What feelings do I love to play? What sounds do I love to hear? How can one develop a musical experience around the splicing of these two elements?
Awareness of the mind’s tendencies transforms the entire outlook on the practice.
Current Reflections: Crossing the Void
Looks like this week is a short and simple entry.
“Crossing the Void.” This phrase has always struck me as important, or at least intriguing. Because, what does it mean?
Crossing the gap? Bridging the shores? Stepping into the unknown, as life?
For me, when I started really steeping in the imagery that this phrase invoked within me, a deep and almost fundamental importance seemed to arise.
Darkness, Light, Motion.
Reaching out into the dark,
A fish biting after a worm,
A swan retrieving it’s precious egg,
A crow collecting shiny trinkets.
And that thing
That Won’t Go Away,
That struggle we can’t escape,
The barrier that we can’t see through,
The void we can’t seem to penetrate.
Just take a step and
Does anyone else every experience a thought or emotion that linear explanations can’t touch?
“Crossing the Void.”
What Feelings Do I love to Play?What sounds DoI love to hear?
The other night, Aleah Fitzwater and I were just talking about the differences in our ways of thinking about music. I tend to have a very thorough and exacting approach to processing, understanding, and deepening my experience of music. Aleah was telling me that, especially when it comes to composing, arranging, and harmonizing, she leans heavily into her sense of feeling, going after the sound until it feels right.
“I could use some more of that myself,” I realized. I often overwhelm myself trying to map, chart, and dissect the musical universe of the guitar; I’m always trying to exhaust every single possibility and permutation when I’m studying. I want to see and intimately know where a single chord lives in every possible iteration I can imagine, and it’s because I want to have access to as many options as possible.
Maybe this is a good approach to studying and learning new things, but when it comes to creating and playing? Naw, get that shit OUTTA here.
What feelings arise the most naturally?
What feels good to play?
What feels good to listen back to?
What harmonies feel the best?
What grooves feel the deepest?
HOW DEEP IS YOUR POCKET?
When it comes to creating, sharing, and experiencing music, the feeling that it evokes in us may be the most important.
And if we can share that feeling, enable each other to experience the depths of reality, of the mystery of our own existence… if we can encourage moments of deep awareness, light-hearted joy, deep sorrow, and out into the fringes of language and past words limitations, well, that seems like a worthy practice to cultivate.
So what sounds pull at you? What do you like to hear? What kinds of melodies really pull at your heart? That seems like a rich place of investigation.
Right and Left Hand Interaction – Sometimes my right hand technique is too monotone and unvaried, perhaps explore variations with legato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, as well as feeling right hand variations.
“Take something you like and push it beyond your imagination’s limit.” Take something comfortable and mix it with something not so; make it comfortable.
I am trying to fill all empty space with notes and rhythm; let time uncover new ideas and sounds. Don’t just compulsively fill space, allow time for ideas to develop.
Scale exercise as 3 notes/string arpeggios.
Current Reflections: Gratitude
First off, I’ve gotta send a special and continual thanks to my dude, Ryan Murray who’s out there hustling and working the music scene in LA right now. This dude has been a continual force of inspiration in my life in general, encouraging me to push boundaries, to continue growing, and to keep cultivating my practice. His music is bangin’ so visit his Instagram here or check out the embed below.
This feedback came from Ryan sometime in 2014, definitely after a musical jam/hang, either at school or in one of our practice spaces. It’s interesting to reflect on his advice now from a point further down stream – there are still some juicy nuggets worth exploring inside of this now.
Left and Right Hand Interactions on The Guitar
“Right and Left Hand Interaction – Sometimes my right hand technique is too monotone and unvaried, perhaps explore variations with legato, hammer-ons, pull-offs, as well as feeling right hand variations.”
To contextualize this remark a bit, I think it’s important to know some of the history/background about my approach to playing guitar.
I began my life as a guitarist YEARS ago, in the late 2000’s during high school (2008-09ish), where I was completely taken with metal, alternative rock, punk rock, and the indie scene. Some favorites of the time included Avenged Sevenfold, Blink 182, Sum 41, Shinedown, Linkin Park, Killswitch Engage, Modest Mouse… (Just to name a few) Below you can find a snapshot of my headspace from high school in this little Spotify playlist, for anyone interested.
Like many guitar players, I first started playing with a pick. Playing with fingers seemed IMPOSSIBLE to me at the time as I tried to piece songs together using tabs from the internet and hundreds of old issues of Guitar World Magazine. Once or twice I tried using my fingers instead of a pick and immediately thought “fuck this,” deciding that fingerstyle playing was too hard.
This is not to say that I was a stellar player. At all. I’m not ashamed to admit it now. I sucked then. I suck much less now, but I still have some work to do.
As I moved through my late teens into my early twenties and began to take myself a little more seriously as a musician, my relationship to my pick and my right hand began to radically change. In fact, I remember the exact moment that my stance on fingerstyle playing changed. It was early autumn and I was a freshman guitar student at the University of Toledo. My family had taken a trip out of town to visit my grandma for a weekend. She lived a few hours away and so I brought my guitar because I REALLY needed to practice. I had gathered all of my music, my guitar, a little amp, and even a portable metal music stand; but as I unpacked in the early morning on the first day, I realized that I had forgotten something crucial.
I forgot my pick.
In that moment I realized that I was sick of feeling tethered to that stupid little piece of plastic. I felt impaired in the absence of picks and resolved to break out of my unreasonable reliance on them. That day, I awkwardly stumbled through my studies, then, proceeded to stumble through the next year and a half of my life as a college musician, trying to break free of my pickles (Shackles + Pick? No? Okay, understandable.) It hurt, but after thousands upon thousands of continual micro decisions to persevere (and possibly a little stubbornness), I FINALLY got to a place where I felt comfortable playing with my fingers – more comfortable, in fact, than I ever had with a pick.
I’m not here to try and convert you to the church of fingerstyle guitar, but I will say, I absolutely support flexibility in your approach to playing. Picks are useful. Fingerstyle is useful. Hybrid picking is useful (combing both fingers and pick). I recommend checking out these different approaches and getting comfortable with each.
This has been, a long and ambling way to say this: at the time of this writing, Ryan did me the great service of noticing the flat and uninteresting tone that I was producing when playing with my fingers. At the time, I think I was a little irritated; I mean, it took me SO MUCH FUCKING WORK to get my fingers working. Period. And now my sound is BORING?
Well, sorry son, yes.
He was right. I was in the habit of playing things at the same volume, with the same articulation, with the same awkward time feel. After you get the basic mechanics of fingerstyle playing together, how do you continue to evolve your ear and approach?
Can you get nice and clean hammer-on’s and pull-off’s? Can you play short and staccato? How about long, flowing, legato? Can you accent only the off-beats? Can you surf the beat and adjust how you hang on the metronome’s pulse – anticipating the beat, nailing it straight down the middle, laying back and swingin’?
These are the kinds of questions that I began asking myself after this entry – questions that I continued asking myself for years; in fact, I still ask myself these questions to this day.
I think that the continued interest, for me, comes out of the dynamic interactions that begin to occur between my right, picking hand and my left, fretting hand. How can we shape the sound?
It’s important to have a good understanding of the basic mechanics of whatever technique you are focusing on, and this can be a PROJECT. But once you get your “sea legs,” so to speak (or fretboard legs, maybe), how can you continue to shape your sound? I think that, at our best and at some level, we all want to keep developing our capacity, whether artistically or otherwise. For me at this time, Ryan helped me notice that I could benefit from exploring some of the nuances of my fingerstyle approach. Thanks bro.
