Get Away, Get Creative!

In  the present economic climate many of you amateur musicians may be thinking twice about booking summer school courses next year. Perhaps you can be tempted, though, by the short courses offered by the Benslow Music Trust. These include weekend and mid-week courses in a wide and extremely imaginative range of musical knowledge and skills. In the 2008-2009 list, three creative music opportunities particularly took my eye:

“Fruit salad with Sambuca: Recorders, flutes, guitars, lutes…
Michael Copley, Peter Martin
9-11 January, 2009

Working with source music ranging from Balkan folk music to baroque sonatas and of various types, including chord symbols, keyboard scores and figured bass, you will go through the process of arranging new music from original score through to performance….”


“Composing for Amateurs
Stephen Montague
27 February -1 March

Composers young or old, interested in exploring the exciting world of contemporary music are invited to participate in this course. The programme will involve developing new skills using traditional notation as well as exploring various contemporary techniques and practices such as graphic notation. The course is open to instrumentalists and vocalists from a moderate standard upwards….”


“Compose a New Musical
Rebecca Applin
12-14 June

Compose a new musical from scratch and learn more about songwriting and composing for the theatre… After group songwriting workshops and individual composition and tutorial time, the course will culminate in a read and sing through of the resulting new musical….”

Each of the above courses costs less than £200. Resident. For further details visit, or telephone 01462 459446.

Songs for Autumn and Harvest Festival

I have been trying to spin out the last few days of summer but, every time I go outside, I find that more and more nuts have fallen from the hazel tree beside my back door; the shrubs are beginning to take on autumnal tints and, next Sunday, the BBC’s “Songs of Praise” team is celebrating Harvest Festival. Reluctantly I’ve decided it’s time to change the “Seasonal Fun” page on the Full Pitcher site.

On the “Autumn Fun” page, the songs can all be explored with full lyrics and audio playback. There are ideas for using the songs in groups of mixed age or ability. A PDF of melody and lyrics for all the songs can be downloaded.

We kick off with a part-song, “Autumn Makes Me Glad” This can be performed as two separate songs. “Part Two” has few words and is largely based on a falling minor third – the first interval that children sing spontaneously. Playback of the second part alone is included and this could be used to support the singing of the easier part, while more able singers could add Part 1.

“The Birds” started life as an item from a classroom cantata for performance by children with physical disabilities. A range of bird calls are suggested in the score but these can be replaced by improvised contributions on flute and recorder.

Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” is the tune used in the comic song, “Camp Grenada”. Here it is given suitably autumnal words, with suggestions for rhythmic activities.

“Fireworks” can be performed as a unison song or as a round in 2-4 parts and there are creative performance suggestions.

Finally, we have a song set to a theme from Vivaldi’s “Autumn”.

Also of seasonal interest are Tim Hopkins’ songs for Harvest Festival, found on the “Sacred Music” page. I love Tim’s songs -so fresh and catchy. Tim has also contributed a number of original children’s carols to the “Music for Christmas” page. Again, full playback and lyrics will be found on site.

Autumn Fun
Sacred Music
Music for Christmas

Songs for Summer

I’ve just spent the  half-term week walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills and glorious coastline. It’s been some years since I managed to get away to do some serious walking  at this time of the year, and it was wonderful to wind along the paths in all all their flower-lined splendour. We had plenty of rain but, apart from a dismal first day spent  ‘mud-skiing’, every walk had a few sunny hours and, after all, the rainfall is what makes England such a green and pleasant land!

Back in harness to the tyrant computer, I’ve adapted the ‘Summer Fun’page – for sharing by families or friends – to The Full Pitcher’s new formats. This is a selection of pieces from the ‘Miscellaneous Scores’section of the catalogue for which playback is is available in streaming Flash-Audio format. Flash is already installed in 97% of the world’s browsers and our music is streamed at speeds suitable for 56k modems, so this resource should be available to most users. The Flash-player opens in a very small  pop-up window and there is a pop-up of lyrics for each song, so both can be simultaneously displayed on screen. Schools can display them on an electronic whiteboard or a large monitor. Each song has activity suggestions for mixed ability groups and maximum inclusion. There is a song for which the group is encouraged to create their own lyrics, rounds, simple improvisation ideas and an arrangement of Schubert’s infectious “To Wander”, with new lyrics. I can dally on this page when I check the website and relive my holiday!

I hope you enjoy it!

