Pentatonic Magic for Beginner Improvisers

Years ago, when I used to run a lot of creative workshops, the car load of equipment  used to resource them included a Casio CTK 650 keyboard. This, to my mind, inspired piece of kit had a function called “Magical Presets”. Thirty-six of these were “Free Session” presets, or chord sequences for auto playback (Blues, Major/Long, Major/Short, Minor/Long, Minor/Short). When a  chord sequence preset was combined with one of the CTK 650’s “Rhythms”, playback could be started by holding down the “Intro” button while pressing the root note of the tonic chord. Over a familiar rhythmic style, we would improvise, using the notes of a pentatonic scale (a major scale omitting the 4th and 7th degrees).

Pentatonic scales are familiar to most music teachers because the lack of semitones in these scales means that several random melodies can be played simultaneously without sounding too horribly discordant, often a great advantage in the average junior classroom! I don’t think too many, apart from jazz musicians, use them with music that is not pentatonic. I found that they work well in a fully diatonic context (music that uses only notes of the major/relative minor scale) because dissonances are resolved n the original musical arrangement. That covers lots of folk and pop.

I hadn’t used the CTK 650, in this way, for a long time but recently dug it out and asked some creative-approach instrumental pupils if they would like to explore some of the unfamiliar rhythmic styles. We hadn’t heard of half of them but they were ‘game’, having been asked to do plenty of bizarre stuff in their time with me! I thought we would have fun – and we did, but I wasn’t prepared for the assured and satisfying improvisations that they came up with! I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though, because a pentatonic scale seems to be part of the musical heritage of all cultures. Each has additional ways of organising melodic material and notes are used in different melodic patterns but the pentatonic is recognised and absorbed.

You might enjoy this TED video of Bobby McFerrin using an audience to ‘play’ a pentatonic scale:

The CTK 650 has been obsolete for a long time and I don’t know if any keyboards have this function nowadays but there are many pieces of software which allow for quick creation of chord sequences and improvisers can also try adding their pentatonic ‘two- pennyworth’ in live jamming sessions and to recorded music. It may not always work but often it will and you can have a lot of fun finding out!

At What Age Can My Child Learn Clarinet?

It’s very easy for a young child to to fall in love with the clarinet: its sound is creamy and mellow in the lower register, while exciting and trumpet-like at higher pitches. The first encounter may happen when a marching band comes down the street, one or two musicians play jazz in a subway or, sadly, less-common nowadays, at a classical concert. The clarinet has a leading role in all these situations and many more. It may be at a school concert that it is first heard but it is less commonly offered in primary schools. This is down to size and weight, along with the complexity of assembling the instrument, which all make it better suited to a start at 11+.

I usually recommend delaying lessons till the child is about nine. However, there can be no hard and fast rules, as children come in a range of sizes and rates of physical development and some can cope earlier. However, with a plastic instrument, designed for younger players, a start can be made much sooner by many. The tone quality of these instruments is very good and they are real clarinets. Here’s the international soloist, Julian Bliss, playing, as a 5-year old, on a plastic instrument:

 

Graham Lyons, the inventor of this clarinet has now produced a new model, marketed as ‘Clarineo’ and available in white, black or silver. These instruments will serve the child well in the first few years of tuition and are accepted by UK examining boards for performance up to and including Grade Three.

Want some music for absolute beginners on clarinet? Then visit my
Clarinet for Beginners Downloads page.

A More Accessible and Versatile Clarinet?

Would you like to play a simple, versatile instrument with a good clarinet sound that’s light and easy to carry around and works great for playing jazz and folk? Yes?- then you need a chalumeau. This isn’t, as you may think, some newfangled instrument but, rather, a very old one. The chalumeau seems to have been the forerunner of the clarinet. It is a a recorder-like instrument but played with a single reed. It was essentially a diatonic instrument with a range of a ninth and came in various sizes, each producing the notes of a different scale. Some chalumeaux have pairs of half-holes for the lower notes, as do recorders, and this allows for some chromatic notes. Over the years, instrument makers have experimented with adding one or two keys and, eventually, this led to the instrument we recognise today as a clarinet.