Pushing Limits on the Guitar
“Take something you like and push it beyond your imagination’s limit. Take something comfortable and mix it with something not so; make it comfortable.”
This idea is pretty straight forward. Ryan and I have always enjoyed helping each other push ourselves beyond our perceived limits, always in the spirit of personal development.
There are at least two different ways of practicing present inside of this feedback from my friend. The first that comes to mind is related to a modality of divergentthinking – considering the many possibilities available to us, brainstorming many different ways to think about a single practice or idea, and creatively thinking about new ways to see familiar information.
With this divergent approach, it’s possible to examine, in our case on the guitar, many familiar shapes and sounds, and to consider the many different ways that we could see them.
“Can you think about this shape as notes?”
“What are the scale degrees?”
“What do the sounds feel like in your body?”
“What intervals exist within this shape?”
“Can you play the same shape, but start on a different string?”
“Can you play it forwards AND backwards?”
“Could you permutate the form and run different patterns through notes?”
These are just some of the types of questions you might be able to use when creatively considering how to deepen your understanding of a familiar form.
The second that comes to mind is an approach that I still employ within my own practice, as well as within my process of teaching. I enjoy taking practices that are familiar and easy for me to see and feel, then mixing them with “new” and more difficult practices.
This idea rose quite naturally for me in the process of learning how to juggle. I realized I could start with a simpler and easier pattern to warm up and get my body flowing. Then, I would scour the internet for new ideas for more complex patterns.
“What would it be like to have THAT super complex pattern comfortable in my body?” “What if it felt as comfortable to me as this FIRST pattern?” “What if it was as easy and comfortable as tying my shoes?”
I found myself frequently asking that last question.
“What if it was as easy and comfortable as tying my shoes?”
Then, I encountered the basic premise again and again and music school.
“Start with what you understand and build off of that into what you don’t”
“Take the uncomfortable and work with it until it becomes the intimate.”
By mixing what is comfortable with the cutting edge of our ability, we are enabling ourselves to lean into a space of growth.
What can you do well and easily? What’s something that lies just outside of the edge of your ability? Can you work with your edge in a way that enables you to develop familiarity with the difficult?
“I am trying to fill all empty space with notes and rhythm; let time uncover new ideas and sounds. Don’t just compulsively fill space, allow time for ideas to develop.”
This is something that I think everybody who embarks upon the journey of improvising encounters at some point in time within their process. After we get a degree of facility and understanding of our instrument and begin improvising, often there is a tendency to cram in as many notes as possible. It’s like we think “The more I can shred, the better I am,” or something weird like this. Lots of notes can sound cool and create neat textures, but I personally think that the most interesting solos and the most meaningful pieces in general have a sense of space within them.
I have a lot of people to thank for bringing my awareness to this tendency to “cram notes” into my solos and compositions. Ryan, in this entry, Dr. Heritage, my composition teacher at UT, Jay Weik and Tad Weed, my guitar teacher and piano teachers throughout college.
You might be able to compare this idea of “cramming notes” to the literary goof of writing run-on sentences. There may be loads of great ideas in that giant sprawling sentences in that Facebook post, but the punctuation and delivery changes everything.
Where do you pause? When do you breathe? What is the point of your idea? Where do you want to put the emphasis? Can you step back and let the listener have their own experience? We all have imaginations, you know – maybe less detail and more empty space will allow your audience to engage more deeply.
It’s really the empty space in our lives that helps bring meaning to the activity.
Sometimes, you need to let the teabag steep.
Can you allow space within your improvisation, whether it be a conversation at the grocery store, jamming with some buddies, or while wailing on stage?
Can you give your ideas room to grow on their own, give your ears a chance to digest what you have shared, allow the band and the room to respond?
Scales and Arpeggios
“Scale exercise as 3 notes/string arpeggios.”
This last point was a technical point for me at the time. I was frequently working with a form of major scales that used three notes on each string.
Here’s a nice video of my teacher talking about this approach to scales, illustrating the various modes of C!
At the time, I often held firm and rigid boundaries between the various forms on the guitar. There were Diagonal Triads and 7th chords, Drop 2 and Drop 3 chord voicings, 2-1-2 7th arpeggios and so on… and each of these different forms were distinct and completely different from each other.
As I’ve continued to learn and grow, I’m glad to report that these rigid boundaries are slowly melting away. It’s becoming easier to see how all of these different forms relate and to gaze from a larger and wider vantage point.
At the time of my original writing back in 2014, I realized that I could play my arpeggios, but limit myself to the form of 3 notes/string scales.
This entry seems to require a little bit of setup to give it useful context, because I gotta say, even to me now, it sounds a little abstract.
It seems useful to mention that the purpose of recounting all of these entries is, hopefully, to share the many perspectives that I found inspiring during my college experience. If it is useful, please take the ideas and run, if not, that’s alright too.
At the time of the original writing, I was quite immersed in actively training for an academic benchmark. I was desperately trying to cross the infinite gulf that I perceived within myself around my musical ability (or perhaps inability). I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again with the intention of encouragement: for me, I felt severely handicapped and out of place in a professional and academic setting. It seemed to take me 4x as much effort than my peers to achieve a baseline sense of stability. Now I recognize that this may, in part, have been a drama that existed simply in my own head, but it seemed to me that I just wasn’t as developed as my contemporaries.
This sense of lack within myself at during college now appears to me to have been a gift. It instilled a deep drive to tame the wild beast of music, cultivated a sense of deep discipline, and helped me forge my own process of growth and understanding in the limitless universe of music.
All of this is to say, at the time of this original entry, I was in the thick of it, struggling to swim on a daily basis, attempting to absorb and integrate as many useful perspectives as I possibly could. As quickly as I could.
Among the many techniques and approaches to practicing that I encountered, one of them (perhaps inevitably) was the technique of visualization.
Around the same time as I was first writing this, I was becoming supremely interested in my own mind, how it functioned, the way that it perceived, and the nature of this perception. I found myself leaning into a variety of meditation practices, primarily focused on the Zen Buddhist technique centered around breath and known as Zazen. Alongside of this more formalized training, I found my curiosity wandering towards the imaginative power of my mind.
Isn’t interesting how vivid our dreams can be? We can intimately feel moments that are generated completely inside of our own minds. Sensations, smells, emotions, the tug of gravity, the dampness of rain, the freedom of floating – the whole bandwidth of human perception (and perhaps more) becomes available to experience every night as we lie dreaming in bed.
“What the hell is that?” I wondered, more than once about my dreams. More frequently still, I began to and continue to wonder if there may be some way to access our capacity to dream while we are awake. Our minds are quite powerful. What if we could harness our innate capacity more fully?
This entire train of thought lead me to contemplate what qualities of mind seemed to characterize our capacity to dream; the presence of deeply detailed imagery and the way that these images shifted appeared as one of the biggest and most obvious observations for me. Naturally, I began to wonder if I might be able to harness the imaginative capacity afforded to me in dreams while I was awake. I began to practice visualizing.
The following entry documents my own scientific method, my approach as I first began to consciously cultivate the powerful imaginative potential that I sensed within myself. I’ll apologize in advanced, because it starts out PRETTY strangely, but if I have your attention, I’ll unpack some of my thinking, develop it a bit (hopefully in a way that makes the information useful), and offer some other resources to check out if you are interested in this imaginative human capacity.
