Foto: Kimm Saatvedt
Musical habits – personal sound or idle clichés?
For improvising musicians, liberation from habits is considered an important topic to develop consciousness around. Teacher in jazz piano at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Eyolf Dale, focused on this area when he participated in the CEMPE project Cross-genre practicing in the academic year 2015/-16.
Eyolf has given main instrument lessons to the drum student Henrik this year, where they often improvise freely in duo with piano and drums. In a workshop with teachers and students participating in Cross-genre practicing, they demonstrate an exercise they have used in lessons. The purpose with the exercise is to discover what kind of improvisational repertoire they utilize when they play free together.
They begin with free improvisation together without addressing anything in advance, to see what happens. What kinds of noticeable musical ideas or elements come out of Henrik’s playing? For the sake of the exercise, Eyolf wants Henrik to identify five different, typical elementsthat occur when he doesn’t plan what to play. After a couple of short duo improvisations, Eyolf asks how Henrik perceived the two different improvisations.
Henrik: I often feel it works better when I don´t think too much (…). Often when one plays free, one starts to wonder how much initiative one should take, and how much one should wait for initiatives from others.
Eyolf: I tried to notice what you did repeatedly, which of course was influenced by what I did, but which nonetheless came from you. There are some things I noticed, that often comes as a “chain reaction” from you.
After three short improvisations together, Eyolf summarizes the five musical elements he finds most typical in Henrik´s playing. The first element is what Eyolf calls “single stroke drum roll”. It is short, it builds up tension, and it often contains a releasing “tale”.
Eyolf describes element number two like this:
– It sounds like a kind of phrase ending [sings a phrase with a descending melodic contour], which is kind of “break-like”. In our lessons we have often talked about this element, that it comes too often, as a habit. It has the effect that it ends something that perhaps is not meant to be ended, instead of inviting to a continuation.
The third element is described by Eyolf as a longer drum roll, and the fourth element that Henrik plays phrases distributed on the whole drum set. After some discussions they conclude that the fifth element can be identified as abrupt stops, which Eyolf describe as “a kind of fill with a silent tale”.
This is exactly what the exercise is about. You have already come further with that element, now you have learned something new about it. (Eyolf Dale)
After having identified the five elements in Henrik´s playing emerging from the interplay with Eyolf, Eyolf explains that in the same way as one can practice melodic variations over a chord sequence, one can practice variations over these five elements. Henrik is then instructed to consciously utilize the first element in an improvisation, the single stroke roll, and simultaneously vary the sound combinations he uses when he performs it. Henrik improvises solo trying to execute the task.
Eyolf: Nice, but it was still quite short. Can you make it last longer?
Henrik: Yes, but it is technically hard.
Eyolf: Try. Create an impro where you vary the element, first by using one and the same sound, and where you use two different sounds.
[Henrik improvises for a longer time.]
Eyolf: Right, very cool! It creates a concentration around a few elements. This is exactly what the exercise is about. You have already come further with that element, now you have learned something new about it.
In the same manner they work through each single element. Henrik expresses insecurity of how to use an element for variation, and Eyolf provides suggestions for Henrik to try out.
Eyolf: And now we take that long drum roll. On this one I felt that you already were making variations, you created a depth in the texture that invites other to chose whether they want to “join in” on that, or whether they want to add something on top of it.
[Henrik plays solo.]
Eyolf: Are there other ways to play it?
Henrik: Yes, you can open it or close it [depending on where on the drum you hit]. [Henrik demonstrates an open versus closed sound.] The texture is also influenced by how hard you press with the brushes.
Eyolf: Yes, what if one hand plays fast, and one hand plays slow? Then you will provide even more depth.
Henrik: Yeah, like two dimensions [he plays].
When Henrik is forced to delimit himself to one particular element, and simultaneously to try to create variations on the element, he more easily becomes aware of the conditions that caused him to play in a certain way at a certain point. For instance, certain sound combinations are connected to certain motoric patterns on the drum set. If he breaks the motor pattern, then the phrase is not just executed in an automatized way. Instead, Henrik starts to listen more attentively to his own playing and becomes more conscious of the musical choices he makes in the moment.
The variation exercise leads him to generate more potential options for later improvisations, both creatively and technically, because he has “trod” different “pathways” with the same material. Simultaneously, he has practiced creative discipline, by examining creative possibilities with an isolated and limited material.
Instead of censuring and criticizing oneself, the elements that constitute the habits are utilized for further musical development.
Approaching one’s deficiencies
Another aspect of the exercise is connected to how one as a creative musician approach one´s own deficiencies – such as repeating certain musical patterns or habits without awareness. To an improviser, the following dilemma often occur: You want to cultivate your own playing, but if your inner, critical voice that tells you about your deficiencies becomes too strong, it can become devastating for the ability to take initiatives in the process of improvisation.
The exercise Henrik and Eyolf demonstrated approaches the problem with automatized habits in a constructive way, that avoids the dilemma. Instead of censuring and criticizing oneself, the elements that constitute the habits are utilized for further musical development. As Eyolf says: “[Then] you have already come further with that element, now you have learned something new about it.”