A few years back, I happened to find Maria's @improvaday project and was thrilled to see what she was doing - I've followed it ever since! If you don't follow her on Instagram - @mariafinkperc - you are seriously missing out. She creates miniature compositions out of ordinary objects. Although Maria uses conventional percussion instruments too, the coolest ones are those that serve as a simple reminder that music is always around us. We just may not be taking advantage of those musical opportunities like her! Here are a few of my favorites...
Maria was also recently asked to do a live version of @improvaday. A component of the improvised performance is a reel of clips from @improvaday that are quantized. Check it out!
When I went up to meet Maria at her Boston studio, I think we were both unsure about how this session would take shape because we both do a lot of improvising. That means so many choices. Improvisation can be individually active, interactive, or reactive. When playing with other people that are comfortable creating spontaneous music, it can encompass all of that which ultimately means that the possibilities are endless. This is the best part about collaborating because it's interesting to hear everyone's improv vocabulary, instrument choices and to learn to play with others in a short amount of time. It's also nice to talk about upcoming projects and how improvisation plays a role in their creative, performing and teaching endeavors.
Maria's thoughts on how she uses improvisation in her daily routine
"Improvisation finds it's way into my daily from many angles. The @improvaday project is always on my mind - even outside of the practice room. When I'm in a new environment, or working with collaborators, I often try to find something in the room that will make sound. These micro improvisations help me get to know the room/instruments, and create relationships with others. They are fun, light, and establish a playfulness in the space. To me, the idea of not taking oneself too seriously is important! When composing, or preparing for a performance, I also use improvisation as a creative stimulus and tool. I think that the foundation of improvisation in my work has helped me develop my voice as an artist, finding my own musical vocabulary, and allowed me to more clearly articulate my contributions when collaborating on new projects."
In Boston, my setup consisted of a Zildjian Spiral Trash Cymbal, two bourbon bottles (unfortunately empty), a medium tom-tom, a few metal bowls and a stock pot, which was salvaged from a local food processing plant. Maria's included a sampling pad, four resonant metal pipes, two large stock pots and a low A marimba.
The first two performances are free improvisations and the third is a work-up of my latest improvisation etude. Thanks again Maria for hanging with me. You rock!
My newest pitched improvisation etude
If you like this etude try one of the others! One pitched and one non-pitched etude is available in the sheet music shop for free. Once they're all done, I will be compiling them in a book that will be available for purchase from the shop as well. I currently have 5 of each complete.
More about Maria:
How I first connected with Cathedral Kitchen
Two years ago, the school where I teach partnered with the Cathedral Kitchen, a "soup kitchen" and much more in Camden, NJ, to teach our students about giving back through a series of service projects. Over the past two years, because of the Cathedral Kitchen and its staff, I have seen the efforts of true kindness and it has absolutely changed the way I look at the world as a whole.
A few quick facts about them...
-In 2015, the Cathedral Kitchen served about 100,000 meals
-Guests are not charged, and and no one is ever turned away
-The Kitchen also delivers meals to local after-school programs and groceries to low-income senior centers, and more
-They are currently the largest emergency food provider in Camden, NJ
-Cathedral Kitchen operates a culinary arts training program where about 60 students per year learn skills in the industry and leave as employable workers
-They provide free dental care and general health screenings on site
How I am trying to help
In an effort to help out in my own way, I wanted to compose a piece of music that not only directly benefits the Cathedral Kitchen, but also generates awareness for this awesome organization. Spare Change actually came to life a few months back while I was cleaning out my car and found a bag of change. From working with the Kitchen, I knew that a small bag like that could feed several people, and I was unintentionally taking it for granted. So I dropped what I was doing and began improvising using the coins as a sound source as well as an added color while striking the drum in the normal manner. Before I knew it, I had several ideas sketched out and began piecing it together, using improvisation as the connective tissue.
Once Spare Change is released, I will donate 50% of all sales to the Cathedral Kitchen. So anybody who plays it will be making a difference. To give you an idea of costs, each meal served up at the Cathedral Kitchen costs about four dollars, so for every piece sold approximately two people will be able to eat. My goal is to raise $1300 with this initiative, which would cover a complete meal service for a day - that's 325 meals.
Thanks for taking the time to read and please share on social media to help me spread the word about this organization!
Finally! The purpose of this post is to give you all some clear ideas on how to use improvisation as a practice tool. What better piece to showcase some of these ideas than the famous xylophone part from Porgy and Bess! Since I am letting you into my practice session here, I have decided to talk and play throughout the videos, so this will be the only written part. Enjoy and happy practicing!!
P.S. I can't wait to hear what you all think of 12c!!
Images from videos:
So far I've had some awesome responses regarding Improvisation Etude 1 and today, I'm excited to release Etude 2! This is the first in the non-pitched series and it focuses on a single instrument. I chose to play it on snare drum this time and actually recorded four different takes to show how many different ways it may be interpreted depending on sticks/mallets, instrument and simply how you are feeling at the time of the performance. I will be gradually releasing each version of the piece below, so check for updates through my social media pages...