Original Entry: Visualizations
Music as the interacting cosmos; planets, stars, gravity, suns, moons, orbits, rotations, revolutions, space-time, cosmic debris, atmospheres, gasses, life, dissolution.
Observations on Initial Visualizations:
There are many elements to tie together in visualizing; when attempting a run of the Solar scale exercise, I noticed these tendencies in my mind:
I want to rush!!
I’m easily distracted!!
I get lost easily!!
These are habits of an untrained mind.
Rushing: is ridiculous. Where am I in such a hurry to get to? This is my own mind for God Sake. I’ve got endless time!! Nothing lies in the future to rush towards except infinite permutations of patterns. Chill.
Distraction: It’s rough to use my mind in this novel way. I am so accustomed to my body fumbling to train my wandering mind that when I enter my space, there is mental leakage to account for. A vent exists in my mind that ethereal distraction may pass through while I focus.
Lost: Orienting with staff lines, ink, fingerings, picking, feeling, image of fretboard, and sound – this is a whole lot of information to maintain all at once when imagining. With simple exercises I can begin juggling these elements and introducing new variables. Start with three crucial elements: fretboard, sound, and fingerings.
(I’ve been spending too much time on dry cut exercises. Ryan mentioned he spends about 90% of practice time jamming on tunes)
Reflections and Observations:
So what is even happening here?
That’s a fine question.
“Music as the interacting cosmos; planets, stars, gravity, suns, moons, orbits, rotations, revolutions, space-time, cosmic debris, atmospheres, gasses, life, dissolution.”
That’s a little abstract, huh?
Looking back at my writing, then more deeply into the intention that motivated me, I can see that I was contemplating the nature of the universe and considering how the celestial movements of the cosmos related directly to the universe of sound before me on the fretboard.
In a way, I was asking myself “How can I see the fundamental motions of the universe inside of my music?” I was trying to draw parallels from my cursory understanding of celestial bodies and their natural movements and apply that same motion to my guitar.
And it still seems kind of neat to me.
Observations on Initial Visualizations:
It looks like I took a break to practice some sort of visualizing technique, (which I conveniently omitted), the documented some observations on my experiences.
I’d like to point out that I was practicing some sort of scale exercises on the Miles Davis tune “Solar,” which may have inspired some of the cosmic imagery that we saw up front. If you haven’t heard the tune, check it out. It’s damn good. I like this version:
I was likely playing some scales that corresponded to the changes of the tune, practicing shifting my scales with the harmony and staying in a common position on the guitar. I’m not going to go into details about that now, but may at some later point.
Then came my observations:
I’ll say, when I did this visualization technique, I’m pretty sure I crawled into bed, covered up, then tried real hard to imagine. I think what most likely happened is I got real sleepy and didn’t know exactly the best way to practice imaginatively, so I floundered around trying to recreate the fretboard, the sound of the chord changes, the feeling of my fingers, the way it all looked, and countless other details that I couldn’t keep straight.
This experiment was pretty much a flop.
So how do we practice imaginatively?
Well for one, if you want to practice with visualizations, I would recommend not laying down in a dark room and closing your eyes on your bed or a comfy couch, because that has NEVER worked well for me in any sustainable way.
Two, playing a musical instrument instrument involves a lot of complex detail; if you are interested in starting some sort of visualization practice, I would encourage you to start with some manageable details. For me, in this experiment, my takeaway revolved around simplifying my approach to include only three details: The fretboard, the corresponding sound, and the fingering.
Performance psychologist and Julliard alumni Noa Kageyama offers a ton of great advice over at his website: The Bulletproof Musician. He offers a 7-point modal for visualization practice called the PETTLEP modal. This approach was developed by two British scientists who based their technique on research rooted in sports psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience.
In a whirlwind summary, this PETTLEP approach uses seven guiding points to help frame your visualization practice, including:
P – Physical
E – Environment
T – Task
T – Timing
L – Learning
E – Emotion
P – Perspective
Noa does a brilliant job at outlining these different points, so I won’t go into the details of this particular method, but again, if you are interested and looking for a roadmap to begin visualizing, I would highly recommend you start at his website here.
Thanks Mr. Kageyama for being such a boss and providing so much inspiration.
In fact, Noa talks about visualization a lot on his website, if you are interested you can look around and check out the awesome resources he has available. Another article he has talks about the benefits possible when we focus on the timing aspect of visual practice.
It seems that practicing visualization at several speeds – slow, real-time, and fast – had a massive benefit in a study that tracked an athlete’s baseball bat swing.
I swear that the bulletproof musician is NOT sponsoring this post at all. They just do good work over there. I’ll uphold one final article from Mr. Kageyama here – “How to get good at mental imagery.” This article is interesting, because he directly address the problem of mental fuzziness when trying to visualize. Like, how the heck do we work with this if we can’t imagine it.
I especially like this article, because here, Noa talks about building a visualization practice up in layers, likening the process to that of building a house from the foundation up.
Again, I won’t go super deeply into the details because he does a fine job over at his website, but the general idea involves creating a mental image, self-rating the vividness of the image, and then adding a new level of detail and trying again.
The last resource that I’ll uphold is a nice book that I’ve used for some research papers and practice (though I could stand to read through the whole book now that the pressure of school is gone) – Psycho Cybernetics – which deeply explores our internal self image and explores methods of re-framing and empowering us to effectively wield our minds with our ability to imagine.
If I’m being honest, I haven’t had an active visualizing practice in quite some time, but in recounting this entry and scouring the internet, I’ve found my curiosity piqued. I’m especially interested in the information within the third article I mentioned “How to get good at mental imagery.” Maybe I’ll practice a some this week and check in over the next few weeks.
Do any of you use a visualization practice of any kind in your art? If so I’d love to hear about your experiences. I hope everyone is staying well and sane.
(I’ve been listening to this song now while I’ve written the bulk of this article, thought I’d share it here)
Warm up with bebop spins in 5th position and then take around the circle of 4ths.
I play from my Dharma Eye, Listen from within. Where and whenever I experience uncertainty, I engage with the moment of hesitation and train my body with my mind to completely smooth out uncertainty.
Technical Study: Bebop Scale – What the hell is it?
The “Bebop” Scale is a slightly altered Mixolydian scale that was and is frequently used to generate improvisational vocabulary for the quick chord changes that often characterize tunes composed during jazz’s “Bebop” era and forward.
Arguments could be made both for and against the usefulness of defining this scale, the “Bebop” scale, as a distinct and separate scale from a dominant or Mixolydian scale – there is only one note changing. Some teachers I have studied with swear by it, and with solid reasoning: the bebop scale is an effective way of addressing dominant chords during improvisation (though goodness, simply ADDRESSING the chords sounds so boring).
The “Bebop” scale takes a mixolydian or dominant scale – typically spelled Root, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, b7th, or rooted on C, the notes C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb – and adds one extra note, the natural 7. This note, when played relative to C turns out as a B natural. A C-bebop scale would then give us: C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb, and B natural. By making this scale, which is normally comprised of 7 notes, an 8 note scale, and interesting phenomenon emerges, one that was of extreme fascination to early players like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And they took the idea and ran with it.
