Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Posts Tagged ‘improvisation’

Guidelines for creativity

Posted by Pamela Szalay on January 19, 2013

Nothing is sacred 2Successful composing and improvising stems as much from the right attitude as it is does from applying knowledge. In the previous article, I shared some musical improvisation tips for those interested in experimenting with creative musical expression. If you typically rely on written scores, I suggested starting your experiment by improvising various endings to a familiar song. However, those techniques may not work well at all if you don’t approach the activities with the right attitude.

The guidelines below can be extremely helpful in freeing your creative musical self to start behaving like a composer. Again, it all starts with giving yourself permission to be creative, just like all great composers of the past have done.

As you read each guideline you might want to consider how it will affect your approach for a specific creative task, such as improvising a new ending for a song.

Recognize that nothing is sacred. Once you decide that it’s ok to depart from the composer’s score, whether it’s Beethoven or Jim Brickman or a jazz transcription, you free yourself to the world of creative musical expression. Consider the score in front of you as your inspiration.

Creativity takes time. Accept that you may try twenty or thirty ideas before arriving at something you really like or seems truly unique. This doesn’t happen in two minutes! Sometimes musicians experience the thrill of an idea suddenly popping up in their mind, but often that occurs after they have spent time playing and tinkering and rehearsing. Which leads me to my next guideline….

Be playful. Go ahead and let yourself get a little silly. Or random. Or “off the wall”. Try out wacky ideas, or crazy combinations. The outcome may really surprise you! Yes, musicians can be really serious sometimes but remember that playfulness contributes to creativity.

Flow first, judge later. Although you may think your inner critic is the secret to your success, constantly finding flaws in your ideas could stop the flow of ideas altogether. You can be picky later, but first you need to get out all the ideas you can, whether they are from your own head or inspired by other things and people.

Dig deep. Most likely, the golden nugget you seek (my metaphor for an amazing musical idea) is not going to be your first idea. You might have to discover it, uncover it, or even recover it. Think of tunneling down a winding passage way in search of gold. You will get dirty, sweaty and tired. Yes, my friend: this is work.

There are no “mistakes”. For this activity you are in a workshop, not a concert.  As you try different variations, some will work and some won’t. It’s no big deal. Learning what not to do is a valuable part of the process.

Trust yourself. With time, effort and an attitude that welcomes the creative process, you will be able to craft a new idea that is fits the task at hand. Believe you are creative, because you are.

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Posted in Composition, Improvisation, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Giving yourself permission to be creative

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 29, 2012

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There are many talented musicians and students who have learned to play an instrument “by the book” and who are rarely, if ever, encouraged to improvise. If you are interested in being more creative with your music but are not sure how to begin, I have some ideas to get you started below.

First, let me remind you that the composers whose music you have read and performed over the years were able to compose it because they were willing to take risks, try out new combinations, and meddle with established norms. They gave themselves permission to be creative. You are no different! You can be musically adventurous. You can play around with new combinations. You can create.

Let’s start with something safe – the last note of a song you already know how to play. For example, if the last note of The Star Spangled Banner is Bb, or “do” in the key of Bb, what are some things you can do to change things up?

  1. Play a different note of the Bb chord –D or F.
  2. Repeat the note in a different octave – or several!
  3. Insert a rest before the last note.
  4. Hold the last note longer or make it staccato.
  5. Play the note more than once, in any rhythm combination that feels right. Try several variations!
  6. Experiment with different articulations.
  7. Combine 2 or more of the above variations.

For a keyboard or other harmonic instrument, if the last notes form a Bb major block chord you could start playing around with these basic variations.

  1. Break up the chord into an arpeggio.
  2. Play the chord using a different voicing: Take out the fifth, play the third in a different octave.
  3. Insert a rest before the chord.
  4. Play the chord twice in any rhythm you choose.
  5. Repeat the chord in a different octave.
  6. Experiment with different articulations.
  7. Try two or more of the above simultaneously.
  8. Try two or more of the above in various orders.

More advanced musicians may want to manipulate the final phrase of the song rather than just the last notes.

Of course, you won’t love everything you come up with, but if you give yourself enough room to play it can be a matter of minutes before you generate something that surprises you. The main thing is to try. Composing and improvising can be fun and liberating. Go ahead and try it today!

Coming up in my next article: Having the attitude of a composer

Posted in Improvisation | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The “One-Note Blues” Gets Students Started with Musical Improvisation

Posted by Pamela Szalay on May 31, 2011

Below are videos of two different students improvising a melody to go along with a 12-bar blues progression in the key of Eb.  This is a great key for learning to improvise over a 12-bar blues pattern:  not only does it sound great,  but even novice players can easily pick out the right notes to play along. Since the black-keys form a pentatonic scale, which works well in the blues, students of all levels of ability can play confidently just by playing any black key. For non-musicians or anyone new to improvisation, this can be a liberating experience!

Regardless of previous experience, I like begin this activity by allowing players to improvise only with a single note,  E-flat. For newcomers, I will often mark the note on the piano keyboard with a sticker or post-it note. I encourage players to experiment with all the ways they can perform that single note: slow, fast, with a swing, with different articulations, or whatever. I call this activity the “One-Note Blues”. It is amazing how many ideas can come from playing that one-note!

Once players have spent time exploring the possibilities of the “One-Note Blues”, I tell them they are ready to add one more black key. In some cases, we quickly move to using all the black keys. Usually, new players are pretty surprised at how good their improvisation sounds. I am glad to say that this activity always brings a lot of smiles, regardless of age!

The two videos below feature this activity. The students’ ages are 10 and 16, and both have been playing the piano for a few years. However, neither student regularly improvises in this genre, and neither was given an opportunity to rehearse before I hit the “record” button on the video recorder. They are truly creating their music in real time.

