Pretty neat. Right now it appears as if it’s limited to just two different instruments, but I’m looking forward to the time when they will be able to take an audio file and isolate specific players. I want to be able to take a Duke Ellington Orchestra recording, for example, and be able to accurately transcribe the exact voicing that Ellington wrote. One band I perform with regularly will recreate classic traditional jazz recordings and sometimes it’s very difficult to hear specific instruments because of the early recording technology used. Software like this could make it easier to boost the instrument sound that we’re having trouble hearing or turn down the instruments coving up what we’re trying to transcribe.
It’s been a while since I’ve been able to post some weekend picks for you. Here are some random music-related sites for you to browse this weekend.
Do you like brass band music? Do you like drinking? If you like both, you probably would love Serbias Guča Trumpet Festival. The Dragačevo Sabor Trubaca brings in more than half a million people to a small village in Serbia for a wild weekend of brass bands and drinking.
It is believed this Balkan brass tradition emerged in the early 20th century, around the time Serbia, Greece, Montenegro, and Bulgaria formed the Balkan League to battle the Ottoman Empire in 1912. “During the Balkan Wars, and then during World War I, military bands came through the area, playing mostly brass instruments,” Smith says. “These instruments were adopted by the Balkans, who created brass versions of pre-existing folk songs. In Serbia in particular, they embraced brass music to the extent that they consider it their national style of music.”
All four Beatles. Elvis Presley. Jimi Hendrix. Jimmy Page. Eric Clapton. B.B. King. Stevie Ray Vaughan. The Bee Gees. Eddie Van Halen. Robert Johnson. Slash. Angus Young of AC/DC. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine. Adam Jones of Tool. James Hetfield of Metallica. Danny Elfman. Stevie Wonder. Dave Brubeck. Andrea Bocelli. Wes Montgomery. Jimmy Smith. Charles Mingus. Erroll Garner. Irving Berlin. Chet Baker. Pete Townsend. Tori Amos. Jerry Garcia. Bob Dylan. Kurt Cobain. Taylor Swift. Bob Marley.
Many of the commenters on the article have already deconstructed Gennet’s argument and offered many strong reasons why learning to be musically literate is not only useful, but necessary in most musical professions. His rationalization is similar to saying one could become a great actor without learning to read a script. It’s certainly possible, but very limiting to learn your lines and communicate with your colleagues without being literate. Similarly, you will limit your musical abilities and possibilities if you eschew learning to read music. Gennet wrote:
As a musician, your ability in most live situations to quickly transpose a piece or adapt to sudden deviations is way more valuable than being locked to an inflexible script, as is your ability to stretch out and at times improvise.
He creates a false dichotomy here. Your ability to read notation has no bearing whatsoever on your abilities to adapt and improvise. While Gennet lists some exceptional jazz musicians in his list of musically illiterate musicians, by and large jazz musicians both work hard to be able to sight read and perform from sheet music as well as to improvise and deviate from the notation. They are two sides of the same coin, not two mutually exclusive skills. Many orchestral musicians, trumpet players for example, also work very hard to be able to transpose sheet music by sight as well. Learning to read notation is integral to this skill.
Furthermore, I call shenanigans on the list of musicians Gennet claims did not read music. As some of the commenters on his article have pointed out, many of those musicians had other folks in the background that were highly musically literate helping them out. The Beatles, for example, had George Martin notate parts for their recordings. Others, such as Charles Mingus, Danny Elfman, and Dave Brubeck may have not learned to sight read well, but certainly were musically literate.
I don’t know Gennet’s music or his musical literacy, however my suspicion is that his article will get used more as justification for musical illiteracy, rather than evidence that ear training, transposition, and improvisation are useful tools for creativity. Shame on Gennet, as a proclaimed educator, to rationalize illiteracy of any kind.
A very small part of the population has what is commonly called “perfect pitch.” More properly known as “absolute pitch,” individuals who possess it inherently know what pitch is being played and can sing any give pitch without a point of reference at any time. It offers an advantage to musicians, however our current understanding strongly suggests that this is a skill that needs to be developed before the age of 9 and can’t be learned as an adult.
That hasn’t stopped a lot of folks from trying to train adults to acquire perfect pitch. A lot of these are probably scams, although some may be good ways to teach ear training. One common approach is to train your sense of pitch memory so that you always have a point of pitch reference.