This “Bebop” treatment of a dominant scale allowed players to string together flowing lines using this scale, which by it’s nature, separates out thechord tones from the non-chord tones or passing tones. And because there are an even 8 notes instead of they typical 7, a player can start on any note of, in this example, the C7 chord – C E G or Bb – and there will always be a colorful passing tone in between each of them. This is thanks to the addition of the natural 7, or in this case, B natural, which gives us a note between the b7 of the chord (Bb) and the Root of the Scale (C). This means a player could run through the scale in 8th notes, and if they start with any chord tone on a strong beat, (beat 1, 2, 3, 4) each down beat will be a consonant chord tone and every offbeat will be a colorful passing tone.
In the graphic below, you can see a few of these ideas notated out.
First, you’ll see the regular C Mixolydian scale (Major scale with a b7).
Below the Mixolydian scale, you’ll see the C bebop scale (Major Scale with a b7 and a natural 7)
You might see that the chord tones of C7 (C E G Bb), or the strong tones have been highlighted in RED. You’ll notice that these notes, when played as eighth notes, all fall on strong beats – 1, 2, 3, and 4. The passing tones have been left black – these all occur in the space between the strong beats, on the off-beats or the “&’s.”
This eight-note scale, bearing a symmetrical nature, makes it easy for players to start on strong chord tones and virtually guarantees that, if played in scalar cells, the chord tones will always fall on the strongest beats in the bar.
While some players and teachers love thinking of this altered mixolydian scale as the “Bebop Scale,” on the other hand, other teachers have expressed a marked disdain towards the over-classification of scales. It’s easy to get overwhelmed if you think of 12 major scales (at a minimum), each possessing 7 different modes (that’s 84 to keep straight, just within the major scales), pair that with Harmonic Minor and Melodic Minor in all 12 keys (and all of THEIR modes), 2 whole tone scales, and 3 diminished scales… We won’t even bother with the math on how many separate scales these permutations generate. And then adding even more scales into this proverbial pot? That sounds like a recipe for crushing undergraduate information overload.
Folks who argue against the use of distinguishing the “Bebop” scale, in my experience, have simply upheld that a player can skillfully and creatively use chromaticism in a major, minor, or melodic minor scale and achieve comparable, if not more efficient improvisational framework.
Pros and cons aside, here the scale is, existing in sound. And now, we’ve both had a chance to encounter it. I’ll send bows to my teacher for turning me on to this way of thinking, because I was quite taken with it when I first encountered the teaching; and now, I’ll offer it up to you. If it’s useful, please enjoy it, if not, you can pass on by and there is no problem.
The practice that I mention in this original journal entry – of “Bebop Spins” – is built from this slightly altered dominant scale, or “Bebop” scale that we’ve been discussing. I’ve included a picture to better illustrate the process.
“Bebop Spins” are simply a scale permutation – a way to methodically arrange patterns through the notes of the scale.
Now, I talked about playing the spins in 5th position, walking through all keys. For the sake of simplicity, I’ve decided to just stick to root position, I think this will make it easier for our purposes.
So what the heck are these “Bebop Spins” anyway?.
Simply put, “bebop spins” are an easy up and down pattern that highlight the chord tones. I’ll show you.
UP – We would start on the root, playing R,2,3,4.
DOWN – Now, we simply start on the 5 and coming down 5, 4, 3, 2
UP – Starting on the 3, we play up the scale 3, 4, 5, 6
Down – b7, you guessed it, we play Descending b7, 6, 5, 4
Up – Beginning on 5, we play 5, 6, b7, nat 7
Down – Now we start on the ROOT, coming down R, nat 7, b7, 6
Up – Starting on b7, we play up b7, nat7, R, 2
And so on!
You might notice a few things in this process: for one, we are always starting on a chord tone, for two, we are always alternating up and down scalar motion, for three, we are almost spinning around these chord tones. It reminds me of a monkey swinging through the branches of a tree. Sometimes I see them as little musical hinges that I can swing around.
Attached is video that illustrates the sound of this “Bebop Spin” pattern over a C7 drone!
For me, practicing an exercise like this in all keys is invaluable. If you are just encountering this idea of “Bebop spins” for the first time, I would recommend exploring this, first and foremost, in the key of C using the exercise above with a metronome, most likely in half-time, playing in quarter notes at 60 or 80. Once it gets more familiar, you can start playing with the tempo and the feel.
Once you have a sense of the shape of this pattern in C, I would recommend taking the pattern around the Circle of 4ths, simply moving the root note through the circle and copying and pasting the above pattern in the new position.
In the original post, I talk about identifying uncertainty and hesitation; I like to think of these little stumbles and mistakes as red flags. If I am stumbling over some musical moment, chances are that I need to slow down and really clarify what is happening in this moment of difficulty.
When we run into mistakes and stumbles, we often feel an energy in our body; sometimes it shows up as a feeling, other times as a thought. Regardless of how it shows up, there is usually a heat around the mistake – our expectations are not lining up with the reality of our ability, and this can lead to frustration or even full blown anger.
If you are encountering a discrepancy between your expectations and the reality of your practice, notice it. These little charges of emotional fire are actually a gift. If we can recognize that something is wrong, that things aren’t how we’d like them to be, notice that. Make a note of it. Literally, write it down. This is the fuel for your practice to deepen.
Pull out your magnifying glass, some tweezers, and break out your metronome and examine the SHIT out of the moment that is giving you trouble. Where is the mistake happening? Is it a physical thing? Left hand? Right Hand? Posture?
Or is it a mind thing? Are you loosing count? Maybe mixing up the notes? Whatever it is that is giving you trouble, I’d recommend donning your lab coat and becoming a sonic-scientist. If you can clearly identify the problem and brainstorm possible solutions, you are equipping yourself with a tool kit that will benefit your life much beyond your music or art practice.
Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
Preface: Practice Point
Today’s entry actually opens up a window into the way that I practice, into the process through which I’ve grown into my current ability. Just a disclaimer, this post’s core content might be more useful for folks who are actually studying an instrument, specifically guitar.
Original Entry: Agility Training
Target in halftime/manageable subdivision of target speed
⁃ Left-Hand Focus ⁃ Right-Hand Focus ⁃ Headstock Focus ⁃ Body Focus ⁃ Middle of Fretboard Focus • Target at speed, following above points of visual focus.
This will theoretically train my body and eyes to function independently, yet interdependently with different points of grounding.
Variation: Mix in closed eyes.
Let’s take a little time to unpack the contents of this process, which might seem a little unrelatable at first glance.
“Target in halftime/manageable subdivision of target speed”
If you are at all like me when it comes to learning and playing guitar, you probably wanna jump right to the cool stuff: face melting guitar solos, crazy cool and intricate rhythm, the prettiest chords imaginable…
And though I still agree with you – yes, guitar is an awesome instrument and LET’S GET IT – might I offer some encouragement that has helped me?
S L O W D O W N
I can NOT overemphasize the importance of taking your time when you are learning a new technique, pattern, or voicing. I know that we often want to skip all the bullshit and get right to shredding, but I would argue that, by slowing down, you are actually helping yourself get to the shredding stage even faster.
If you can take the time to learn how to play with a metronome, to feel time, to count… if you can make that initial step towards crossing the mysterious gulf of training with metered time, then you are giving yourself a gift with unending returns.
This can be a little tricky at first, and if you are really struggling, it might be useful to employ the help of a professional friend and teacher (I know a guy), but once you start to develop a relationship with a metronome, in my personal opinion, you are now equipped to tackle ANY musical passage, technique, or solo that you can imagine.
Heavyweight New York Bassist and YouTuber, Adam Neely, has a wonderful video about practicing slowly where he demonstrates the magic that is just WAITING to be unlocked by taking the time to S L O W D O W N.
