to the interval between the two voices. Consonant or dissonant? If it’s dissonant, hold it a moment, then resolve it up or down. If it’s consonant, hold it until you take a breath. Then pick a new note and start again.
You very quickly find out two things when you do this: 1) It’s easy. 2) It’s fun.
And perhaps 3): why didn’t I do this years ago?
You discover that improvising duets is like having a conversation, except in music. You use what you know to discuss subjects that interest you in ways that are familiar and comfortable. Conversing doesn’t have anything particular to do with playing fast; if it did, auctioneers would be the most sought-after conversation partners. It just matters that it’s interesting and that it makes sense. If you recite something, you just need to know how to pronounce the words. If you converse about something, you also need to know what the words mean, both individually and in context, and you can use everything you know – vocabulary, grammar, history, jokes, expressive speaking ability, etc – to make your content and delivery more interesting. In a conversation you must also listen, and spontaneously react to and develop what your partner comes up with in the moment. It’s really fun, and improvising music is just like having a conversation except that at no time in our music training did anyone every give us training or encouragement to have a musical conversation.
But you don’t have to wait for someone to give you either permission or training.
Just do it. And get in on the fun and musical and technical benefits of making up your own stuff.
Making up your own duets is a perfect complement to a session of reading duets, both musically and technically. Here are a few more ideas to get you started:
•Player 1 (P1) plays some kind of I-V repeated bass (like an oom pah tuba) and P2 makes up a march. Here and forever more, always switch parts and do it again.
•P1 plays one low long tone – a drone. P2 experiments with making melodies using one scale above it. Start with the drone being the tonic, then see what’s like for the drone to be other scale degrees.
•Pulse the drone: give it a rhythm. Put some pep in your step!
•P1 plays a simple bass line, e.g. C-B-A-G, or in minor: C Bb Ab G. P2 solos over it.
•Players make up a piece based on the rhythm of their names.
•Players choose a familiar (and simple!) tune and figure out the melody via ear & error. After you can play it in C, play it in all other keys. Then repeat in minor. Then repeat, with P1 on the melody and P2 on 1) harmony 2) chord roots 3) countermelody.
•Just start playing: there are always rules, but here you have to figure out the rules as you go. Hint: arrive at a common pulse and key as quickly as possible. Hint #2: Recycle material. Find one simple, strong idea and develop it in all kinds of ways.
If you need more ideas, check out my book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (GIA).