If you think of how you became literate with your native tongue, the link between reading and writing is obvious.
And yet if we believe that music is also a language, it’s interesting to know that a majority of musicians spend most of their time only reading music. Some may copy music (though usually with a copy machine), or make corrections or adjustments to the music they are performing, but most think of composing as an activity reserved for composers, not instrumentalists or vocalists. To some, the act of writing a melody on manuscript paper, with all the correct pitches and rhythms, can seem like a difficult, if not impossible task. However the problem is not lack of talent, but lack of experience.
Gabe is a talented middle school student who doubles on piano and trumpet. During his jazz piano lessons he was improvising some nice single line solos on a C Blues scale, and could also play various arpeggio patterns over a basic 12 bar Blues progression, so he was ready to expand his vocabulary. It’s often a challenge to young improvisers when they switch from a single scale that generally works over an entire progression, to a set of scales tailored for each individual chord. Usually it’s either the creativity that suffers (at the expense of being “correct”), or they become disoriented with the time and form.
A musician often slows down a difficult written piece in order to gain mastery, and so we looked for a way to simplify Gabe’s new challenge. I asked him to improvise a short, memorable theme over the first two measures of the 12 bar blues, drawing from the arpeggios and new applied scales we had discussed. “Memorable” meant that he had to be able to play it exactly the same way again and again, requiring a clear aural picture of it in his mind. Once that was accomplished, the next step for Gabe was to write the correct rhythms (which are often more complex when they are generated from improvisation).
One way of developing rhythmic transcribing skills is by conducting the beats of the measures while singing the melodic line. If the rhythm is clear in one’s head the conducting tempo can be slowed down to the point where it is obvious where each note falls in relation to a specific beat. If a note’s exact position between the beats is still not clear, the conducting can be replaced by drumming at the rate of the music’s smallest subdivision. Singing and drumming simultaneously requires the same coordination skills as playing while subdividing in one’s head, so it is an important skill for every musician to have.
The slower tempo brought it all together for Gabe, and soon he was learning the finer points of good musical penmanship…making his music clear and legible for reading. He then transposed his entire piece up a whole step so he could play it on trumpet, and began working on the articulation…which notes were slurred or tongued, long or short, accented, etc. He began to discover the fine nuances and/or overt personality changes that could occur with slightest changes in articulation, and so the auditioning process and decision making took a while. In fact this composition project took weeks, but Gabe was rewarded with a very good piece that he may someday arrange for his school’s jazz band. His patient, hard work also improved his articulation, rhythm and counting skills, and he is also aware of more ways to develop a musical motif. And finally, Gabe’s mom Lisa contributed the song’s title, “Cast Away”…quite appropriate for the cast that was coming off of his arm at the time. Wonderful effort, Gabe…I love your tune!