A recent study investigated this by training subjects to their working memory for pitch recognition. After going through a training program that offered corrections and reinforcements, subjects scored significantly better on tests where they were asked to recreate and label pitches. Lead researcher Howard Nusbaum said:
This is the first significant demonstration that the ability to identify notes by hearing them may well be something that individuals can be trained to do. It’s an ability that is teachable, and it appears to depend on a general cognitive ability of holding sounds in one’s mind.
I agree with what Richard Moss wrote in the same article. There is a pretty vast difference between the perfect pitch abilities of someone who acquired it in childhood compared with those of individuals who have developed it in adulthood. Nusbaum, et al, seemed to acknowledge this in their article abstract, noting that “the performance typically achieved by this population [acquired at adulthood] is below the performance of a ‘true’ AP possessor.”
It would also appear that developing true absolute pitch as an adult is extremely rare, in spite of all the courses and effort folks often take in developing it. That’s not to say that working on your pitch memory is bad, any ear training is good for your musicianship. I would recommend, however, that you focus your ear training practice on skills that are practical for what you want to do. I would argue that it’s more important to focus your effort on pitch relationships, that is to say, relative pitch. Even folks with perfect pitch have to practice this and spend time on it, and this skill is much more critical than being able to recognize a pitch without a point of reference.
Mick, a trumpet/cornet playing friend of mine, and I were recently talking about jazz harmony. A while back Mick found a great resource on common patterns in traditional jazz (I wrote about it here, but the original page seems to have been deleted). That blog and our conversation reminded me of something put together by pianist Marc Sabatella called The Harmonic Language of Standards. Sabatella’s discussion on jazz harmony was required reading for my jazz improvisation students. I think it’s a great summary of the harmonic language of jazz standards.
While only a summary of his more in-depth book, you can get quite a bit out of reading what Sabatella has made available for free on his web site. He has put together a very complete list of common chord progression patterns in a section about functional harmony. In my opinion, one of the most useful parts of it are Sabatella’s breakdown of common idioms. He divides basic chord patterns into five categories – cadential progressions, pre-cadential progressions, static progressions and turnarounds, transitional progressions, and modulations.
Just as we can usually break a song down into a handful of broad sections such as AABA, we can usually break down each section into a handful of these idiomatic phrases. The phrases I am talking about are usually around two measures each. At slower tempos they may be squeezed into a single measure, and at faster tempos they might take four measures each.
An understanding of these types of chord patterns really helps me memorize chord progressions because instead of thinking so much about individual chords I’m thinking of broader chord patterns. It also helps you come up with some new ways to think about chord progressions and reharmonizations.
Sabatella mentions an example he uses on how to apply these principles to composition.
I then discuss how to apply your understanding of chord progressions to substitution and reharmonization, using the standard My One And Only Love by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin as an example. Looking at just the “A” section, I first break it down into a series of eight harmonic phrases and then show how to go about performing substitutions using other idioms from the same categories as well as more direct application of the guidelines of harmony themselves.
This is a great exercise for composers. Take a tune you know and break down the chord progression by the common idioms. Make note of certain key centers and using those as a goal, write a new chord progression that continues to maintain the road map of common idioms. For example, if you take the A sections of rhythm changes you might start your A section on the tonic, write a static chord progression for three measures, transition to the IV chord in measure 4, then cadence back to I in measure 6. A static chord progression for 7 and 8.
Just to demonstrate, I came up with the following by intentionally being a little goofy with it and in the process I bent some of the parameters from the rhythm changes A sections. I often compose chord progression in this way, with target harmonic goals in mind and then try out different things randomly until I get something I really like. My solution:
Here’s another short online quiz you can take to test whether you are tone deaf. I’ve written about congenital amusia before. The test that I linked to then was much more difficult and designed for scholarly inquiry. Today’s tone deaf test is much easier. It only takes a few minutes. Try it out and let us know how you did.
I recently got the chance to teach an introduction to improvising over a blues in F to a couple of classes at North Buncombe Middle School. I put together a handout for the students and wanted to share it here, along with some ideas on how you can use this to introduce improvisation to virtually any group of woodwinds and brass players. It’s basic concept is flexible enough that you can use it to teach age ranges from middle school to adults and adjust the speed and difficulty level accordingly.
The very first thing on each part is the F blues scale. Letter A is one chorus of blues in F with the chord symbols for each part and each chord arpeggio stacked up to the 7th of the chord. But before you even hand out the music to your band, I suggest you try teaching some of this to them by ear. Depending on your students, what they may already know or be able to pick up, and how much time you have to devote to this, you might do only a bit by ear and then refer to the handouts. If you have a lot of time you might be able to do the whole thing by ear. But no matter what level or age group, I think it’s important to approach teaching improvisation as “sound before sight.” The goal is to get the students playing what’s not on the page, so get them used to not using music as quickly as possible.