Early music afficionados have often had reproductions made of chalumeaux and early clarinets. Naturally, these were expensive to produce and so were available only to a small circle of people. Then, a few years ago, a British firm created a chalumeau tailor-made for the “Wider Opportunities” scheme introduced in UK schools. This was a very modestly priced instrument in one piece and virtually indestructible. I blogged about it in my post “Chalumeau Clarinets and Wider Opportunities”  There are now several thousand of these instruments in use in UK schools. It is not only children who can benefit from these instruments, though. Anyone who wants to achieve a clarinet sound without the weight and complexity of the modern instrument will appreciate this alternative.

Having no keys and rings, the chalumeau responds much more readily to pitch modifications as practised in jazz and many folk music styles. Several instrument manufacturers have created their own versions, with or without one or two keys to extend the range. Online stores for folk instruments are good places to look for them initially.

To whet your appetite and demonstrate its versatility, here’s the response of clarinetist Heribert Eckert when he encountered one at a trade fair:

Using Tonic Sol-fa in the Classroom

Here’s a great opportunity for UK teachers to find out about tonic sol-fa in class teaching: “Kodaly in the Klassroom” is a weekend course (14th – 15th May) set up under the auspices of the British Kodaly Academy. The website says that the course is suitable for

“Anyone interested in classroom music teaching (preschool and primary). There is no need to be a music reader. This workshop is also suitable for instrumental teachers who want learn the Kodaly principles. Very useful for “whole class” teaching.”

The Kodaly Approach is today’s most wide-spread tonic sol-fa based teaching ‘method’ and there are associations and music schools dedicated to promoting it in many countries. So, if you are not in the UK, the chances are that there will be a group offering similar ‘introduction to Kodaly’ opportunities in your own country.

Of course, the Kodaly Method is about so much more than sol-fa! It is, rather,  an holistic approach to music education through singing. ‘Method’ is a misnomer and the term is no longer used by Kodaly practitioners. It is extremely difficult to capture this approach and pin it down within the confines of a textbook but those seeking a brief introduction may find Susan Brumhill’s “First, We Sing! Kodály-Inspired Teaching for the Music Classroom!” helpful.

iPad and a Christmas Singalong for Seniors

At this time of year, care homes, lunch clubs and community groups often want to have a a good singalong. All too often, though, they don’t have anyone with sufficient confidence to lead one and provide instrumental support. That was the obstacle encountered by the ladies who put on tea parties for the senior members of our parish. For some reason, all those they usually call upon were unavailable and I was asked, at the last minute, to step in. My solution was a simple one that’s available to many carers, so I thought I’d share it here.

We don’t have a piano in the church hall at the moment and, if we did, I would have been reluctant to use it. I know from experience that making eye contact with members of a group and singing, even unaccompanied, engenders confidence and involvement far in excess of anything possible when dividing my attention between direct communication and providing an accompaniment. In the past, when lacking an accompanist, I have kept myself free to facilitate by providing accompaniments through a computer system running professional music software. That was some years ago, though, and the technology has all changed, with the result that many of the Christmas music files don’t play back correctly on my current software and equipment. The old stuff is buried, deep in the garage, underneath the remnants of my old kitchen! Then, “Yippee!!!” – the iPad came to the rescue.

 

 

For a singalong, it’s important to be able to quickly adjust the speed and pitch of the music to suit the assembly. On the iPad I used the very simple Jam Player app to do this. The app also allowed me to move very quickly between pieces, which is another important consideration in this context. The accompaniments were nearly all  my own musical arrangements but a less experienced musician could use music downloaded from iTunes or other online sources. Jam Player will load the music from the Music folder into which the iPad automatically saves downloaded music files. My only quibble with this was that the first playback started automatically as soon as the file loaded, so I had to get in quickly and click “Stop”, so that music started at my convenience, not that of the iPad! That isn’t too big a deal, though, in an informal gathering.

