Followers of this blog (both of you) will have noticed that I like to quote the NLP adage: “The Map is not the Territory”. And one of my main beefs about most traditional musical instruments, when it comes to learning to improvise on them, is that the Map they offer is marked out in note names, and not in intervals. And intervals are what your improvising ideas are built with.
When someone who has been happily and intuitively playing guitar for some time decides he wants to commit to lessons and learn “music”, his first task is to convert this mental Map:
Some students are actually excited by the prospect. Beating this challenge will be a kind of proof of devotion to the goal of world domination on his guitar. But not all. Here I could reel off a list of guitar legends who touched the hearts of millions without ever going through this process; but I’m sure that’s something they would prefer to tell you in person.
(Such is the shame attached to musical illiteracy… though I would bet quite a few horn players would love to have that freedom without the hassle.)
The guitar is probably the easiest instrument to serve as an introduction to intervallic awareness. Players of other instruments, such as the piano or saxophone, have to acquire intervallic awareness (if they ever do) by internalizing the labyrinthine web of relationships and equivalences between the various note names.
So let’s say you start saxophone lessons. You will start with a Map that looks like this (saxophonists will note that I made this diagram as imagined from the player’s side, so left hand side keys appear on the left, etc.):
As you improve, you will learn alternate fingerings for given notes that complicate the interval mapping. But even so, a Map like this gives you better orientation around your horn than the dots you will doubtless be reading from.
Applicants for one of Jamey Aebersold’s improvisation courses used to undergo a test with questions like
- “what is the flatted fifth of D-sharp?” or
- “what notes are in B Dorian?” or
- “name the II chord of A”.
It is quite possible to play all your life reading from dots and still be unable to answer questions like these off the top of your head. You might be caught closing your eyes and mentally playing a chromatic run on an invisible saxophone or piano.
You will know where that B-flat is, but if you have never asked the question, you may have to think hard before answering how many semitones separate it from D-sharp. Some third-year pupils I have had could not even tell me how many semitones there are in an octave!
With all this in mind, I invented MOVES notation, which you can read all about on my MOVES page.
By banishing the 31 note-names and centuries of confusing theoretical accretions, MOVES exercises go straight to the nitty-gritty of melodic performance. They offer the quickest way to free the improviser from the constraints of whatever mental Map you might be reading from, and give you back the freedom of your horn.
A typical MOVES class for adults and the “classically chained” starts by asking people to suggest songs that everyone knows. We then extract very short passages from the chosen song and “chain” them, to get them going through different keys, first by singing and then with their horns.
Like a kid on a bike exploring his neighbourhood, you don’t need to know the street names to find your way around. MOVES gets you pedalling. It forces the brain – and the ear – to work, but would you have it any other way?
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