Why slow down, you ask?
If you can slow yourself down, you are giving yourself the opportunity to become, in my opinion, a scientist of Time. It is possible to use your awareness to zoom-in on a single moment of time. When you consciously decide to create space IN time, to really pick apart a moment of music, you can begin to dial in on details that you have no hope of noticing when you try to machine gun through the piece.
Can you feel every individual muscle contracting as you move across your instrument? If not, what the fuck would that feel like if you could?
How can you fret or finger the note to give yourself the best tone quality?
How do you want the notes to connect? Are they slurring? All hammered-on or pulled-off? Are they short and staccato? Are they long and connected, legato?
Can you channel the motion of the sound across or through your instrument in a smooth and single flow? Or are you stuck in choppy and jerky movements?
How are you relating to the sound you are creating? What is your mind doing? Are you thinking about nachos? What if you could create a psychicresonance with what you are doing? Can you focus on this specific moment? Can you engage your mind? Can you give yourself a cognitive framework to help automatically regulate the rhythm? If not, what would that be like?
What the hell is this guy even talking about?
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it?
Left-hand focus, Right-hand focus, Headstock focus, Body Focus, Middle-of-the-Neck focus.
What the hell is this all about?
I discovered in college (where I was constantly under pressure to learn new tunes, exercises, and general repertoire) that I could develop my own methods to help myself cultivate intimacy with the music I needed to learn.
We’ve talked about it before, but it’s worth mentioning again – the guitar is a very visual instrument. The fretboard maps out like a grid that easily conducts visual patterns and shapes. In college, I utilized the guitar’s tendency towards visual focus to help myself ingrain information more quickly.
Usually when I would play, I would automatically and unthinkingly focus my eyes on the neck of the guitar – here I could see the fretboard, my left hand, and where my fingers were landing. I quickly discovered that, if I tried to shift my visual focus, say to my right hand, I would suddenly feel like I was on a different planet and would stumble around trying to remember how to play in the midst of this new visual reality before me. Often times, I would have NO trouble with my picking/right hand when I played, but as soon as I looked at it, my entire process would fall apart. I wasn’t used to seeing what my right hand was doing. When I actually focused on it, it looked so weird. Weird enough that I could no longer play.
This struck me as intriguing. How could I know how to play, yet still be rendered incapacitated if I simply tried to observe myself playing? Quickly, I slowed down (Ha, yup) and started relearning the passage while looking at my RIGHT hand. It took a little effort, but I was able to do it. Good.
Looking back to my LEFT hand, I suddenly realized that, actually, I had been playing the passage pretty sloppily, subconsciously staring off into the ether, spacing out in the general direction of the fretboard. I hadn’t really been paying THAT close of attention.
Practicing with my RIGHT hand in focus, I realized that my LEFT hand hadn’t been quite as clear as I had assumed.
I decided to relearn the SAME passage, again, but this time looking at my left hand, but now more earnestly aware.
Right Hand. Left Hand. Going nice and slow.
That was better.
Then I wondered, “Hey, Can I play this same passage, but now looking even farther left? Like, what if I don’t necessarily look at the fretboard, but instead look past it, maybe to the headstock and tuners. Can I play through this same musical moment If I focus my eyes here?”
Turns out – pretty tricky. I relearned the SAME passage, AGAIN, now looking at the headstock of my guitar; but in my mind, I was seeing my left and right hands.
“What about if I invert this? Can I look past my RIGHT hand? At the Body of the guitar? Maybe the bridge?” Rinse and repeat.
I had now learned the same passage four different ways. There was only one obvious way left, so it seemed to me.
“Can I look straight down at the center of the fretboard, in the space between both my hands?”
After some practice, the answer was yes. That gives me five ways.
Oh! But one more:
“Can you play it with your eyes closed now?” Apply some effort and time, and yes. Yes I could.
The result of this way of practicing?
Slowly. Very slowly. I realized that I was stitching together a visual map of my guitar. By maintaining the same practice, looking at five different regions of the guitar (Far Left, Left, Center, Right, Far Right), then closing my eyes, I began to realize I could look anywhere. Eventually, this lead me to realizing, I didn’t necessarily HAVE to look anywhere specific at all. I could see, no matter where I looked.
Don’t get me wrong, I still have to look at my hands to map out what’s happening when I’m learning new pieces, but I am no longer as constricted as I used to be; I have the freedom to direct my attention around anywhere I want, while maintaining my practice. If you are learning to play guitar, this is a gift, in my opinion, that you deserve to enjoy.
Moving through this process, I realized that I was able to learn and integrate passages more quickly. By confirming that I could play a passage in each of these six visual postures, I was giving my self the ample opportunity to constructively overlearn (More about that here).
It reminded me of being a kid when I first learned how to ride my bike. After I got my basic balance down without training wheels, I would shakily pedal around the small block of my neighborhood. With each successive circuit, I found myself getting steadier and steadier.
Each time I would relearn a passage with a different point of visual focus, It got easier and easier to keep my musical “balance” in time.
I’d like to humbly offer these perspectives and practices to anyone who is learning an instrument and who has been struggling with developing a process. I hope that this sliver of experience may inspire you to explore your own approaches to help yourself learn how to learn.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or qualms, I’d love to hear them. I hope everyone is having a nice day.
Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
Original Entry: Warm Up
Jam on tunes in the repertoire I have gathered and play with ideas.
I’m finding a handful of these microscopic entries in my inspiration Journal. It’s funny, I decided to give them a clear H E A D I N G, a nice colon: then proceeded to write a single line and move on.
This one seems pretty obvious: warm up. But I think there might be some nourishment to unpack in here. If I were to rewrite this entry, now modernized with everything I now know, I might say something like this…:
PS. I’d also like to add, if you don’t care for the technical jargon of a Jazzer, skip down to “Current Reflections Part 2,” There is some human shit there.
Revised Entry: Warming Up
I have a collection of tunes that I’ve assembled throughout my years studying music. Each tune is comprised of a variety of elements that define it’s character – these elements include (though are not necessarily limited to): The Melody, The Chord Progression, The Rhythmic Feel, and the way I approach Improvisation.
It is possible for me to create a routine that helps me warm up my approach to practicing/performing repertoire. From this Warm Up Routine, I want to give myself the experience of playing music; if I was taking a more traditional approach to the jazz idiom, I would want to evoke the melody of the tune, comp through the changes, and take a little solo that expresses the harmony and gets the creative wheels turning.
Beginning with repertoire that is more familiar and comfortable, I can use this warm up as a way to cultivate focus and intention that I can begin directing into new tunes and the novel challenges they bring. As I warm up with these familiar tunes, I can also give myself the opportunity to view the music from new perspectives – I could alter the rhythmic feel, I could interpret the melody more freely or personally, I could play with the harmonic structure and upper tensions of the piece, and I could try new approaches to improvising.
Alternatively, I could use these ‘warm up tunes’ as a launch pad for studying new ideas and ‘vocabulary’ when improvising: What if I treated all the dominant chords with melodic minor to give them a b13 kind of feel? Or what if I try to (god help me) creatively and musically apply the diminished scale to these chords? What If I try to target the third of each chord? How about the seventh? What kinds of ideas might I find if I took the time to become intimately familiar with the Melody, harmony, and rhythm of these tunes?
Current Reflections Part 2:
If you are still here, I appreciate you. I recognize that this entry specifically is starting to get a little niche to improvisation and jazz, which is definitely NOT everybody’s cup of tea. In fact, it’s not always my cup of tea, if I’m being honest.