I have been looking, without success,  for  equally simple audio playback with pitch and speed options for PC and Android. There are, though, several players for both operating systems and many non-specialists will be familiar with one or more of them and use them to play their own music collections. Some like  Microsoft’s Media Player will allow the user to edit the speed but the controls aren’t all on one screen like Jam Player’s simple knobs. Slightly more tech-savvy folk may be happy to use a separate app like “Amazing Slowdowner” for editing  files prior to use.

On the PC, Full Pitcher’s “MIDIgrid” and “GridPlay” software provides a very simple playback facility for midifiles, where numerous tracks can be presented on a single screen, ready for playback in quick succession. The end-user doesn’t have to know anything about MIDI or music to use this software but can just “click and play”.

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Sol-fa Syllables for Some Major Scales

Here is another screen capture from the free “Learn Tonic Solfa with GridPlay” software. This grid allows you to play the notes of four major scales on a modulator which is labelled with both letter names and sol-fa syllables:

solfamajscales

The various grids included in the software present scales in different inversions for different learning situations. For example, simple songs often use a range from low ‘so’ to the ‘mi’ above the tonic.

Ashampoo_Snap_2015.02.02_17h28m54s_007_GridPlay- -MRDTLSx4-grd-

Teachers could edit these grids in the parent program, MIDIgrid, to add other keys or ranges.

Below is a PDF file showing both sol-fa symbols (Kodaly) and notation for several major scales:

Solfa and notation

Fireworks – A Round for Bonfire Night

fireworks-114-edit

The lyrics of this piece also work well as a spoken round and repeated phrases. We can play with words like “fizzling”, “spitting”, “whoosh”, “shoots” to create sound pictures, so even non-singers can get creative with this one!

This can be sung in unison or as a round. Place lots of emphasis on the consonants of the words, creating vocal sound effects. Selected words and phrases can be used as a repeated accompaniment. Create your own ‘firework-display’ by singing or reciting sections, in your own sequences or combinations.

Fireworks

Bonfire Night is lots of fun,
Launching fresh fireworks one by one.
Fizzling sparklers’ silver light,
Spitting, spinning Catherine Wheels, spirals bright!
Whoosh, bang! Rocket shoots up high.
Then a shower of fiery rain falls from the sky.
Splutter, splutter, whizza, boom! Up into the sky
Shoots another rocket,  speeding high, so high!
© Audrey Podmore, 2003

Click Here to listen to the audio and download melody and lyrics of this, and other seasonal songs, from the Autumn Fun page

Why Non-Techie Teachers/Amateur Singers Should Download This Software

Now, here’s an offer that has potential for many musicians! Most would like to be able to create their own scores if it didn’t mean spending weeks learning to use software and parting with wads of hard-earned cash. To celebrate the 500,000th installation of their software, FORTE Music Notation are, for a limited time, giving away the Basic version of their software.Basic is readily accessible by beginners dipping a toe in for the first time, while more advanced versions are powerfully featured in the hands of more experienced users. But, even for those who don’t actually want to create scores from scratch, it has other useful functions.

Singers in amateur choirs often need support to learn their parts and there are several websites which provide free MIDI files for this purpose. FORTE will import these files and display them in notation and then afford various ways to customise them. Providing they have been recorded as type 1 MIDI, as they are on most choral sites, each voice will be displayed as a separate track. Clicking on ‘Mixer; opens the volume control for each track, so the desired voice can be brought out. it is especially effective if a different instrumental sound is used for each voice, which is done by selecting in this sequence: Home – Mixer- Click on track – Properties – Instrument. On the right hand side of the MIxer ribbon is the Master Volume and a tempo slider, so playback can also be slowed down at the same time. Singers can improve sight-singing as they follow the cursor through their part, as the music plays back.

MIDI files can be very useful for the music teacher, particularly in providing accompaniments. Available audio files are often not in the appropriate key and are usually too fast for instrumentalists. In FORTE, MIDI files can be very quickly transposed to any key and this is shown in the introductory video. Tempo sliders are found in the Mixer, Playback and Record ribbons. As described for singers, the volume of each part can be adjusted in the Mixer, to support a particular voice or instrument.

