Saturday, March 28, 2009

Beat It! (in-depth exploration)

This post is (as the title suggests) a more in-depth exploration of a concept i presented earlier, specifically in my post titled, "Secondary General Music Classes"

This class is designed to be accessible to anyone. It is designed to allow students to explore many different sounds and ways to make music. It is also designed to help students realize that music can be found anywhere. The students will use any items that can be obtained, including available percussion instruments, to create sounds by striking, dropping, or throwing them. As the semester progresses, the students will be required to write down their favorite ideas. Also during the semester, the students will watch other groups, on video and in person, that perform in this improvisatory style and/or found sound style to get some ideas. And at the end of the semester, the students will put on a performance without any musical notation. This performance could just be video taped for the class or could be in front of an audience, which would be decided by the class.

The goals of this class would be to teach some basic notation. As the students start to need to write their ideas down, notation becomes a needed subject. Pitches would not be emphasized unless it becomes necessary. Students will also learn the basics of improvisation, as well as a beginning knowledge of the history of improvisation and it’s role in classical music. They learn to start with known rhythms, and then to create rhythms on the spot from a synthesis of their prior knowledge.

Introduction (Week One)

What the course is about, and a preview of things to come.

Beats and Rhythm (Weeks Two, Three, & Four)

Students will all be given sticks to begin experimenting with rhythms

Students will also be encouraged to write down the rhythms that they find they like

Students will also experiment in groups of twos and more in the same manner to discover

the way rhythms interact with each other

Found Sounds (Weeks Five, Six, & Seven)

Students will continue with the things in a like manner adding experimentation with

found sounds and incorporating the rhythms to work on “instrumentation”

History in Practice (Weeks Eight, Nine, Ten & Eleven)

Continue with previous concepts and begin discussing history of improvisation

Putting it Together (Weeks Twelve, Thirteen, & Fourteen)

Presentation of projects

Continue working with improvisation

Performance Planning (Weeks Fifteen, Sixteen & Seventeen)

Deciding what rhythms to use and what will be left open

Who plays what

What order to perform in

Performance and Debriefing (Week Eighteen)

Video and audio recording of performance

Talk about what was learned and the experience of spontaneous creation

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Musical Blending

In working with a show choir back-up band, I had the opportunity to view several shows, including a show choir from California. What I noticed was that the performances that I enjoyed most generally had music I recognized but arranged in a new and intriguing way, and having a Bachelors of Music Education I might be more prone to notice such things. Sometimes this was done with setting a song to a different style, and sometimes this was in taking two songs and blending them together. It got me thinking about why show choirs are doing this and not instrumental ensembles.

The obvious answer is that it's easier to do this with vocal music because they are less complex, especially when working with contemporary or "radio music". But this the ease of something shouldn't determine whether it is done or not. This musical blending can help make instrumental music more accessible to the casual listener, while also engaging performers in new techniques and styles of performance. People are more likely to want to hear more if they recognize parts of the music, even if in a different setting than they are used to. And this musical blending can also work in reverse, by making "radio music" more accessible to those that might not normally listen to it.

Marching bands have began integrating more modern dance into their body movements but still generally limit themselves musically. I have seen more and more break dancing and similar movements from the guard and sometimes the band breaking partially away from the "traditional" movements, but more is still needed. This isn't to say that their shows aren't enjoyable, but musical blending could bring a new level of performance energy and audience interaction to the shows.

Bands and orchestras seem to be the least experimental when it comes to this idea of musical blending. In general these ensembles' range of musical experimentation extends to 21st century music and no further. Perhaps some of the blame falls on the composers who write for these ensembles, but it also falls on the directors for not seeking out new ways to reach not only their students, but their audiences. Musical blending allows an audience to connect with the music in different ways and encourages further exploration of all aspects of a musical world, while also pushing performers to learn new styles and techniques. It's time to start actively pushing at the envelope, thinking outside the box, and writing our own musical history. George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," bet he didn't say we have to live in the past. Let's keep the past at our side, as we journey forward into our musical evolution.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Music Theory/Composition

These two classes are generally taught in tandem, and at first glance it makes perfect sense. Without a good understanding of theory, complex compositions are difficult at best, and what better way to practice the theory you learn than to personally write music using the skills learned. This idea is good in practice but in teaching one half of the class thoroughly you will do so at expense at the other half. To teach music theory, you need to build from the bottom up, and to teach composition you should be able to assume a base understanding of music theory. So you either teach a full semester of music theory and cram an entire year’s worth of knowledge into that one semester, then do the same with composition. Or you split the class into two year long classes with a prerequisite to composition being one year in theory.

All that said, theory courses are pretty straight forward. Generally they start with note reading, and work their way up to form and analysis. Composition courses are more difficult to organize. I think that composition should begin with melody lines. These lines should start in a single key, then progress to multiple keys, and finally to keyless and atonal. The second step should then be to compose a chord progression. The chord progression, just like the melody lines, should start in a single key, then progress to multiple keys and finally to keyless and atonal. Third, the young composers should begin to develop melody lines and chord progressions in tandem. It is important that they practice developing a melody line then a chordal accompaniment and vice versa in order to keep their minds flexible. Up to this point I would recommend using mostly block chords with minimal independent movement, except for suspensions and anticipations. The fourth phase would then be to begin to develop counter melodies and bass lines. Then moving into counter point and separate voicings and rhythms.

The last stage of the composition class would be to begin composing for instrumental groups. Beginning with small groups of like instruments and progressing up to symphonic orchestras and beyond. Ideally the class would hear live as many compositions as possible. Having their compositions performed allows them to get feedback into things that are difficult for instruments to play, and things that are difficult to read. Sometimes we, as composers, forget about the performer as a person needing to read the music and thus don’t write the music in an easily read format. I have often found that after I write a piece of music I can re-bar and re-stem many measures to make it easier to read. Also, a performance reflection may provide insight into a what key the music should be in if certain accidentals appear consistently.