Creating Music

Opening the door to creative musical expression

Posts Tagged ‘reading music’

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

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Stepping into musical composition: the limited tone row

Posted by Pamela Szalay on December 8, 2012

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Looking for a way to introduce composition into music lessons? Creating a melody using a limited set of pitches is a great way to start. While the label “tone row” often suggests using 12 tones, this activity is focused on a smaller set of 4 to 7 tones which are arranged in a sequence and used to compose a melody, guided by just a few rules. This activity encourages creativity within constraints and works for beginners and more experienced musicians. As a matter of fact, it can even be used with students who do not yet read music.

For music-readers:

Materials:

manuscript paper, pencil, music notation flashcards (optional)

Activity:

1. Select four to seven flashcards and arrange them in a sequence (the teacher can do this ahead of time, or the student can select the cards randomly). Write the desired sequence on paper.

2. The student composes a melody using the sequence, using whatever rhythm, expression or style is desired.The composition should be committed to paper, but written in pencil for easy editing.

3. Each tone must be used in order, although a tone can be repeated before moving on to the next tone. When the end of the sequence is reached, the sequence beings again with the first note.

4. The sequence can be repeated multiple times, and can be treated differently each time.

5. The sequence should have a definite ending.

Depending on the outcome and the needs of the student, the melody could be further developed, harmonized, etc. Also, for additional mileage with this activity, start by using pitches that reinforce a recent note-reading or theory lesson

Alternate approach for non-music readers:Image

If the student is quite young and not yet reading music, use letter names instead of music notation. The focus should be selecting the sequence itself, rather than composing from a sequence. This will develop the ear while also introducing them to the compositional process. When the student is satisfied with the sequence, have the student write down the sequence on paper to preserve it.

Posted in Composition, Music Instruction | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Choosing your pathway to musical expression

Posted by Pamela Szalay on August 9, 2010

There are many ways music can be learned: through books, through imitation, and by ear, all with or without a teacher. A successful musician might start off using any one of these approaches but at some point, teacher guidance and focused study plays an important role for most students. Before selecting a teacher, it can be useful to know about some of the approaches they may use.

There are essentially three approaches:

  • Traditional – book based, with emphasis on reading music.
  • Rote – visually-based, with emphasis on copying.
  • Ear-training – sound-based, with emphasis on developing musicality

Teachers may use a combination of these as well. Although I have my own preferences, overall I recommend finding a teacher that recognizes your strengths and is willing to work with them.

More on each method:

A traditional method will provide a foundation in music notation and theory: many teachers prefer this route . It is a text-based learning method, using a written system of symbols that must be interpreted. Learning to interpret musical notation takes years, and there is no guarantee that knowledge of music will make you a good performer of music. But this approach does provide a clear way to communicate and record progress.

  • Pros: Students will understand standard musical terms and notation, be able to talk about music easily with others
  • Cons: Students may be bored playing simple, unfamiliar songs; they may be unable to perform without a book

Learning by rote is a fast way to move toward actually playing, especially with songs that are familiar. This method is greatly preferred by children, who often watch their friends or siblings play a song so many times that they figure it out for themselves. You-tube videos are also a primary source for kids who want to learn particular songs. Kids will carefully observe the placement of the performer’s hands on the keyboard, often watching over and over, and then mimic with great accuracy songs that would be very difficult to read out of a book. Having a patient teachers provides an extra advantage for getting tips on proper fingering and rhythm.

  • Pros: Students learn more difficult songs they really enjoy playing before they are even able to read music.
  • Cons: Students don’t always play with understanding and they may not be able to transfer what they learned to other songs.

Learning by ear is what happens when the student figures out the notes to a song purely by sound, with no visual model (such as a friend to play it for them first). The student perceives different pitches and then finds them on the instrument, playing the notes in the order he hears them and according to the rhythmic pattern he discerns. It is a slower process at first, but a very intimate one. Students who learn this way tend to know why they are playing certain keys on the keyboard and eventually become very quick absorbers of new songs. Like the rote- learners, music is always memorized. But the advantage for ear-players is that if a song is forgotten it is easily relearned.

  • Pros: Students able to learn many songs and play fluidly
  • Cons: Student may resist learning to read music

Each of these methods will allow students to express themselves musically, although some are better suited for  certain applications.

  • If you want to play in orchestra, you need to read music.
  • If you play in a garage band, no music books are necessary but a good ear is very helpful.
  • If you play in three piece jazz band, you may be glancing at pages of a fakebook that contain only words and chords—the best players will have a strong foundation in music theory.
  • If you play solo, you can pretty much do whatever you want!

As a teacher, I have used all these approaches at one point or another to prepare my students to express themselves musically. I am not hung up on one method. But I will say that the main ingredient in any musical program, for an adult or a child, is time and attention. To be good, musicians put in years of practice with attention to detail. That’s not bad news, though, because learning music can be a pleasure in itself.

Enjoy your journey!

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

 
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