You may want to start teaching by ear by demonstrating one strategy to help beginners match your pitch. Have a student who plays an instrument quite different from the one you’re playing chose a random pitch and hold it out. Whatever pitch he or she played, play a pitch a ways away from it and play a slow chromatic scale, getting slower the closer you get to the pitch, until you end up on the same pitch. I would intentionally do this on an octave or two away, if feasible, to also demonstrate that you can use the same technique if the pitch they’re trying to match is out of their normal playing range.
Then with a goal in mind, teaching the blues scale for example, teach your band the pitches one note at a time. When the majority of your band has matched the pitch, cut them off and establish what concert pitch everyone was playing. I usually do this by asking students in different sections, although sometimes you have to introduce transposition if they haven’t learned how to do it yet, so you might skip that step or just ask about what pitch their transposed pitch was.
Teaching the basics of the blues form can also be done by ear. In the clinics I gave the other day I taught them the roots of the three chords by ear and then had them repeat riffs back to me. I played only a single pitch (F, Bb, and C) on each riff and just played simple rhythms, but in doing it I went around the blues form. With plenty of time or more advanced students you could teach the chord arpeggios or fragments of chords by ear as well.
Here are the riffs at letter B.
There are three riffs happening that when put together provide enough of an accompaniment to improvise over. Higher voices, such as high woodwinds and trumpets, have a rhythmic riff that is based on the 3rd and 7th of each chord. The tenor and alto voices have a 3 note riff with longer notes and the bass voices play the triads of each chord.
Because each riff is simple you can teach them to your band by ear and even make everybody learn all three riffs, depending on how much time you can devote. At the very least, it’s useful for everyone to learn to play the bass riff by using the stacked chords at letter A. The other day when I was giving this workshop the balance of the mixed groups I was working with was such that there wasn’t enough of the bass line. I simply had some of the other lower range instruments play the chord arpeggios over the form. If you need more of another riff, you can also easily change sections around as needed.
Whether you teach the riffs by ear or from the handout (or make up your own riffs), once the band has gotten it together enough have them play it at a quiet dynamic level while you demonstrate improvising over it. Whatever basic concepts I want to teach with them is how I will play hear. I suggest that you choose a single topic to work on at this point and focus their attention on that. For example, if you’re going to be teaching them to use the blues scale for note choice selections, make yourself demonstrate only using notes in the blues scale. Other topics you could use here include using silence to build interest, playing long notes versus short notes, chord tone soloing, modal improvisation, whatever (if possible, see if you can introduce this topic earlier in your workshop by ear). But play a chorus or two while they accompany you and then you can explain what you did.
Then get your band riffing and go down to different players and have them try it out. You can do this a number of different ways, depending on your circumstances and goals. I like to have every student play at least 4 bars and go around the entire band with everyone trading fours. If you have a small enough group and enough time everyone can take a chorus, or you can even just let the braver students jump in and try them out.
Regardless of how you organize the students into improvising themselves, I think it’s a good idea to pause a couple of times or so, not only to rest chops and ears, but to evaluate a little bit what was going on. I prefer to emphasize positive things I noticed as well as offer suggestions at this time that other students can try. Demonstrate again for them, if there’s time.
The nice thing about using this approach is that it’s flexible. The handouts are designed to help speed things along and give a clinic that goes about 30-45 minutes, but you can jump right in and get them going right away with the handouts. I’ve done similar warmups with student big bands. If you want, you can spend maybe 10 minutes warming up your band on a piece of the handout and the next rehearsal quickly review what you did previously and learn something else new.
Most of what they are covering deal with playing traditional jazz or swing for dancers, and many of the students here came for the dancing and are taking “add on” classes in music too. Others are here specifically for the music track, but many of those musicians are also dancers.
Even though I knew to expect there to be musicians around at this dance camp, I was surprised to see how many of the dancers are also musicians and brought instruments to jam. Sessions seem to spring up pretty regularly and walked from one room to hear a crowd of musicians around a piano jamming on New Orleans jazz into another room where some folks were playing gypsy jazz and singing. There’s an overall sense in that making music, like swing dancing, is something that is supposed to be participatory, not separated into performers and audience.