“Summer Fun” with The Full Pitcher

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!

The Role of the Amateur

That amazing organisation, CoMA (Contemporary Music for Amateurs) is putting on a 1-day conference, next month, to explore “the role of the amateur in contemporary music”. Now, if you think that is only of interest to weird folk who use their musical instruments to create ‘traffic’ noises and turn up their noses at anything ordinary people recognise as a good tune, then think again!

“Changing Dynamics” is about reaching out with new music, making amateurs the centre of the creative hub of 21st century music-making. CoMA knows all about that: since its foundation in 1993, it has commissioned numerous works from leading UK and international composers and formed amateur ensembles to perform them. The CoMA summer school and regional events often prove to be life-changing experiences for those who discover that they are creators, not just consumers of music.

At CoMA events, amateurs and professionals come together to create and perform exciting new works. The guiding principle placed before the commissioned composers is to create a repertoire that is artistically challenging yet suited to the technical abilities of amateur musicians. Amateurs are introduced to all kinds of improvisation and there is tuition in composition for absolute beginners, as well as fresh inspiration for experienced composers.

“Changing Dynamics” is for “musicians, music teachers, schools, festival organisers, local authorities and music organisations” and will be held at Blackheath Concert Halls, Trinity College of Music, London, on 22nd February. See, for further details.

Virtual Instruments

I bought myself a great Christmas present – a copy of Garritan’s ‘Personal Orchestra’. The sounds of each instrument of the orchestra, plus a Steinway piano, have been sampled for this software, which can be used to play the music recorded into sequencers and notation programs. It’s great to hear my music for violin and piano played on a Stradivarius and a Steinway!

With a MIDI keyboard, or other MIDI-enabled controller connected, ‘Personal Orchestra’ can also be played ‘live’ and it’s really motivating to explore ideas when the auditory feedback is so good! It’s reminded me of the importance of putting good quality, and well-tuned,  instruments into the hands of beginners.

I’d be the last person to suggest that a prospective instrumentalist should play at a computer if they have access to a real instrument of appropriate quality and have some realistic prospect of learning to play it. I’m sure, though, that many would achieve greater musical satisfaction and development by by working with virtual instruments. Never having played the violin, to date, I’m too old, and have too little available time, to have any real hope of becoming the violinist I can hear playing in my imagination but, with this software, it wouldn’t seem such an outlandish idea.

Computer-based resources can often be accessed by disabled people using special access systems. On the Garritan website, there are examples of ways in which the, Edinburgh-based,  Drake Music Project is using Garritan virtual instruments with disabled players ( ). One is a recording of an 18-year old woman with cerebral palsy realising her dream to play Massenet’s “Meditation”. She is using the Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin with E-Scape software developed by the Drake Music Project. (

Guitar after a stroke

This afternoon, I’ve been replying to a website visitor who is trying to find a way for a guitarist to continue playing after a stroke affecting the left-hand side of the body. I thought this reply might also be of interest to others:

“If your guitarist has some use of his left hand, he might be able to play a Suzuki Q Chord, a sort of combination of electronic keyboard and guitar. There are many ways of using this versatile instrument, the most guitar-like of which is to press chord buttons with the left hand and strum various patterns on the ‘strum-plate’ with the right. The internal sounds are pretty good but the Q-chord can also be connected to an external MIDI device such as a sound card or guitar-sampler. (See:

The simplest, and cheapest, solution might be a customised version of GridPlay software. Gridplay, published by my own company, The Full Pitcher Music Resources, is a (Windows) software instrument that can be played by means of the mouse. Each GridPlay package has 15 grids, each a mini-application in which the instrument is configured in a different way. It can be used with the nothing more than the internal sound-system but it also has a full MIDI specification and like the Q-chord can be used with other software/hardware synthesizers and samplers. (see:, for demos of a standard package and for more information about customisation for special needs). Grids could be prepared using guitar sounds and various scales, arpeggios, block chords/ strum patterns.

I know that a stroke often has a negative impact on learning and recall but, if this does not apply to your gentleman, the Sibelius G7 software has great guitar samples and provides an excellent way for an experienced guitarist to channel their musical energies into composing for the instrument. A Suzuki Q-chord or a GridPlay/MIDIgrid software package could be used to play the music for recording/editing in G7. (see:

Update 7/02/2014: What do you all think of this? Ian Pearce can play again, after 47 years, with this adapted guitar: