How to be a Bomber (Perfect Love Casts Out Fear)

Across the road from me is an area where the old men play their pétanque, or as the English prefer to call it, boules. And most afternoons when there isn’t a game on, one particular fellow can be found there alone, practising bombing. Having thrown one boule, he lobs a second one at it to knock it as far he can. He is the bomber. Le tireur.

The art of getting your boule as close as possible to the cochonnet is not for him. Too much depends on the irregularities of the terrain. Whereas lobbing an 800 gram steel ball through the air straight at the opponent’s boule is hardly affected even by a brisk wind. In all the matches I have seen him play, I have never seen him miss a lob (or tir as they call it). His side only risks losing a point if he has to throw first.

Perfect calibration of muscular effort is something that is vital to playing most musical instruments. And yet a lot of musicians don’t seem all that keen to acquire it, or go about acquiring it in roundabout ways. Kittens get good at measuring leaps within a few months of being born, so why can’t you hit that top E in tune?

When I see panpipe players sneaking a look at the pipes before making a two-octave leap, I wonder how they would make that leap if there was no time to grab a peek.

Classical violin students are taught an additive method (position + finger) for exploring the upper reaches of the strings. D on the top string is played with the 4th finger in third position. To find third position you put your first finger where your third finger was in first position. From there your fourth finger will find the D. And so on.  

But is this the best way to go about it? Doesn’t it create a problem further down the road of weaning oneself from such props? And is the process of weaning ever clean or complete?

If the student’s aim is to develop unmediated impact of his intention on the resulting sound, my belief is that he should go all out to develop the sureness of that intent and the directness of its effect. Why even bother with other processes? Learning to climb stepladders will never make you a jumper.

Which translated means: go for it – from the start. For panpipe players it means: never, never, look at the pipes in the middle of a piece. For violinists: let your ear guide your fingers directly without those imaginary landmarks. For guitarists: practice in the dark. For pianists, it means: become a bomber.

Muscle memory is best acquired with your eyes closed.

Of course you will initially make more mistakes this way. They don’t matter. That is music’s big advantage over oil painting. It leaves no mess.  Fear of hitting wrong notes is irrational. Even on the concert stage it is counter-productive and more likely to produce wrong notes than eliminate them.

It all boils down to overcoming fear. And if John the Evangelist is to be believed, perfect love is what casts out fear. Watch David Garrett smile at his open E-string when it plays an unwanted overtone (at 0:45) in the video below :

One Russian commenter gripes about David’s dirty technique and writes that even children play it cleaner and with greater penetration. Well I don’t want to take sides. Here is the same piece played by a seven-year-old, so you can judge for yourself:

Go ahead and add your comment! Keep the ball rolling!

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The Philosophy of Licks

What is a lick?

A lick is a musical phrase. But not every musical phrase is a lick. To qualify as a lick, the phrase must stand out in some way.

As far back as I can remember, licks were those tricks that blues guitarists used, like bending up a note on the G string to meet nearly the same note on the B string. Things that would have the young players open-mouthed and saying “How did you do that?”

Since then we have come a long way. Hundreds of how-to publications offer collections of licks in all keys and on all instruments. And what do they all have in common? Could it just be the desire to amaze?

Of course, that’s a time-sensitive parameter. Like us, licks have varying lifespans before they hit the great cliché graveyard in the sky.

If we take some of the greatest licks by the greatest lick merchants from Frank Zappa to Michael Brecker, not forgetting the immortal Sonny Rollins, we see a common thread of speed coupled with surprise.

The speed bundles the musical idea into something that is hard for the ear to disassemble into its component parts, or even perceive sequentially.  The ear performs a double take and asks “What just happened?”

The surprise could be a sleight-of-hand visit to a distant tonal centre, or a rhythmic twist of some sort. Surprise gets less amazing the more you use it, and this is one reason a surfeit of licks can come in for some negative YouTube comments.

Licks are not the only things that frequent this cognitive boundary.  Alankars (grace notes) from India, trills from the Balkans, atari from Japan, and Irish rolls, crans and cuts all rely on fleet execution to have their effect. In all these styles, you may need a teacher to slow them down for you to help you master them.

Many of the most effective licks when played at half speed leave you wondering what you found so marvellous about them.  Try slowing down any guitar shredding video and what are you left with? (Remember, you click on the cogwheel/daisy under the video to find half speed – doesn’t work with some browsers).

So my question is: since you have to practice them slow to start with, how do the people who invent licks know in advance that they’ll sound cool when up to speed? Or do they just tumble fully formed out of the skies?

I leave you with this treat from France’s finest guitarist who has gone into the subject in some depth. Here is his Musical Manifesto.

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The Universal Scale Game

In my last post I mentioned Taffanel and Gaubert’s daily exercises. One of the most popular of these has been nicknamed the Scale Game. It might be more accurately named the Pentachord Game as it only covers 5 notes of the scale at a time.

Here is a sample of the scale game applied to the major scale starting in C Major:

taffanel

As you see the first four measures just consist of the first five notes of the major scale: 2212. In measure 5 the bottom note switches from being the first note (tonic) of C to being the seventh note (leading note) 0f Db. So the next three measures play on 1221, that is the seventh and then the first four notes of Db Major.

Finally in measure 8 there is a little turnaround to reestablish the 2212 pentachord in the new scale (Db).  You can see that in measure 9, the beginning of the same 8-measure unit transposed up by a halfstep (+1).

The whole game takes 96 measures to cover all twelve keys and is followed on the next page by the same exercise again using a minor pentachord (2122).

In MOVES the idea can be rather clumsily coded thus:

{+1 +2 +2 +1 +2 -2 -1 -2 {{-2 +2 +2 +1 +2 -2 -1 -2}}
-2 +1 +2 +2 +1 -1 -2 -2 {-1 +1 +2 +2 +1 -1 -2 -2} -1 +1 +2 +2 +1 -3 -2 -1}

…which, if I’ve got it right, should add up to +1, meaning it rises by a semitone/halfstep at each cycle. (The +1 move at the beginning is the chaining move.)

Some years back, during one of my bouts of aiming at total world saxophone domination, I was interested in playing this game with other exotic or non-diatonic scales or ragas.  The only qualifying condition was that the scale should contain a leading note a halfstep below the tonic, so that the pattern would cover all keys in rising halfsteps.

But since then, I have realized you don’t need to depend on a given scale structure to limit its possibilities.

Imagine any series of five notes separated by the intervals w, x, y, z  or in MOVES parlance, the array (w x y z). If we give these values an upper limit of 4, you can immediately see that the possibilities are mind boggling: 256 of them to be precise. The leading note is fixed at one halfstep below the bottom note, and this gives us:

{+1 +w +x +y +z -z -y -x {{-w +w +x +y +z -z -y -x}}
-w +1 +w +x +y -y -x -w {-1 +1 +w +x +y -y -x -w} -1 +1 +w +x +y -(x+y) -w -1}

When you have exhausted all those possibilities, there is one more ridge to cross, and like Xenophon and the Ten Thousand or Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, you stumble upon another equally vast ocean and shout thalassa! thalassa! or ¡Coño! ¡el mar! respectively. For as with all MOVES exercises, you can simply swap the plus and minus signs and get another play!

Even if it doesn’t win you the Saxophone World Cup, the exploration is its own reward, and the mental exercise gets you away from mindless dot-reading. For the more advanced, a greater range of values for w, x, y, and z can be envisaged, including negative values, which make the melodic possibilities much more interesting.

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The Other Jazz Scale

Every now and again, you’re working on a piece and you hit a passage that keeps tripping you up and you don’t know why. When that happens, it’s a sign you are about to embark on some brain re-wiring.

I was learning this tune by Brazilian flute icon Altamiro Carrilho dedicated to Johann Sebastian Bach, actually a pastiche of Bach’s style, a gluing-together of some of his greatest licks, called O Eterno Jovem Bach. You can hear it here.

In the C section, (or Trio if you prefer a less medically loaded term), there is a direct quote from Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (Cantata 147), originally in 9/8 and here played against the 2/4 choro rhythm. The last five bars contain a series of five rising modes of the melodic minor scale, or jazz minor.

eterno

The major scale and all its modes form a so-called “diatonic” matrix composed of three notes from one wholetone scale and four from the other (a “3-4 split’). The jazz minor on the other hand, borrows two from one and five from the other (a “2-5 split”). One of its modes has been dubbed the Lydian Augmented scale. It’s in the last bar but one.

So that was the passage that I tripped up on on my whole tone panpipes. It is not technically difficult, per se, but I found it hard to sing the last five bars by ear without looking at the sharps in the score. A flag went up!

So what was the flag trying to tell me?

We devote endless hours of practice to the diatonic matrix and the seven modes it generates. But the 2-5 split also forms a matrix, though it doesn’t have a name. By classifying the 2122221 scale as the ascending form of a minor scale we neglect to make a systematic discovery of its modes, even though they are extensively used in jazz.

The closest we come to the above passage in Taffanel and Gaubert’s 17 Daily Exercises is the E minor exercise, which artfully uses its own rules to switch between the ascending and descending forms of the melodic minor with passages of the harmonic minor, and all this in a mere eight measures.

But no systematic working of the 2-5 matrix. That was what my flag was trying to tell me.

It was saying: “Do it!”

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Your Three Instruments

1st Instrument : your horn

Learning to be a musician begins with mastering your instrument. An instrument is supposed to be that thing that you bang or blow out notes on. Your voice. Why is it even called an instrument? An instrument is a tool, right? Something you use for a certain end. In this case, to make sounds.

So once you have mastered that instrument, are you then a musician? For many people this may well be all there is to it. Get horn, get good, then get out there.

2nd Instrument : the song

It occurred to me when I was looking at pages of Wagner’s viola parts, that they were a great way to learn arpeggios and practice getting around the fingerboard.  Likewise, some tunes can teach you a whole lot about harmony. You can use them to deepen your musical knowledge and to train your ear.

So if they are something you use, doesn’t that make them an instrument too?

As learning tools, there is a huge variety of lessons you can get from the multitude of styles from around the world that you can find on line these days.  Some will stretch your technique and others will move your imagination.

3rd Instrument : you

This is where it gets a bit philosophical. But what if you gave the idea a moment’s thought? What purpose do you serve, when you play music? Some of the world’s greatest players have even asked Whose purpose do you serve?

For the classical musician, it is the composer’s – or the conductor’s purpose. For John Coltrane, or for Cory Henry, it is the Creator.

However you answer the question I feel it’s something that anyone who wants to get – and give – the most out of music should think about. One thing it provides is a clear framework to help you find a path in your music. It simply means finding how to serve that purpose to the best of your ability.

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Musical education, the wasted years

I am sometimes asked: What is the best way to learn to read music? How can I learn to “read flyshit off a wall”? The best tip I can offer is to make sure it’s music that you really want to play. And keep finding more. Don’t let the reading be an end in itself.

My problem was that nearly all the music I wanted to play wasn’t available in sheet music. So I became adept at transcription long before my reading got up to scratch. Ever tried that with a record player (those of you old enough to remember them)? Trying to land the needle in the right groove to check that note you didn’t quite catch?

Going back to my refrain that the map is not the territory, written music is a map which, like a map, can have several functions. At its most basic it serves as a set of instructions, a route-map, while at the opposite end it can serve as a detailed description of the terrain.

I remember my first gig on bass guitar one windy New Year’s Eve in London. My flatmate was a bassist who had a policy of accepting every gig offered so that he could choose the best one for himself and farm out the rest whenever he was double-booked.

Apart from giving him the pick of the gigs the policy had two more benefits. One was that his number became the first number anyone called when they needed a bassist. All the bookers needed was for someone to say yes at the other end of the line. Another was all the gratitude he received from the bassists he offered his surplus gigs to.

The downside was that sometimes he might get really desperate to find a bass player at short notice for a gig he had already accepted. And that is what happened this New Year’s Eve.

As a guitarist who had never played a bass gig I was his last resort.

“Oh by the way,” he said as he handed me his spare bass, a short-scale Musicmaster, and a jack lead, “You might have to do a bit of reading.”

“You know I’ve never read bass clef before” I told him.

“It shouldn’t be too hard. They don’t give you so many notes to play for a start. Just remember this line below the stave is your bottom string, then here’s the A in the bottom space, the D is on the middle line and the G in the top space. Any notes in between are played on the frets. In between.”

His final words of advice, as I waited for the lift, were: “Just remember, the wrong note in the right place is far better than the right note in the wrong place.”

With this method of reading, your fingers try to follow the visual cue without even stopping to think of the names of the notes. Fast reflexes are all you need. It shares some points in common with the way many English kids learn to read music: reflexively, almost by osmosis, from choir parts.

Here in France, kids are not so lucky. Under the French system of solfège, kids spend a year being trained to sight-sing to sol-fa syllables before they are even allowed to handle the instrument they dream of learning to play.