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Six ways music teachers can encourage creative musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 23, 2010

1. Make time for creativity – Learning takes time and so does learning to be creative. Students are not always open to leaving the printed page, especially if their lessons have always been “by the book”. Have patience and offer plenty of praise for their effort (pat yourself on the back, too). Think of including creativity as a long-term goal, not the subject of a single music lesson.

2. Be Playful – Playing is different than practicing! When children play, often they are experimenting, testing scenarios, engaging in “what if?” thinking. This can be done with music as well. Instead of being focused on the final result, let students see what happens to a phrase when played with different rhythms or styles. Let them explore the possibilities or even compose an alternate ending.

3. Focus on sound – Sometimes it’s easy to get into a rut of relying too much on the notes on the page. Encourage students to listen to themselves, to hear the intervals and the rhythmic patterns. You could record them and then let them listen to themselves. Or have them close their eyes and listen as you play an excerpt. Afterward, talk about the sound together. It can be quite challenging to talk about sound at first, but it gets easier through practice.

4. Give students the freedom to make mistakes – Students afraid of failure will not take risks. Yet risk-taking is essential to getting beyond what you know and can do right now. It is important for teachers to provide a sense of “safety” during lessons so that the fear of making mistakes is lessened. I have known teachers who celebrated mistakes because they could use that information to plan the next steps—for them, a mistake is an expected part of the learning process!

5. Set the example – Teachers can lead the way toward creative musical expression by trying new things in the studio, like improvising with students! The goal is not to do it right the first time: it is to discover something new about music, about yourself, about the way you learn!

6. Be open to all kinds of musical expression – Students will often oversome significant barriers to learning when they realize they can be themselves . One way teachers can make students feel safe or special is to ask them about the types of music they enjoy listening to at home. Let them use their i-pod or mp3 player to share one of their favorite songs with you. This can be a great starting point for improvising together

Posted in Music Instruction, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Right to Play Music

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 3, 2010

Who should learn to play music? Do only the musically gifted deserve the opportunity to learn music and play publicly? Some music teachers conduct evaluations before accepting students, even at the elementary level. If the goal is to produce performers, then this makes sense. But for most people who study music, in the long run, the benefit will be mainly personal: playing for friends or self, or maybe in a local band. And studies have shown that there are both cognitive and emotional effects to playing music, so that tells me that everyone should have the chance learn how to express themselves through music.

How can we open the door for more people to participate in music? I follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Remove the goal of performing publicly or professionally—at least initially.
  2. Concentrate on enabling musical expression.

Even beginners can improvise after learning just a few notes and rhythm patterns. One of my favorite first activities with students is something I call “The One-Note Blues”: I provide the chord changes and they improvise on a single note that I assign. It helps students see how much can be done just with rhythm and attitude!

Of course gaining knowledge and skill is important—it certainly gives players more options as they create music. But depth of knowledge and refined skill is not a prerequisite to enjoying creative musical expression, even in the first days of learning.

Look for the video featuring the one-note blues in the weeks ahead!

Recommended Reading:

“The Child’s Right to the Expressive Arts: Nurturing the Imagination as Well as the Intellect”. Position paper of the Association for Childhood Education International, by Mary Rench Jalongo, Professor of Education, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Indiana. 1990.

Related Links:

http://acei.org/action/acei-positions/positions-papers/

Posted in Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Making Room for Music

Posted by Pamela Szalay on July 24, 2010

One afternoon, I heard music coming from the living room. Who could be playing that funky tune?  I grabbed my video camera and snuck down the stairs. I was thrilled to find my son totally immersed in improvisation. What inspired him I don’t know, but maybe he just wandered into the living room, saw the Yamaha Motif digital piano, and decided to “go for a spin”.  I also don’t know how he came up with that cool riff, but clearly he was onto something that mesmerized him and he just played it over and over.

I think what is captured by this video is something that many people wish to experience for themselves: being lost in a creative, musical moment. What made this moment possible was allowing my son to have access to my digital piano. Easy access to a musical instrument is one part of opening the door to creative musical expression. Imagine if you wanted to learn to play the electronic keyboard, but every time inspiration struck you had to pull it out from under the bed, carry it over to a table top, plug it in, find a chair the right height  (or not)… in most cases, these steps get in the way of playing.

Another factor that inhibits musical creativity and learning is keeping an instrument in a location that is uninviting. I have met families who kept their piano in the garage, the basement, or even on a back patio. Not surprisingly, the pianos were always out of tune because of frequent changes in temperature and humidity. But it was also inconvenience, musty odors and lack of ambience that kept the kids from being drawn to play those pianos .

Parents who want to encourage a child to play don’t need to have a big house with a music room, but they do need to designate a special place for the instrument. The more visible, the better! Even a living room corner or child’s bedroom can work. My nieces could barely walk by the piano in their living room without stopping to play something. These practice sessions, consisting of just 30 seconds at times, probably added up to an extra hour by the end of the week.

Having a special place for music is equally important for adults. Most adults have such busy lives that they might only have a few minutes at a time sit down and play. Seeing that instrument propped in the corner, waiting for you to come and create something special, might be the lure you need to stay consistent.

So if you want to be begin creating some special moments with music, begin by designating a place for your instrument. You may also want to setup a place for keeping your learning materials such as music books, pencils, notebook, speakers for listening to songs, headphones, and perhaps a metronome. This is a place for you to build positive associations between learning and music.  One of my adult students, when planning her special area for music, included aromatherapy candles, special artwork, and décor that made her feel creative.

I welcome your comments and questions, and am especially interested in hearing about how you are making room for music in your life.

Appreciately,

Pam Szalay

Posted in Music Instruction, Parents, Philosophy of Education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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