The other aspect that Etude 2 focuses on is time. Have you ever noticed that time goes by much slower while you practice or perform? When playing, we can really draw out each second to make as much (or as little) of it as possible. It's actually a pretty amazing feeling to truly be in the moment! When our brain is totally engaged in an activity like music making, time can almost stand still.
So...you will need a stopwatch because each section explores the length of 30 seconds. That amount of time feels like the blink of an eye in our everyday lives, but you'll feel differently once you try this!!
All you have to do to get a copy of either etude is email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A few weekends ago, I visited my teacher and mentor, Gordon Stout. We had plenty of time to hang out, eat amazing Chinese food, drink great coffee and talk shop. He even agreed to do a few improvisations with me, too, which brings us here!
The thing that has always impressed me about Gordon (besides his incredible playing) is that he always puts the music first. He is the number one advocate for the composer and always seems to make decisions that let the music shine. I got to experience this first hand while preparing the premiere and then again through the recording of my "Duo for Snare Drum and Marimba" which appears on Gordon's latest cd "Welcome to Stoutland". He was always willing to make adjustments and of course added his own touch to my music that made it infinitely better. Check out the last movement of the studio version of the piece below, featuring Gordon and myself. You can find the sheet music too by clicking here!
Although I have performed with Gordon before, this most recent experience was different. The cool thing about these #improvise sessions is that you can really hear his voice on the marimba. Some of the licks you hear may even remind you of his compositional style or works themselves. This really goes to show how many composers develop pieces and find their own voice through improvising at their instrument(s). Think about it... by doing so, you take away all of the barriers of written music and you are left with your own thoughts and can begin to develop and express them in multiple ways. It's the most organic way to create music.
Before working with Gordon in grad school, I actually wrote most of my music at the computer. Then I saw the way he would improvise, turning his thoughts into compositions. I started expanding my own writing process then, improvising some sections and developing others on paper or even just leaving a section open in the music where I could create during the performance itself (like in the duo, bounce! and Float) There is no wrong answer as long as the end result is a piece that makes you happy. You have to find your own path and writing style.
This is what Gordon has to say about his process:
"I get many of the ideas for my compositions through improvising on the marimba. Often when warming up, and playing "standard" types of exercises, I begin to vary them and try them in different ways, so that my brain also stays active and involved. When I hear something I like, I write it down immediately. Then improvise some more on the idea, then write down more, etc. etc. Depending on the idea, I will either stay with paper and pencil, or go to the computer (Sibelius) to end the idea. Sometimes, I work between the marimba, the computer, and paper and pencil. Sometimes, once on the computer, it stays on the computer. Sometimes it stays on paper with pencil. Each piece reveals to me what is the best method for continuation."
I think that it is really important for young composers to hear that even Gordon, being the most prolific composer of percussion music today, finds many ways to develop his ideas-all starting with improvisation. By the way, Gordon is presently composing more than ever, so be on the lookout for many new releases!
I used to play drumset for this vaudeville-style burlesque variety show in Manhattan on Saturday nights. The show is pretty crazy - jugglers, comedians, a sword swallowing belly dancer and plenty of half naked women. At some point, I needed a sub and at the time didn’t really know anyone in NYC. Somehow I got Josh’s name and he was available. After he came to watch the show, his only words were “What the…!?”, but he told me he’d play. We talked for a while about percussion, good whiskey and other stuff that I can’t remember. Keep in mind that music you make with people you can get along with is much better than music made with people you can’t.
Since then, Josh has been doing some awesome things. He just finished the 2016 “NY Spectacular” show at Radio City holding the drum chair. He has also held the Timpani/Percussion chair for the production “Heart and Lights” and the famed “Christmas Spectacular”. Currently, Josh subs on Broadway’s Aladdin, Jersey Boys and performs in the Tri-State area.
For post 9, Josh and I decided to focus on the non-pitched palette. Our overall goal for this performance was to blur the lines between rhythm and gesture. Sustain from the chimes, cymbals, bass drum and thunder sheet is one way we could easily accomplish this even though it is not an easy task! We also experimented with alternating roles - if I heard Josh playing more rhythmic patterns, I tried to do less of it. We also took bursts of notes we played and developed them independently to produce a mass of sound that has rhythmic drive, but not necessarily in a tempo and certainly not in time with each other (even though we do groove as well). Since we were short on time, we only recorded one video, but there will be a second part to this collaboration sometime in the fall. Enjoy!
(Note: the piccolo snare drum and cajon are not visible in my setup)
*Headphones strongly encouraged due to the extreme dynamic contrasts*
We chose to assemble a multi-percussion setup using both pitched and non-pitched instruments or a "super marimba" as Phil called it. In my previous posts I focused on keeping pitched and non-pitched instruments separate, but you'll see here that combos work too. The melodic material is based on four notes: C-F-F#-B and we slowly progress into the key of C minor.