I find this counterproductive. Kids hate it. Many drop out. And frankly, the French do not produce the world’s greatest sight-readers, despite having a system which ruthlessly weeds out the slackers.

And the reason, to my mind is simple. Learning one reflex (that of singing the note to its sol-fa syllable) before switching to playing that note on an instrument is grossly inefficient. Hesitation between the old, half-erased reflex and the new, half-acquired reflex can be a lifelong problem.

Or else you go the long route: see the note – name the note – play the note. For every blessed note!

Going back to that New Year’s Eve. I survived the night, mainly by winging it.

dots

Sorry to hear my neighbour’s 8-year-old daughter just got the axe from her conservatoire. Maybe she will try again once her teachers are in the grave.

Music teachers may add their hate mail in the comments below.

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You get back what you put in

One of the dangers of transcribing music, often encountered by ethnomusicologists, is that of forgetting that what you write down and the music itself are two different things. Or as I keep saying, the map is not the territory.

I was working on a cute piece of Yugoslav dance music called Beogradjanka Kolo by their national accordeon hero Ljubiša Pavković, and this is what I came up with for the first section:

Beog2

This is how my ear takes it in. But when I slow the video down to half speed I hear that the accordeon articulates those repeated notes with chromatic appoggiaturas. These notes are much shorter than their main notes and are played where possible by swiping a black note rather than depressing the key.

And then I happened upon a video of the same piece accompanied by the score for accordeon as transcribed by Zoran Madzić, who transcribes the same passage like this:

Beog1

This transcription turns all those repeated notes into grace notes. My Romanian friends call these trills, but unlike trills as a classical musician might understand them, there are strict rhythmic constraints. I prefer to see them as repeated notes with a grace note onset, like what the Irish call “cuts” or the Japanese call “atari”.

But the important thing is: how you learn to play it. And here a lot hinges on what instrument you want to play it on. If a panpipe player tries to learn the piece from the accordeon score he could drown in detail.

On the other hand, if I rely on my own transcription, I risk learning it in a stylistically barren way, and lose this music’s glorious fractality.

In the end the best thing was to use my score as an aide-mémoire to look at while playing along with the video at half speed. For those who didn’t know you could do that, click on the daisy (or cogwheel, for the mechnically minded) underneath any YouTube video.

So while I urge you to make transcriptions, remember that they only contain what you put into them. If you want to sound like the real thing, keep referring back to the original.

Bonus

Since this blog is about Intervallic Awareness, and we have to start somewhere, here, as a special treat, is a song made of a semitone by Emily Saunders. Enjoy!

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Playing what you hear vs. the instrument playing YOU

If we break down our focus of “playing like singing in the shower” into its component parts, using our hard-earned Intervallic Awareness to help us find the notes, we would end up with some scheme such as:

  1. Imagine a melody (the “Inner Melody”)
  2. Guess the starting note and the following moves that make it up
  3. Play the moves on your instrument.

That would be the ideal situation. But in this fascinating discussion about the Inner Melody, veteran sax icon Lee Konitz asks what can you possibly be hearing with all the notes you and the band are pumping out at the same time  He debunks the idea that you can play what you “honestly” are hearing in your Inner Ear in a live situation.

His interviewer pleads alternative possible ways of sourcing the Inner Melody in a playing situation, but Lee is having none of it.

Thankfully you can use your practice time to work on this problem. In another video Jean-Michel Pilc has some cool tricks to help you play what you hear vs. the instrument playing YOU.

Practicing a tune in your head can be just as effective. You don’t even need to actually move your fingers or put the horn in your mouth. I like to do it when I’m going to sleep, visualizing the moves on my Inner Panpipes.

One problem commonly mentioned by improvisers is the recurrent theme of having your fingers run away with themselves. Fingers develop habits too easily. Being at arm’s length from the brain they are hard-wired to develop habits and routines. That is great when your task is to tie your shoe laces. But is that how you want to play music?

One reason why I find it so easy to connect with my Inner Melody when improvising on panpipes is probably that the neck muscles I use are so close to the voice muscles that they both get their directions from the same area of the brain. It even lets you skip step 2 (above)!

So maybe the solution to playing like singing in the shower is just to get yourself a wholetone panflute!

