Playing like singing in the shower

In my ongoing research into finding the best instrument for learning to “play like singing in the shower”, and in the process helping you, the gentle reader, to do the same, one instrument I have placed near the top of the list (just below the whole-tone panpipes) is the violin. In many respects it is intuitive in that its geometry accurately reflects intervals, which are what tunes are made of.

We can imagine an idealized violin consisting of a single string, and a player with an unlimited number of fingers. The brain-to-melody connection would then be practically unmediated.

But anyone who has tried the violin as an improvising instrument finds herself magnetically lured into tonalities suggested by the ever present subliminal or not-so-subliminal vibrations of the open strings. So that the violin is sort of telling you what to play.

And one thing the violin – let’s be frank – sucks at, is the whole-tone scale.

I don’t mean just playing the scale ascending {+2} and descending {-2}. That’s easy. But when you start getting into phrases and curlicues, fingering becomes a problem. And it’s a problem that will get you all tangled up if you want to play your idea exactly as you conceived it, and in tune.

All improvisers can do well to practice transcribing and learning from other great musicians, and high on my bucket list agenda has been Coltrane’s last Impulse album “Expression”, for me one of the summits of twentieth century music in any style. Let’s look at part of the closing passage of the track Offering, with my fingering suggestions.


To get this sounding good – that means in tune, and articulated as written – on the violin you literally have to sit down and work out the fingerings in advance. And these fingerings, aside from being cramped in half position up (or is that down?) by the nut, involve frequent changes of finger for the same note.

I once read somewhere in a saxophone improvisation method that you never play anything you haven’t practised beforehand. Whether that means you can’t play anything unless you have got it technically licked in advance, or simply that your solos are bound to be a sort of mishmash of stuff you’ve been working on, it seems somewhat fatalistic.

(Of course that didn’t bother Trane, who if reports are to be believed, hardly took the horn out of his mouth between practising and going on stage.)

Once you get beyond the beginning stages of the saxophone, you start exploring different fingerings, and that means trying out different ones for a given passage. There are four or five different ways of playing B-flat, and choices for C and F-sharp. The altissimo register is a veritable labyrinth of fingering routes.

So “knowing your way around” the saxophone is something that you acquire by actually taking each route and figuring out how to handle every corner, which fingerings are easiest for crossing over between, or for getting the truest interval or expression.

But where does that leave the idea of Inspiration? Well, if we believe Sonny Rollins, once you’re on stage, “You let the music play you. You don’t play the music. You don’t play what you practised at home.” It doesn’t hurt that he certainly knows his way around the sax.

So let’s imagine that you dreamed up a piece like Offering out of the blue and wanted to play it straight off without preparing a load of fingering strategies. Which instrument would you pick up? The one that offers you loads of choices of fingerings, not all of them good for every situation, requiring detailed planning (and memorizing) in advance?

Or would you go for the tuutflutes wholetone-tuned panpipe, designed with Gheorghe Zamfir’s easy-to-learn note-bending technique in mind to give total chromatic freedom? Admittedly, you might have to sacrifice some of those legatos, but hey, if you want to sing in the shower, just take a shower and start singing!

By the way, speaking of the instrument telling you what to play, in over twenty years using wholetone tuning, I have never felt impelled by the instrument to play in the whole tone scale. I just know it’s there when I need it. Lest you worry 🙂

Follow me on Twitter @jazzpanflute


About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
This entry was posted in Intuitive Instruments, Scale Practice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Playing like singing in the shower

  1. roy pertchik says:

    I never take my wholetone vibraphone in the shower, but it is super intuitive ;^)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. jazzpanflute says:

    Yup. I sent you an email.


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