This one features lots of metric modulations and also body percussion (clapping, snapping, stomping, etc...) as well as the two doumbeks. Another version of the non-pitched palette!
One thing that was really interesting to me about this one is how we explored long notes using bass tone. If you focus on the two pitches it is like a melody.
The four notes D-Eb-Bb-G are developed during this session. Listen to how far we take it! Compositional tools such as augmentation, diminution, inversions and more were used. Phil had so many great melodies in this one!!
Free improvisation on snare drum. Can you name the pieces Phil quoted?? You better...
The theme in this session is the paradiddle. Notice how we took elements of the paradiddle sticking and turned them into phrases. We also expanded to double, triple and paradiddle-diddle. Check out "Rudimental Arithmetic" by Bob Becker for more permutations of these stickings. That book changed my life.
Thank you to Phil O'Banion for your time and amazing musicianship! Everyone should now go listen to his new album of pieces for percussion and electronics called "Digital Divide". It features music by Ivan Trevino, Andy Akiho, Lane Harder, Baljinder Sekhon and Patrick Long. That is all.
Like it? All you have to do to get a copy is email me at email@example.com. More importantly, it's free! In return, I just want to see it performed in as many ways possible.
"Our goal with these sessions was to use improvisation as a means to develop chamber music skills. Before each piece, we set a goal for a performance technique we wanted to emphasize. For example, we would set out to pay close attention to ensemble balance for a piece, or to focus on group phrasing.
In the first video, the technique of choice was cueing. We set out to lock onto cues, both visual and aural, as a means to trigger musical change. Throughout the piece, we had moments of sudden group shifts and moments of gradual progress. If this were a composed piece, we would spend rehearsal time assigning cueing roles. We wanted to use this same strategy in an improvised setting."
"For the second video, we decided to work in groups of two or more players to create a unified texture within the piece. As we began improvising, hockets started to emerge and this directed much of our playing. Groupings ended up changing very frequently, but our ensemble listening focused on fitting into one another’s parts."
I highly encourage everyone to go take a listen to what this group is up to. They are a great group of dudes that can really play and I hope they continue to make music together for a long time! Check out this feature with Vic Firth, which was recorded and shot by Evan Chapman!
Welcome to part two of my session with guest, Jaren Angud! (if you haven't checked out the first part yet, you can do so by clicking this link). Since I have already covered how to get started improvising on pitched instruments during post 3, this post will be directed at applying those concepts while also touching on the subject of group improvisation.
When you improvise with other people, you must be an active listener. The more you process what is happening around you, the more possibilities for music-making will be available. It is the same reason why chamber and Jazz combo musicians work without a conductor. If everyone is listening to one another, you don't need one!
Once you are able to truly listen and play, choices must be made.
If someone is...
-Staying up in the high register, go lower to free up some of those frequency levels
-Playing staccato notes/dead strokes, you have a choice to follow that texture or do the complete opposite (rolls, full resonant strokes)
-Playing at a loud dynamic, you may do the same...or may not
-Using the entire range of their instrument, you may just stick to one octave
In some cases, it may be interesting to try ignoring the other people, however if that approach is applied for too long the communication of the group will be lessened.
All of the above (and more) were aspects that Jaren and I faced during these sessions. In the videos below, you will see what we did/did not do while in the moment.
In improvise 5a, Jaren and I used one chord as inspiration. We may have occasionally strayed, but it was our "home base". Some people would call notes outside of the main chord wrong. We like to think of the notes outside of our chord as color tones that build tension (see what I did there?). Once you can free yourself of the fear of playing wrong notes, you will find that improvisation on keyboard instruments is much less stressful than you think. Through building up the ability to navigate your instrument well, it will also allow you to get out of tough situations during live performances where stopping and restarting is not an option. One of my mentors used to say that professionals make mistakes too, but recover a lot faster than everyone else!
Db Lydian Scale
Sometimes by putting a limitation on what you do can cause exploration of new places. In fact, many of my own compositions were created that way. You will hear how we do this during improvise 5b. Some of the new sounds came from playing on nodal points, lifting marimba bars while playing, hitting the frame/resonators, using deadstrokes, using rolls/rudiments and experimenting with strange "bow" sounds.
Each picked one note, but didn't tell each other what was chosen
In 5c, we chose to bring back the "can" idea, where we picked words at random that guided our music-making. This time, we even show the process of picking cards on camera...so sorry for the silliness...actually I'm not. You are welcome...
Major 7th interval (G and F#)
3 minute time limit
Is anyone else motivated to improvise yet? I promise that it will bring you closer to your instrument and elevate your technical, musical and performance abilities. Let me know what you think below and feel free to share your own sessions with me through email or on social media. Do it!!!!