Wednesday, January 27, 2016

There's always room for one more

At our New Year's Eve concert this year, we had a guest violinist.

I don't remember whether the director had told me she was coming or not. She may have hinted at it--I could have forgotten. I just didn't recall realizing she was coming ahead of time. But it didn't matter anyway.

People who have worked with me long enough realize that it isn't necessary to clear everything with me ahead of time. I can just roll with it. We met at the dress rehearsal, and,with a minor adjustment on my part, we were off.

I was looking at a poor man's version of a full score. It was written on just two staves, and the piano notes were the usual size. Mashed in and around those notes were many smaller, cue-sized notes, with occasional indications that they were for the flute, the oboe, the violin, and the guitar, none of which would be playing with us.

At rehearsals, I would often try to grab as many parts as I could to fill out the sound of the accompaniment, when I wasn't busy helping the singers. But I wasn't tied to all the notes, and so it was a simple matter to simply leave out all of the cue notes that were specifically for the violin. In several instances, the oboe was playing in harmony with the violin, so we had many charming passages in thirds.

Soon we decided that Rachel should also cover the oboe and flute parts whenever she could, which left a little more room for vagueness, but I decided to watch her bow to see whether she was about to play various passages, and soon had it pretty much figured out. The effect was lovely.

This seems like an accompanimental skill, but I thought it would be useful as we start to talk about improvisation, simply because many people approach the subject with a background in playing notes on a page. All the notes, and nothing but the notes. I suggest to improvisation students that they begin to break down that dictatorial relationship between the written notes and themselves.

For example, if you are a church organist learning to improvise, you could try playing only the outer voices of a hymn. Or just the tenor and soprano. Or just the downbeats. Or every other beat. These are also useful tools for a choral accompanist, but one of the ways we can learn to improvise is not to ignore, but to use written music for guidelines, suggestions, and of course, source material, just as we read, and then we share what we've read in conversation.

When I play a hymn in church, I often play some combination between the notes on the page and notes I have created myself. One can learn to add to a written score a variety of improvised passages. Or, you can take some of the written notes away. This last seems like it would be easier, but until the relationship of I see, therefore I play is made more fluid, it might not be so easy.

Imagine a world where you didn't have to play everything on the page! What a release!

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