As I think back to myself, way back there in college, scribbling “warm up,” in a blank notebook, and now, as I try to more clearly express myself in this CURRENT moment, I find the experience in my body quite fascinating.
Part of me LOVES this shit. I get thinking about all the cool practices and applications this simple idea – “warm up” – holds within it. But another part of me feels internally strained, like I am reaching for something just beyond the grasp of my fingertips. This is SO SPECIFIC to my process of learning the jazz idiom, in college, to “succeed.” It’s basically one among the thousands of “good ideas” that I had in my undergraduate process; ideas that I frequently had but never got around to cultivating into a regular or reliable habit.
Of course there is benefit to warming up this way. Hands down. But this is not the only way. I know for me, I have a tendency to get so transfixed, so hooked in, so wrapped around ideas like these – “If I could only force myself to do ‘xyz,’ then I would finally be the player that I want to be.”
The honest truth is I’m afraid.
Afraid of what, Sam?
I do have a sense about what I’m doing with music. I know my way around the fretboard, the circle of 4ths, and across the strings; I’ve walked around the block of playing in all keys. And I know that there is real, honest to god, verifiable benefit to practicing in these ways.
But what is this recurring feeling? What is this fear, this thought that says, “Oh, if only [blank,] THEN…then I would feel like I can trust myself (as a performer)?”
Maybe it’s true for all of us who find ourselves in the performing arts, (and I’m quite sure that it may be true for all of us, at a deeper level) – I know it’s true for me, performing still FREAKS me the FUCK OUT. And it’s for all of the human reasons:
What’s going to happen? (Fear of the Unknown)
What if I fuck up? (Fear of Rejection)
(Pretty much any other unhelpful ‘What If…?” that you can imagine.
And that’s okay.
Music is a process. I am in the process, doing the thing. The presence of fear doesn’t devalue any of us. I just want to learn how to better hang with the fear.
“Show up, Contribute, Learn.” – Jay Rinsen Weik.
From a life-saving conversation that I had with my teacher in college, these three simple practices are a way to guarantee a ‘win’ in life. Even if we are afraid. Even if we don’t know what’s going to happen. Even if we don’t have the PERFECT PROCESS, INCLUDING A PERFECT W a r m u p, WITH WHICH TO DOMINATE THE MUSICAL WORLD AND TO CATAPULT HUMANITY TO THE STARS VIA SHEER SONIC AWESOMENESS.
Let’s just keep practicing together. And yeah, it’s definitely a good idea to warm up.
This week continues a three-part interview series with local creative stallion, Aleah Fitzwater. Ranging from visual arts, music, to poetry and more, Aleah is carving a unique space for herself in the wide world of artistic expression. Her website is located at https://aleahfitzwater.com; here, you can learn more about her specific projects, check out her music and photography portfolios, and follow along with her blog ‘Fusion!’
Based on a podcast style interview format, Aleah and I shared a sprawling conversation, first talking about some of the software that she has been using recently in her musical process; later, Aleah shared her perspectives and insights on her approach to practice as it relates to the many artistic mediums she enjoys creating through. Finally, we chatted about photography and what lies ahead in the future, brainstorming upcoming collaborative projects together.
Sam: Could you tell me a little bit about how you got interested in photography and what your process looks like?
Aleah: I first got interested in photography because… well, actually let me backtrack to a story about my mom! This is the story of my formative origins as a photographer… When I was a very young child, my mom took me to JC Pennies or [some store like that] to get my photo taken. I was in this pretty little dress and green sparkly shoes, but by the time that we got to the store, one of my shoes was missing!
S: What did you do with your shoe?!
A: I don’t know! I was three! And my mom she was [panicking] like “Oh my gosh! She doesn’t have a shoe!” and I was crying… and [the whole situation] wasn’t really [showing] me. My mom wanted to capture me [in my element], so my dad got her a Minolta camera (which is basically a film camera) [so she could get some natural pictures of me]. When I was a toddler, I grew up around my mom taking pictures of me with this film camera. Eventually, she got a digital camera, and as soon as I was old enough to be able to hold it, I started taking pictures!
We would go on trips to West Virginia and apparently I would say “Take picture? Take Picture!” and she would just hand me her camera! Well then, fast forward a bit and my first camera was a digital Nikon – loved it – then in high school I started taking digital photography and Photoshop classes, I bought my own Photoshop program, and I started noodling around. A lot of [my process] was self-taught, [but] some of it was informed by those initial high school classes.
Then, I ended up putting in some proposals online through Submittable for some different abstract pieces. It’s funny, people always take my abstract pieces and they DON’T want my macro butterflies… nobody wants my macro butterflies, it’s fine. BUT! I [submitted] a few of my abstract pieces, some of which included: textures from trees, reflections into water that I altered significantly, and self-portraits… Some of them have made it in galleries in Portugal and Rome…
S: Wait, you’ve had things on display overseas… in galleries?! Did you have a chance to go to the premiers?
A: Absolutely…not. But I thought that it was really interesting… There were two that I was REALLY proud of; there was one that was in Rome, Italy and it was very odd that it was displayed because it’s actually a self-portrait [laughs]. I wasn’t expecting it to get in at all. It was for [a series] called the UnderWater Exhibition, so it was supposed to be for things…underwater.
I had taken a picture of water and soap bubbles, and I also had an old profile picture of myself. I took the bubbles and I edited them to look like multi-color chrome – but they definitely still resembled water. Then I took this watery edit and stamped it onto the photo of my profile, which created this really interesting texture…and THAT was displayed for several weeks in a gallery.
The other one that I was proud to have chosen was for an environmentalist-themed gallery in Portugal; this exhibition was based on photography displaying human destruction of natural resources. It was really weird because it was exploring the theme of destruction, yet we were finding beauty IN the destruction, all while advocating for the preservation of the earth’s natural resources. For me, it was strange taking pictures of human destruction, because of course I wanted it to be beautiful, but in a certain way, it’s not beautiful at all.
S: Whoa, whoa, whoa, that’s really interesting, trying to find a way to hold these two completely contrasting perspectives in focus at the same time. What image did you end up submitting?
A: I was digging through my old stuff – I do that a lot, because there are a lot of pictures that I forget that I’ve taken – and I had taken a picture of a graffitied quarry in West Virginia. Since the time I first took the picture it’s gotten worse and worse. I mean, there are stories of people dumping entire campers and horses inside of this quarry…
S: Whoa whoa!
A: It’s absolutely terrible… So that’s the first place I thought of when I saw this competition. I submitted a picture and they DID invite me to the premier, but OBVIOUSLY I couldn’t make it to Portugal – I don’t have those kinds of funds. But it was also printed in a magazine; It was a picture of these beautiful layers of red-brown rocks in the quarry in West Virginia, and on top of that, all the layers of graffiti from over the years. And the graffiti is super high up too, I was impressed that somebody even managed to find a way to spray paint those rocks!
S: Did you get paid commission?? Because I think you should have!
A: That’s really funny that you should say that. You’re the only person that has ever paid me for my photography when I did your head-shots. Shameless Self-Plug: a few pieces of my art are available as non-fungible tokens on the digital marketplace platform, OpenSea.
A: Yea! The artist Grimes put up one of her paintings and it sold for over $1,000,000… and well, I’m not expecting that, but I think it’s really interesting, this emerging craze over original digital files. I have a lot of those, so I thought it’d be worth putting up some art.
