Limits Set Me Free!

Rory’s comments on “What Second Life Should Learn From Myst” really resonated with me and it struck me that would-be music improvisers could also learn from Rory’s improvisational theater experience. Improvisation seems to be more frequently encountered in drama than in music, other the jazz idiom, so beginners may find this a fruitful seam of ideas to mine.

As always, ‘freedom’ is an illusion! If we can do absolutely anything, we invariably do absolutely nothing because we don’t know where to start! The composer, Stravinsky, said that the more restrictions he placed on himself, the more inspired he was to write. I’m certainly more ‘fired up’ to compose if there is a clear brief and is the reason I find it so absorbing and rewarding to write for beginner performers. It makes one really strive hard to distill the musical experience and to draw upon the potential of each note and technique accessible to the player.

Like Rory, I need to be emotionally engaged by the ideas I’m working with but I think that actually communicating such engagement in a piece of music is a difficult task for the improviser/composer because it requires a synthesis of all the playing techniques and sound qualities of the instrument(s), placed at the service of the emotion.

Beginners may find that another good starting point* is a focus on the sound qualities of their own instruments. What is the emotional ‘feel’ of the same few notes played in each register of the instrument, or on each string? How does changing the articulation alter it? Initially, try letting the music grow naturally out of the instrument.

*See “The Rhythmic Basis of Melodic Improvisation” for an alternative starting point.

The True Story of a Magic Flute

This is a happy story about the kind of magic that can happen when the worldwide web is used in the way the early developers envisaged – a great antidote to all those poisons injected into the system by spammers, hackers and crooks! It is a story of love, creativity, generosity and determination facilitated by the internet.

A little over a year ago, Ruud van der Wel, a musician and therapist from Holland, set up a website, “” to showcase the music made by disabled children at the rehabilitation centre in which he was working, to create a dialogue with like-minded musicians and to attract sponsorship to develop the centre’s music resources.

One of the first people to contact Ruud online was David Whalen, a quadriplegic living in New York. David was looking for a way to play a wind controller that didn’t involve finger movements. Working together by means of email, internet phone and e-conferencing, they drew up ideas for a simple slide-flute that would change pitch with head movements.

Their search for a developer led them to Brian Dillon of Unique Perspectives, an imaginative Irish firm, manufacturing technological aids for disabled people and providing a prototyping design service. Now there were three ‘dreamers’ in three different lands inspiring and encouraging one another and, in no time at all, Brian had created an instrument that went beyond their dreams!

It certainly added ‘magic’ to my Christmas, 2006, when Karin wished me a “Merry Christmas!” with her video of “Jingle Bells” performed on the new instrument! You can watch this and lots of other clips of Ruud’s young musicians in action on The Magic Flute User Pages.¬†For full details of the instrument , see The Magic Flute Homepage.

The Magic Flute goes on sale this year and will, no doubt, be the magic password opening the door to music for many would-be instrumentalists. Today, my love-hate relationship with technology is in love mode!

“Say That Again” – Repetition in Improvisation

When I was looking through some easy classical piano anthologies for examples to illustrate the “I’ve Got Rhythm…” article , I was struck by how much repetition, melodic as well as rhythmic, the tunes contained. I knew there would be plenty of combinations of two phrases – ABAB, ABBA, etc., but I wasn’t prepared for the number of pieces (or sections of pieces) that were built on a single rhythmic pattern. I’m always trying to drive home the point that less really is more if you want to create a memorable tune but I don’t think I’ve ever suggested sticking to a single rhythm.

Once the beginner improviser has absorbed a feeling of phrase length, the next challenge is to strike a balance¬† between repetition and variation: too much repetition is boring – sorry Schubert! – while too much variation will quickly lose the listener. The problem is that, if you’re going to repeat a phrase, you have to remember it.

A good way to work on memory is to create tunes four phrases long, in which the first idea is played three times and then a different idea is used for the fourth phrase, rounding off the tune. Actually, this is a very common structure in melodic construction, although the fourth phrase is often an extension of phrase three rather than a new idea. Lots of ‘Blues’ use this idea. In fact, once you begin to look for it, it crops up all over the place!

The next stage is to to improvise using two or three phrases ABAB, AABB, ABAC, ABBA, etc.. A really extravagant use of resources, apparently! :>)