The most critical part of your practice
I’ve been writing small songs and composing a lot over the past year now. To be honest, it has been quite a challenge. I can play music to a comfortable degree - I would consider myself an above average nylon string guitar player - but composing and songwriting has needed a very different mode of framing your practice sessions.
I did the usual, looking at a hundred videos on youtube, I took a coursera course, read a few books - but I never got to a point where I could feel confident about whats going on. I did have some good successes though - but mostly when inspiration struck.
My standard practice sessions are quite focussed and though I used to dedicate about a third of it to dedicated improvisation, the improvisations felt like I was just making things up without control or like I was just filled with inspiration and things flowed. Oscillating between the feeling of being like that monkey at the typewriter banging keys and hoping for Shakespeare and the feeling of being a perigrine falcon catching it’s prey after a divebomb.
Games and play to the rescue!
I touched on this in a previous post - where I touched on the idea of keeping a part of your session with the focus on creativity and playing small musical games.
Choose one game to play for a week at a minimum. Stick to it, you get better at the game with time. And come back to the same game after a while.
How to approach these games
Before any of these exercises, follow the following protocol.
Pick up your instrument and your recorder. Put the recorder on. Put a timer on for five minutes. Keep a metronome handy on your phone when you need it. Make sure the metronome is in your ears only if you do use it. Choose a key natural for your instrument (like A or E or D for guitar, C of flute etc…).
After any of these exercises, follow the following protocol.
When the timer rings. Stop. Make a tea or get a smoke, and listen to the five minutes. Listen to it like you are listening to a student. Pick a section from it that best of all the bits in there. It might not be good, or even evoke anything in you. If that is the case. Pick what is the best of the worst.
Take that small clip. And transcribe it in whatever notation system you have (standard notation, tabs, drawings…).
Reflect on what made you pick this bit over all the rest of the stuff in the five minutes of recording.
Note it down next to your transcription.
Here are some of the musical games I have invented over this time. There are tons more, but these are great to get started and build that mind-finger-instrument connection.
Pick up a novel or book around you, or open wikipedia’s homepage. Read a bit or see the first image and register what the mood is. Write that mood in a single short sentence or word. It could be something like “wildfire”, “a victorian genteman” or “spies in Berlin” (all from my notes).
Start making sounds, coaxing the music into that mood.
Three Note Cobra
Pick three notes on your instrument. If doing it for the first time, pick notes close together. Play melodies with these three notes. Start simple. Add breaks and syncopation slowly. After you finish the after protocol, take the line selected and sing it. Try to make it sound expressive with your voice.
A baião beat is a 8 eighth note pattern where the stress is on the 1st, 4th and 7th eighth note. It creates a kind of offness in the beat.
The pattern is 123-123-12.
Make melodies and patterns. You must make a sound on every stress beat. You can fill the other beats with notes. You must not subdivide the beat further with 16th notes and the like or extend notes to quarter notes and the like.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ • • •
Once you gain some familiarity, you can think of variations on the baião like:
12-123-123 or 123-12-123 and do the same exercise.
A great baião based piece to learn by the great Carlos Agguire.
Download my transcription here →.
Look up a chord progression of the first pop song that comes into your head.
Choose the first 4 chords and arpeggiate them over a 16 beat cycle.
Once you are familiar with the arpeggiation.
Alternate between one one cycle of the arpeggiation and one cycle of creating a melody with the chords running in your mind’s eye.
If you are feeling too comfy - start using chords from the Real Book.
Take a melody you can sing from memory.
To start, use songs that are simple - even childrens songs.
Sing one phrase of the melody over and over again.
Make melodies under your singing.
As you get comfy with the exercise increase the complexity of the sung melody.
There are tons of games I’ve made in this time. I’ve found these foundational when working with myself and now with my students. In a future post, I will outline a next progression of these where we spend a month at a time, honing in on much more technical elements of composition and extending mind-finger-instrument connections.
If I get the time, I will update this page with some examples of each game.
As usual - if you want to leave me a comment - hit me up in my contact page.
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