Musical Chromosomes

Working with whole tone panpipes has for me been a liberating experience, a shortcut to what they call stage 4 competence in NLP or what I call “mindless playing”. For those unfamiliar with Romanian panpipes, I should explain that the semitones are obtained by shading the tube with the lower lip, or by tipping the instrument towards you. So the panpipes are in fact chromatic. They are also highly intuitive. Since the instrument lies outside of your field of vision, you are forced to develop a mechanical connection between the interval or note you hear in your Inner Ear and the movement of your head and hands. The more vividly you hear that two-octave leap, the better your chances of hitting it right. Rely on theory and you are sure to trip up sooner rather than later.


Another thing I get from playing it is a new musical creation myth. The two whole tone scales, the yang (open hole) and the yin (shaded hole) are the father and mother of all the other scales, major, minor and anything in between. As you must be aware, every major scale contains a 3-note run in one whole-tone scale and a 4-note run in the other, chromosomes from each parent if you like. If you’re not sure, try finding some major scales on this virtual whole-tone tuned xylophone (no blowing required)


Whole-tone instruments also suggest different practice strategies. With conventional scale practice, you have to decide in advance which scale you are playing, and you evidently know its name. But that is not how you sing in the shower. The time you spend on playing scales is not being spent practicing improvising. So let’s try something a bit different! Start with either whole tone scale and go on up or down until you feel the urge to cross over to the other. It is a way to train your ear to make up its mind mid-flight where to put the semitones, which are what distinguish one (diatonic) scale from another. The idea is to liberate the improviser in you. Using this practice technique on the whole-tone panpipe you learn to find the right scale (the one that sounds right) without knowing which key you are in. What’s great is that it works on the violin and the saxophone too.

Scale practice is all about your muscular interface with your instrument, a way of overcoming the inherent design deficiencies of that interface. But on the musical level, a scale is an artificial construct, like music dissected and hung out on a line to dry. So next time, try warming up with just those two whole-tone scales, and play about with crossing between them at will. And have fun.

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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