Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Playing Advice: A Re-cap of Musical Principles

At one point this blog was partially about the experience of learning to play music as an adult.  I did that even while knowing that my approach and viewpoint was a bit too peculiar to suit such a universal purpose.

With that disclosure, here are some musical notes (to self) - really just a re-cap of musical principles I've been keeping in mind over the last year or more.

Playing Music On An Instrument Is Like Whistling, or A Melody Can Be A Standalone Piece of Music
This stems from the belief that a melody is not something that is derived from or played over a set of chord changes, but that a melody is the music.  When you whistle a song what are you whistling?  Usually it's the vocal melody line.  You whistle it naturally without thinking about it intellectually or theoretically.  Instead of strumming chords and singing, I pluck instrumental melodies on tenor banjo to accomplish what is essentially the same thing as whistling.

This belief in melody also comes from my exposure to Irish music, where the traditional tunes are already complete pieces of music when played as melody lines by an individual on violin, or accordion, or flute, and so on.  My preference for melody may also come from listening to the playing of Jerry Garcia.  His "solos" on almost any conventional Grateful Dead or JGB song were really just further expressions on the vocal melody line.

Tell Your Subliminal Mind That Playing Your Instrument Is A Very Natural Thing To Be Doing
Basically this is simple - loosen up!  Playing and learning music should not be stressful or frustrating.  If you are tense or awkward during the playing of music your body will start to associate that activity with those feelings.  Posture and alignment are important.  Music playing should be a time of enjoyment, comfort and relaxation.

Scale Fingerings For Instruments Tuned in 5ths, or There Are Various Different Ways To Finger A Scale
I once took some mandolin lessons from Dennis Elliot in Richmond, VA, who I highly recommend.  Dennis introduced me to a complete, well thought out technique of closed position scale fingerings for the mandolin that could be applied to any position on the fretboard, starting on any note in the major scale.  This stuck with me even though it's not always easy to implement this technique on the longer scaled tenor banjo.

Then I discovered something called the Never Ending Scale by Dave Haughey, which is kind of like the cello version of the mandolin closed position scale fingerings that Dennis Elliot showed me.  Since tenor banjo is somewhere between cello and mandolin when it comes to scale length, an understanding of both the mandolin and cello closed position scale fingering best practices could lead to a hybrid form that could be fluidly applied to tenor banjo.

There's also the ongoing question of Irish tenor banjo fingering, pertaining most specifically to frets 2 through 5 (or 2 through 7) when playing in first position using open strings where available.  Some use a mandolin technique that assigns the middle finger to frets 3 and 4 and the ring finger to fret 5.  Others, like myself, try to use more of a one-finger-per-fret format that puts the middle finger on fret 3, ring finger on fret 4 and pinkie finger on fret 5.

The Major Scale Is The Foundation For Most Western Music, or Melodies Are Really Just Scale Exercises
The idea of scale fingerings described above really opened me to the section called Seven Worlds in David Reed's extraordinary book Improvise For Real.  The tonal center can be any note of the scale -- seven harmonic environments.

Learning the mnemonic I Don't Punch Like Muhammed A Li has helped me remember the seven modes.  The major scale from note 1 to 1 is known as Ionian, 2 to 2 is Dorian, 3 to 3 is Phrygian, 4 to 4 is Lydian, 5 to 5 is Mixolydian, 6 to 6 is Aeolian, and 7 to 7 is Locrian.  There are two scales that start with L but it's pretty easy to remember that 4 (the Phishy Lydian scale) is the one that you might actually play, while 7 (Locrian) is more theoretical than musically practical.

Melodies are really just scales arranged in a certain order.  Any melody line can be broken down by figuring out which major scale it is using.  A song in A-minor (a key signature with no sharps or flats) is probably using the C-major scale with note six of that scale as its tonal center.

Include Time In Practice For Improvisation, or Play Free
This quote comes from a 2011 JAZZed interview with pianist John Medeski:
I also recommend playing free as part of your practice. First do your technique warm-up and then sit down and play free. You can sit down and play a sunset, you can play an emotion, you can play a scenario – it can be programmatic, it can be romantic, it can be whatever but do it every day as part of your practice. Then you can go work on learning tunes, writing, studying harmony, lines, approach tones – all that other stuff that you need to learn – but first get yourself in a warmed up state and connected to your instrument and then play free. That’s how you find your voice and stay connected to it. That way you know what all these sounds mean to you. You can’t be taking your cues from everybody else – we need to know what every chord and every note means to us and what every combination of those notes means to us. Then when we play them it is coming from us. (John Medeski)
Lastly, Be Open (To All Influences), and Write It Yourself
Melodies can be mined from endless sources:  15 minutes into a Phish jam, sounds from nature, a theme song to a children's show or a TV jingle, adding music to a spoken phrase like “you are tearing me apart Lisa!”.  If you are open at all times the inspiration can come from anywhere.

By Write It Yourself I don't necessarily mean write your own songs or music, although that is one aspect of it.  What I mean is put it in your own words.  Take musical knowledge you are gaining and treat it as if you came up with it yourself.  A hobbyist musician probably doesn't need to have a strict by-the-book music school understanding of all aspects of music theory.  Music theory is really just an attempt to define what is already going on.  So just define it in your own terms.  That may lead to creating your own music under your own terms, which is great too!

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