The staff really knows the music very well and are great at getting their points across, even in some of the larger classes with musicians of mixed abilities. They’ve been emphasizing learning tunes and concepts by ear yet at the same time teach the music theory. They also play for and with the students a lot.
There are a couple of more days left in this year’s Lindy Focus, but my impressions at this point are that the first music track has been quite successful and has been definitely worth my effort to sit in on. Semi-professional and amateur musicians interested in traditional jazz would definitely get a lot out of this music track, if they decide to host the music track again for 2014.
Ever since the National Association for Music Education adopted its National Standards for Music Education one area that band directors have begun to address in more detail than ever before is improvisation. NAfME’s standards include:
Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
In many band programs, however, this can be a real challenge for directors to implement, particularly if he or she has had little to no experience playing jazz. If you don’t happen to play one of the typical jazz instruments the chances that you feel uncomfortable are high. This essay is designed for band directors who want to introduce improvisation with their students in the concert band specifically, although music teachers should be able to find ways to adapt these ideas for almost any situation with a little thought and creativity.
The first thing to understand is that everyone improvises all the time, but we often don’t think about it when it happens because we’re so used to it. When rehearsing our concert band we improvise a great deal by responding to what we’re hearing and addressing them in patterns that we know (or hope) will be successful. As we get more experience teachings we pick up on new ideas and try them out, eventually coming up with our own teaching style that fits our own personality and style. This process isn’t really all that different from how we can develop an improvisational style, it’s just a different context.
The way we teach is highly influenced by those who taught us. Improvisation should be equally influenced by an informed opinion of what we think works and fits how we want to play. In order to improvise convincingly we should be familiar with lots of different players. Probably the most important thing that we as band directors can do is listen to lots of great improvisers and encourage our students to listen to great improvisers as well. It’s sort of like learning to speak a language from reading a book. You can learn the “grammar” and “spelling” of musical improvisation from a book, but if you don’t listen to it performed by the masters you’re going to end up with a funny “accent.”
Improvising for the first time can be a daunting task. There are lots of different things to keep track of all at once and the amount of multitasking is intimidating for many students. That said, when you consider improvisation at its basic level there are really three main areas of concern – when to play, what to play, and how to play it.
When to play is usually the first thing I address with teaching improvisation to a new group of students in a longer-term improvisation class. Subtopics in this area of concern include using silence, playing with good phrasing, rhythmic density, etc. The main point I want to get across at first is that you don’t have to play all the time and, in fact, it’s often more interesting to leave room in your improvisations for your audience to guess what’s coming next. I like to demonstrate to new students what this can be like by improvising a solo by using much more silence than I normally would. When a soloist doesn’t play for a long time the tension can really build up and no matter what you play next the release can be quite surprising and enjoyable. Get your students to duplicate this in their own solos as much as possible.
Leaving silence in improvisations has additional benefits beyond simply making your solos more interesting. It allows the accompanists to interact more conversationally. It also gives the student a chance to evaluate what he or she just played and how effective it was and then think about what’s coming up next. This is also another one of NAfME’s standards.
Evaluating music and music performances.
Items that address what to play are actually pretty easy to find. This includes things like chord/scale relationships, playing chord tones and non-chord tones, playing outside the changes, etc. There are lots of great resources all over on this aspect of improvisation, so rather than duplicate a lot of it here I’ll instead focus on what I think the best way to teach this element of improvisation is.
Music is an aural art form. It exists in sound, not on the paper. With improvisation it is even more important to learn to listen and imitate the sounds you hear. When introducing note choices to students new to improvisation I always teach them by playing a pitch and having them find it on their instrument by ear.
A simple ear training exercise you can do with your concert band is to play random notes and have your students try to match pitch. Some students will be better than others and it’s helpful for struggling students to have a strategy to help them out. I usually advice my students to simply play a chromatic scale until they hear themselves match the pitch. Over time they will find it easier to hear when they’ve found the right pitch and may even begin finding it faster by learning how far away they are and leaping closer to the correct pitch. Once students get used to matching pitch with you playing the lead have a student volunteer play the random pitches instead.
As an aside, I find many students will use their eyes, rather than their ears, to figure out the pitch. As a trombonist I get in the habit of playing lots of pitches with alternate positions to see if the trombone section is just watching my slide rather than finding pitches by ear. Students will often look over to their section peers to look at fingerings rather than risk guessing the wrong pitch. It’s up to you to encourage them to avoid this and instead really try to find pitches by ear. The payoff will be much better in the long run if they can learn to find pitches aurally, rather than visually. Once most of the class has found the pitch I will tell the band what the pitch is to help provide feedback, but I always make them give me an honest effort first.
