Monday, April 17, 2006

One-Note Pieces

I read somewhere that when people are tested for "creativity" a typical exercise is to be asked to think of as many possible uses for a brick as you can within a certain time limit.

Ugh. Can't think of anything more boring.

Similar, but genuinely fun, at least to me, is to take just one note and improvise a piece using it.

"Just one note?" my students will groan when I ask them to do this. And sure, it probably sounds very much like being asked to think of a zillion ways to use a brick. (Break a window, door stop, paperweight, center piece on a really wierd table, percussion object, Dadaist art object [on a pedestal ina museum], prop a window open, etc.)

It really is a good exercise in creativity, though. Allaudin Mathieu recommends it in The Listening Book, as does Tony Wigram in Improvisation: Methods and Techniques for Music Therapy Clinicians, Educators, and Students. (I sure hope the audio version of Mathieu's book gets rereleased, this time on CD rather than audio tape--there's nothing better than listening to him not only read the text but play musical examples. Wigram's book has a CD of examples.) And by the way, these two books are two of my three favorite "how to" books on improvisation, the other being Music for People's Return to Child. Buy them!

With just one note, you don't have to worry about playing the "right" one. Using that note, you improvise using every other aspect of music: dynamics, rhythms, tempo, rests, etc.

Create a sense of beginning and ending.

Go for extremes. See how many moods you can express. Play with syncopations. Play with all the elements of music and feeling you can.

Now, there can be disagreement among the "authorities" as to whether "one note" refers to just the particular note, middle C for example, or that note in all octaves, such as all the Cs on the piano.

Well, I don't know that there really is a disagreement among authorities. People writing about improvisation techniques are not the sort to depate each other in academic journals. Mathieu presents it as just the one key on the piano, at least initially. Wigram goes for all the octaves. Either way can make for a good musical game.

You'd be amazed at how satisfying, challeneging, and enjoyable one-note pieces can be. "Try it, you'll like it!"

Post script: my DePauw improvisation students one year were quite resistant to the one-note pieces. I kept extolling their virtues and enthusiastically demonstrating them, but still the students wanted to play more notes. Sure, play all the notes you want, I told them, but please try this. It was like trying to get my kids to eat broccoli.

Then a miracle occurred.

The jazz folks brought in some big-name jazz trombonist to perform and give a workshop. And the very first thing he did in his workshop was to demonstrate jamming on one note, and he said it was about the most important thing one could practice.

I wanted to shout out, "Yes! I am vindicated!" I maintained my usual semi-professional decorum, caught the eye of a few students, and shot them a see-I-told-you-so look, which was most satisfying. And they entered into the practice with something closer to enthusiasm. Not exactly enthusiasm, but something closer to it. At least they knew it was not some dumb thing I had thought up on my own.

So even if it doesn't sound all that appealing to you, go ahead and give it a try. Just like broccoli, you may develop a taste for it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I like the idea very much... another approach I have seen (this is more keyboard oriented, but can still be applied to other instruments) is to 2-4 note bass line improvisation... very different way of thinking than melodic improvisation...

-Mike Lunapiena