Rounds and repeated accompaniments/ riffs often feature in music lessons and these can be quickly entered in FORTE using copy and paste, as demonstrated in the introductory video. .They can then be assigned distinctive instrumental timbres to facilitate learning of parts.

There are numerous pieces in the program’s library – folk songs, music by a range of classical composers, hymn tunes, etc.These constitute a useful resource for sight-reading and study. They can be printed out for performance, orchestration and arrangement.

All in all, not a bad package for free!!! So get your hands on this lovely gift and share it with your friends. FORTE Basic is available as a free download until 14th September from http://www.fortenotation.com/en/lp/giveaway/

For more information about MIDI files, see http://fullpitcher.co.uk/midifun.htm

Have fun!

Why Group Improvisation?

Some years ago I wrote “When creatively engaged, we are not comparing ourselves to anyone else, measuring ourselves against external standards. We can contribute, give of ourselves, in the humility that is truth, and rejoice in the contribution of others, untainted by envy or disdain” (Creativity and Inclusion) It’s impossible to be immersed in the creative process whilst in critical mode, so creative music-making can be profoundly liberating.  The only obstacle to sharing is our fear of opening our personal creative world to others because that is to reveal our vulnerability with the ‘humility that is truth‘.  I wonder how many people there are who improvise, but only in the privacy of their bedroom, or have composed pieces that will never see the light of day. And writing on a blog can be pretty scarey, too! I’ve just been pondering these things again after revisiting my earlier post, (Failure, the Price of Success) . One commentator described, what he considered, an irrational fear of participating in an open jam session. I wasn’t focusing on improvisation in that post but his was, perhaps, a perfect example of the principle: he would have to accept the death of failure in order to participate but having  accepted that, he would be free. Once improvising in a group (where everyone has had to  make the same acceptance and commitment) he would, of necessity, be absorbed in the shared moment of creation (success). Any thoughts of ‘failure’ would be down to ‘outsiders’ listening in (an audience) – and that’s their problem! Because everyone, whatever their strengths and weaknesses, must make the same commitment and have the same opportunity for discovery, creative music-making in a group can be truly inclusive. Wouldn’t all musicians benefit greatly from group improvisation (without an audience)?

The Joy of a Community Musical

I spent yesterday at an event that clearly underlined how rewarding and joyful inclusive music-making can be! I arrived at 10.15 for a 10.30 start on a workshop preparation of ‘The Haslemere Highwayman’ to find that some early birds were already eagerly getting the feel of the perfoming space in the St. Bartholomew’s Church. A core team from the cast, which aged from 3-87 and included children from the primary school, members of the church choir and local talent from other choirs and amateur dramatic societies, had done some work on learning the songs and principal roles. At the designated time, they would be joined by anyone who cared to come in and take part.

The daunting task of rehearsing this motley crew for a Haslemere Festival performance in the evening fell to composer Stella Coussell and musical director Clive Osgood, assisted with props and slick stage management by Zoë Clarke. Except that this talented trio didn’t appear to be in the least daunted! There were lots of songs with catchy tunes and lyrics, as well as more challenging music for experienced singers. At the evening performance, there was also plenty of opportunity for audience participation, with Zoë holding up large cue cards.Stella drew great performances from the younger cast members, who rehearsed all day with amazing enthusiasm and concentration, tribute to the engaging quality of both her writing and direction!

The story goes that the the Haslemere Rector in the 1790s was also a highwayman: Well, a pile of brass tags from stolen mail sacks were found in the house of Rector, James Fielding, so he must have been! After much research, composer and librettist, Stella Coussell, deftly wove this tale together with others from local history and legend to create an exciting and atmospheric storyline. This embraced, amongst other things, the Great Storm of 1795, which was recreated by Clive Osgood on the organ, with enthusiastic sound effects from the audience. Everyone was challenged and successful, the ‘goodies’ in the story triumphed and it had a romantic ending – what more could one ask? Thanks, Stella, for a great day!