Once I have a band able to match pitches fairly well I will teach them by ear basic scales (pentatonic, blues scale, or scale fragments) that can be used to improvise over a simple vamp. If they want or need to write down pitch names I will usually allow it, but they again have to give me an honest effort to learn these scales by ear before I’ll help them with the pitch names. Next I’ll teach the band some simple riffs that set up a vamp (again by ear) that fits those pitches.
As a composer I try to limit the number of independent lines I’m writing to no more than three or four (with some exceptions according to the effect I’m after). For the purposes of setting up a vamp for improvisation with a concert band I feel two or three riffs works best. Again, I teach my students the riffs by ear and have the whole band learn some basic riffs. After the band has got the gist of each riff I assign parts to them and get them to set up the vamp. Once the groove is happening, I’ll demonstrate by improvising a simple solo (using only the notes I taught them just before) over their accompaniment.
Since I’m a composer and experienced improviser, coming up with chord vamps and riffs isn’t really a big deal for me, but for many band directors this is a brick wall. In order to help those folks out, I’ve put together some riffs that you can use in PDF form here. Three of the examples are simple two-chord vamps with three simple riffs notated in all standard transpositions. One example is a blues progression in Eb with parts for each standard concert band instrument. Again, I usually teach students these riffs by ear and then later hand out parts if needed (or, better still, have the students learn to notate these riffs themselves).
Once you’re able to get your band riffing on this simple chord progressions you’re ready to get them to play solos. If you want to ease them into solo improvisation one way I like to get them started is to play a very simple (one or two note) idea with a metronome click and have them play the lick back at me. Use the a scale that will work over the vamp you want them to improvise over, but don’t use more than three notes (see the handouts from above for some scale choices over the vamps I wrote out). The point here is to teach them that they don’t need to play a very complex lick to sound tasteful. I emphasize that all they can play very interesting ideas by rhythmically improvising on even just one or two notes.
Then go around your ensemble and have everyone play 2, 4, or 8 measures of improvisation. Some students will jump right in and go wild while others will freeze up. With the eager students it can be helpful to get them to scale back their improvisation and not try to squeeze in every idea they have into just 4 measures. With timid students my goal is to get them to play just one note (then just one note more, now two notes, etc.). You can also have some students practice playing longer solos.
Another exercise I like to use is to have students come up with their own background riffs using only notes in the scale I’ve given them to improvise with. Each of the PDF examples I posted has three riffs, one that functions as a bass line, one chord support, and one melodic riff. Simply remove the melodic riff from the vamp and have a student play his or her own riff in place of it, then have the other students pick up that riff by ear.
You’ll notice that in almost every step of my process I emphasize teaching students ideas by ear. Having good aural skills is a critical ability for improvisation. While it’s certainly possible to create interesting improvisations from selecting note choices by reading notation this approach is limiting. Teaching your students to match pitches by ear will train them to “hear” the ideas they have in their head and play them more spontaneously.
Conversely, only teaching improvisation through playing by ear will also hinder development. I always like to point out that music theory IS ear training and vice versa. After you teach improvisational techniques by ear go back later and teach your students the theory behind it. More advanced concepts can be first learned via a theoretical approach (e.g., read this scale and then apply those notes over this chord vamp), but emphasize while practicing this way that your students should be listening closely to the sounds and making the connection between what they are seeing with what they are hearing. When using this approach reiterate to your students that they should intentionally leave a lot of silence in their improvisations to give them a chance to evaluate what they just played and then think a bit about what they are going to do next.
I recommend that you make improvisation a regular warmup with your group. You don’t have to improvise with them every day or even every week, but go back to improvisation every so often with them to reinforce what they’ve learned and get them to practice it more. Like most musical skills, improvisation abilities are developed over the long term and we can’t simply teach it in one class and expect that our students will become successful at it. In fact, you can break down all of the above steps and exercises into their own warmup and spread them out over the course of a week or so. Easing your students into improvisation this way will help some of your students who are more nervous about improvisation get used to the idea of playing a solo over time. All your students will benefit from the repetition of ear training and music theory over time, helping them retain these skills.
And of course, have fun with it. The more you project that you’re enjoying the music the more it will “jazz up” your concert band for learning to improvise. Even if many of these students will never join a jazz band you’ll find that the ear training and music theory practice they get will help them become better musicians and benefit your concert band in ways you didn’t expect.
Good luck! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below.