S: I’d be interested to hear about how that process unfolds over time!
A: Yeah, I think I need to do a lot of promotion that I don’t really have time for right now, but it’s on the list.
S: You and I have done some collaboration with glow-juggling and nighttime photography, can you tell me a little bit about the process you use to derive such cool final projects?
A: Night photography and working with light are some of the hardest aspects of photography. For those pictures, I used a setting called bulb. Bulb allows me to control the shutter speed with my finger. Usually when you are running a camera, the shutter speed is a predetermined number that you can change with a dial. But since the way you were moving and the patterns you were using were constantly changing, I decided to take the shots with bulb – that way, I could watch you, and whenever I decided to lift up my finger, that would determine my shutter speed.
S: That’s so cool!
A: Sometimes it would turn out super underexposed or overexposed, so there is a lot of experimentation in that process. When taking photos like that, with manual shutter speed and bulb mode WHILE the subject is moving, it’s really interesting because I can’t actually see where you are through the lens. So I have to guess where you are and try keep my hands super still! The second I push down my button, I actually can’t see you; sometimes I look over my camera, but I can’t see you through the camera – I have no idea what the camera is going to pick up until after. There is a lot of spatial guesswork!
S: That’s CRAZY! It was so much fun to do that with you, can we do that some more? And what about on the editing end? How did you do the editing after the photography-magic voodoo you were conjuring?
A: So I pop it into Photoshop and I crop it to the rule of thirds – this way, the design that you’ve danced into my camera is centered in a pleasing way. Usually, you don’t find true darkness, so I have to adjust the black levels and the individual colors. Then, since you were further away and were using the colored LED balls, I adjusted the saturation. I do this ONLY after I fix the light and dark balance, because if you don’t, you could end up with the night background looking a little…green.
So I crop, edit the background and darkness (sometimes I have to steal parts of black from other parts of the picture and then paint it in by hand), then adjust the saturation.
S: And the saturation changes the juiciness of the colors?
A: Well, too much can make it look a little grainy, but just a little bit of saturation makes it look more accurate to what you see. It’s interesting, because actually, when a camera takes a photo, it’s not actually accurate to what your eyes are seeing. I don’t really have a lot of problems with using Photoshop. Some people do, some people are like, “Oh my gosh, no, I want it to be exactly how it is.” But a camera is a representation of what you see already, and it’s never going to be accurate, so I don’t see anything wrong with light editing.
With yours in particular, some of the pictures you have on your site, I did a little bit of reflection or kaleidoscope effect with your patterns.
S: I remember we had a few pictures of fire and you talked about turning it into a DRAGON! Have you encountered this wild creature in the realm of your Photoshop creations lately??
A: *Shakes head “no” laughing*
S: My last question is: Do you have any projects you would like to collaborate on in the future?
As far as digital art goes, I would love to work with your sketches in Photoshop again sometime.
S: YES! OH MY GOD THAT FUCKING WAS AWESOME!
A: If we could do that blend of sketch and digital art again – some sort of fusion between those two mediums – that’d be really fun because I love working with textures!
S: Yes. Yes. Yes. That is so inspiring to me, the way that you turned that around and brought it to life, was like [exclaiming loudly and sputtering with excitement!]
A: [Laughing] I love things and – I wanted to transform it, but I didn’t want to change the feeling, I liked working with and guessing what your intention was and then working from there!
I know that you do a lot of electronic-sort-of-experimentation with music. I actually have a way to animate photos. If you ever wanted a video for some of your music, I would absolutely love to let you riffle through my stuff. Then I could animate something and we could put something visual with your music!
S: Oh, I would love that! I just need to get my ass in gear! I was just looking through some of the snippets that I have on my computer before our conversation; there are little pockets of things, some are like, “Eww,” [shudders] “What the fuck was THAT?!”But othersaren’t so bad…
A: [Laughing] Oh yes, I have PLENTY of those too… that is why we have external hard drives.
S: Yes! The visualized art and music sounds SO cool.
A: I’d also really like to do a collaborative album – nothing too complex or layered, sort of a minimalist poetry album, kind of like that previous poem we worked on together. I’d love to record spoken word poetry, send it to you, and let you produce it however you want. That sound SO cool to me.
S: I know we talked about about record called **** ** *** ***, that took those same ideas of spoken word and poetry and spliced them with acoustic guitar. I’m still really interested in that too.
A: Well, there is no shortage of poetry to work with.
S: Amen. Thank you so much for taking the time to hang out with me and share your process, it was so fun!
A: Oh my gosh, it was so fun!
This concludes part 3 of of the 3 part interview with Miss Aleah Fitzwater; Thanks Aleah for taking the time to share a glimpse into your photography practice and for brainstorming ideas with me!
Aleah is an advocate of ScanScore for her arranging process; we talked at length two weeks ago about the usefulness of ScanScore for arranging. For more info, check out the software here!
If you like what you see, please subscribe! And if you’d like to set up an artist interview, please feel free to send a message or drop a comment!
This week continues a three-part interview series with local creative stallion, Aleah Fitzwater. Ranging from visual arts, music, to poetry and more, Aleah is carving a unique space for herself in the wide world of artistic expression. Her website is located at https://aleahfitzwater.com where you can learn more about her specific projects, check out her music and photography portfolios, and follow along with her blog ‘Fusion!’
Based on a podcast-style interview format, Aleah and I shared a sprawling conversation, first talking about some of the software that she has been using recently in her musical process; later, Aleah shared her perspectives and insights on her approach to practice as it relates to the many artistic mediums she enjoys creating through. Finally, we chatted about what lies ahead in the future, brainstorming upcoming collaborative projects together.
This interview is part two of a three-part series.
Pt.2: The Art of Practice
This is an extension of research I began in 2017, the last year of my undergraduate studies, and is something I still actively cultivate and pursue in my artistic process. The whole idea for the project was inspired by my direct experience with Zen Buddhism and the necessity of practice within music school. I was, and largely still am, completely fascinated with the experience of engaging with life in a direct, intentional, and ritualistic way. Back then, perhaps for the first time in my life, I found myself equipped with an awareness capable of recognizing a deep need to practice – to clearly identify the limits and edges of my ability as an artist, a musician, and as a human being in general. After this fundamental recognition, I found myself exploring intensely personal ways of working with my own barriers, both within my musical training and within my own personal life.
Then I got to wondering, how do musicians at all different stages and of all calibers approach practice? I wondered what it would be like to conduct and assemble research about artistic individuals and their practice habits, then to share the information with the larger artistic community, as well as to apply my findings to my own art-making process. I finished the project in a certain sense – I turned it in, received a grade, and graduated. But it felt incomplete in the sense that there was a very small data set; I feel like there are a lot of interesting artistic perspectives out there that I haven’t yet heard, and I would love to continue cultivating and sharing my research.
Thank you, Aleah Fitzwater for sharing your time and perspectives with me and with the wider artistic world!
Sam: So, would you mind sharing what your personal relationship to your art and music practice looks like?
Aleah: Oh gosh. I would describe my relationship to art and music as complicated. That’s the first word that comes up. The next thing that came to mind – it’s interesting that the word “complicated” shows up for me, because, so many people that I personally know have covertly bashed my art and music in some way. In working to rebuild from those hang-ups that we all develop as we stumble through the world of the arts, things can appear very much black and white. Sometimes I’m always doing art and music; other times, I’m just thinking about it but not acting on the impulse. I’m always thinking about it though.