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How to make modular bass panpipes for classroom, stage and studio

velcro_toyo

Most bass riffs you get called upon to play contain between three and five notes, so why not assemble just the tubes you need for each tune – in the order they come, to keep it simple and lightweight?

I made my first modular set back in 1984, and two weeks had not passed before I got a call to use them at CTS studios in Wembley. The film was Emerald Forest. I will never know how the high-ups even found out about my revolutionary instrument.

The sound spectrum of panpipes is weak to non-existent in the even-numbered partials. So to offset this and give the sound added punch I paired each pipe with its octave.

Each octave pair thus made had two strips of velcro fixed to each side, male on the left and female on the right.

velcro_s

This allowed me the option of placing the upper or lower octave facing me. So a chromatic set of twelve octave pairs provides a usable range of two octaves. The tube further away from the player receives less air and gives just enough support to its octave partner for a beefy sound.

The further down you get in the low range of the panpipes the more puff you need to make a sound. Furthermore, the wider diameters necessary for bass frequencies mean that more air is dissipated between lip and blowing edge.

Part of the problem of the weak sound-to-puff ratio is down to wave interference from out-of-tune partials. Some correction is possible with a “truncated paraboloid” bore. This is the profile I use for my concert panpipes.

Obviously it would be prohibitively expensive to form large plastic tubes to a true paraboloid profile. But the design presented here offers a way round that problem, that also brings the blowing edge closer to the lips, while keeping the sides flush for the velcro.

When a softened plastic tube is gradually flattened, the cross section area is reduced. Thought experiment: when the tube it is completely flat it is down to zero. We obviously don’t need to go that far.

The former below produces a virtual paraboloid bore by partially compressing the softened end of the tube to a rectangle. An electric paint-stripper gun will do the softening, though you might need some practice first to learn to avoid scorching the plastic.

toyo_former

The distance between the sides of the trough should be same as the tube’s diameter, so that the tube fits snugly. If you are a handyman you could invent an adjustable model for different diameters.

You will need to find a solution to block the bottoms of the tubes. I used wooden stoppers that I cut out with a cloche, wrapped in chamois leather soaked in walnut oil. The seal must be perfect for a good sound.

As for lengths, start with the longest length you can comfortably play in vertical position. Push the stopper in small increments up the tube until your tuner says you have found an identifiable note. Measure the inner length down to the stopper. You can then cut off the excess below the stopper.

Work out the inner tube lengths of all the other notes by dividing by 1.06 per semitone. For the octaves of each tube, divide by 2. Remember to add a constant length for the stopper before cutting. Fine tuning will be necessary. Length depends partly on diameter so I can’t offer a table of lengths. You are on your own!

If you used the former above, the back side of each tube (that was lying downward in the trough) will be flat along its whole length. This is the side that you glue to its octave partner. The rectangular mouthpieces should thus meet back to back.

After a few years of use, the velcro adhesive starts sliding around and you will want to find another solution. Between now and then you have plenty of time to come up with one!

Let me know how it goes, and feel free to ask me anything in the comments below.

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The ingredients of improvising musicianship

So you want to build your massive improvising musicianship, and I hear you ask: what does that consist of? And how do I go about getting it?

Inspired by coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of success,  I came up with the pyramid you see below. I started from the top and broke it down to basics. What, I asked myself, were the ingredients of playing convincingly, and winning hearts and minds with one’s playing?

This pyramid may not coincide with everyone’s set of values. It’s what works for me. And if I were starting again, I would hope to find a teacher who could help me put such a pyramid in place.

I propose a little test for you: When you’ve done all the groundwork, and know how to handle your instrument, try imagining “intensity and certainty” – or just saying the words to yourself – before you take a solo. See if that makes a difference.

The pyramid of improvising success

The pyramid of improvising success

There are one or two elements you may think I missed out, such as listening. But where would you put such an element in the pyramid? To my mind, the art of listening pervades the whole structure. Every sub-pyramid has its active and passive face.

Same goes for models that you emulate, or teachers. The ideal teacher can be by your side to help you put each brick in place. Or you can learn each element from a different teacher – or figure it out for yourself.

And of course, practice makes perfect. Every element in the pyramid needs practice until it becomes second nature.

I have placed MOVES, which covers both melodic and harmonic knowledge, as a cornerstone, but in fact other geometries could be imagined that would reflect different views, and allow more “corners”.

Let me know what you think in your comments.

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