My relationship with the arts has definitely changed since I’ve graduated. All that being said, I feel more myself when I’m making music. This sounds cliche but, it’s part of who I am. So, whether I’m pouring resin, writing, or playing music, it’s always has that same feeling. And the impulse to create is always present.
S: So your relationship to art is complicated and evolving? And maybe omnipresent and pervading throughout your life?
A: Yeah! And I’d say that a lot of the different arts give me a very similar qualitative sort of satisfaction. So like, if I’m demolding something I poured in epoxy, or if I’m playing Poulenc, it just all has this really nice, ASMR feeling.
S: Yeah! Well, there’s something really satisfying about using the contents of your life in the current moment, actively transforming reality through some medium with a creative impulse. That’s absolutely satisfying, I feel you there, haha.
Do you have any internal stances, mindsets, or feelings in regard to your art-making process?
A: It’s funny because the only strong sense I have is a stance of impermanence, or, no hard stance at all. I know that my process is going to be different every single day. When I wake up, it’s a totally different day. And I guess I always expect my process to be different, kind of like the weather.
And I’m okay with it. I mean, sometimes I do have certain habits, but, for the most part, I wake up and I don’t know if I’m going to write a poem with a bunch of half-rhymes, pour something in epoxy, or if I’m going to turn on my recording equipment. I mean, something is probably going to happen. But as far as strong permanent stances on things, not really. I’m okay with the weather pattern (laughing).
S: That’s very interesting! And it sounds like, for you, it’s very much motivated by the spirit of the moment as you move through your day. You have your environment primed for these different artistic moments to unfold… maybe piano, flute, or recording; you’ve got visual art stuff, you have all of your creative tools on hand. Whatever inspires you that day, you’re open to, willing, and at peace with being able to say “Hey I’m going to take this train to wherever it goes.” That’s cool.
A: I mean, I’ve tried it before where I would say “Okay, I’m going to practice piano every single day. And I mean, I should practice piano more than I do, let’s be honest. But, unless I feel really taken with the piano, I find that I don’t get as far. I think it’s okay to have certain time periods of hyperfocus because it ends up turning out better than if I force myself to practice. It just doesn’t have the same sparkle.
S: I think that, for me, the way that I’m wired, I always come back to this impulse to maintain a daily grind. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the best or only way to relate to practice, but it’s a feeling that I can’t seem to escape – like I need to maintain my daily practice. I think that the spontaneity and the inspiration often comes (when this ritualistic approach is functioning at its best) through the grind. The ritual creates such a concrete foundation that I get sick of it. Then it’s like, “I’m gonna do ANYTHING just as long as I don’t have to play the (same fuckin’ stupid) thing again.” As a result, I’ve got so many fragments, moments, and sketches of musical ideas that emerged through the process of formal schooling, which, in a certain way, was kind of miserable for me.
Creativity birthed out of concrete rigidity.
And so that is still a difficulty that I face: what’s the balance between spontaneity and cultivating and maintaining a healthy musical “garden?” I tend to be really bad at taking care of plants unfortunately… it’s something I-
A: I spent 4 hours today gardening, so it’s really funny for me to hear you say that. Also, I wanted to say, I think there’s a big difference in (even though we went to the same school) the different programs that we were in. It seemed like, as far as the jazz school goes, you grind and you grind, and then, on “Jazz Night” on a given Tuesday, at whatever bar is hosting the jam, after all of your grinding, THEN you are allowed to be free and do what you will and solo and whatnot. You’re not memorizing charts on Tuesday night; you’re just having fun with it. So say, I was in a flute choir, and marching band, and private lessons, orchestra, and wind ensemble all at the same time. I think the reason I am the way that I am now is because of all of these ensembles. We would grind and grind, and the end of it all, there was a concert… [that was the exact same music…the exact same way]. Not to say that that’s bad, I love Dvorak, but we never really got cut a break in the same way. [For me,] you couldn’t just go to the bar on a Tuesday night and play whatever you wanted during your solo. It’s also odd though, because, during classical lessons, my professor would so often say “Play in the dark, play with your eyes closed!” But I just [funneled] down such a straight line that I really needed to transform my relationship with the arts to something more spontaneous.
S: Yeah! More spontaneous. And it sounds like you’ve discovered something that is more flexible and that serves you and works with your life much better than “Don’t veer off the course until the concert and then we do the whole thing again.”
A: Right! So, if I play scales from Taffanel and Gaubert, I don’t then treat myself [afterwards] and then make something up. I just play Taffanel and Gaubert for 4 hours like I’m in the practice room in college again. It’s a broken method, I had to change my method.
S: Interesting, that makes sense! The next question: Does a sense of ritual inform any of your art practices? Even in your flexible approach to art making, how do you engage with it? Do you find that there is a sense of ritual inside your spontaneity?
A: I do! Especially for music. It sounds odd, but yeah, I get myself in a certain mindset. I guess the ritual [for me] is: I think about it a little bit, think about it some more, and then I decide. Once I decide, I make a cup of tea and eat a piece of chocolate, and then get started. It’s super simple.
S: Yeah! That’s beautiful. That’s exactly what I was wondering about! And so, how do you like to practice?
A: I like to practice by starting out with something I’m super comfortable with. Something I know I’m not going to mess up. So, it revs up my confidence engine. And then, after that, I choose something more difficult. This is after my sound is warmed up and clear. So, that brings me to the idea of tension, I’ve been thinking a lot about tension lately. As I practice, I gradually turn up the ‘knob of uncomfortability.’ Then, I find a limit. I go past that limit, and I think, ok, that is my limit. So then, after I know where [my limit] is, I go back and I practice really slowly. If I keep pushing the limit I get tension problems, and you can’t play fast with tension problems. After that, I start speeding it up and work on it for a while. After that, I let it go and do something else.
S: That inspires me. When you find these barriers, do you have a way of working with the thresholds and ceilings of your ability? Do you have a way that you like to organize and clarify what you need to work on?
It might be interesting, from a processing perspective, to compile a notebook of ‘Barriers Difficulties” that one encounters in practice. It seems like, for me, it could be extremely motivating to have a clear map of the things I need to work on, the things I can’t do.
I know that sometimes I get stuck in what’s comfortable and familiar, and so I’m always looking for new ways to challenge myself to grow and integrate. In the past, I know that sometimes I have fudged my way through barriers, passages, moments that give me trouble, and changes I don’t know how to address…
If I wasn’t careful, this notebook could turn into a masochistic party…
A:(Laughing) I was going to say, it seems like this could be a very sad book!
S: But, in a way, I feel like it could be really empowering to recognize, “There’s this thing I can’t do, and now, I want to work with it.” Then it’s a process of engaging, maybe failing, trying again, and hopefully crossing it off the list and knocking it out of the park.
A: Well, this is what I do. I have the piece, Carmen Fantasie. It’s beautiful. It takes a bunch of different themes from Bizet’s opera and turns it into a flute concert/theme and variations. And it’s very technically difficult. What I like to do with that is, I allow myself to play through the pretty parts that I know; because, if [I] just work on the 32nd notes, I find myself getting really bummed out. If you’re bummed out with the fast notes, you’re not going to want to make music.
S: That’s true!
A: So, I play through the beginning, because the beginning makes me happy. Then I delve into a bunch of difficult things. But when I find myself losing even an ounce of patience, I go back and I play something pretty. And then I think “I’ve almost learned this piece, if I finish polishing up these 4 bars, then this page will be done” So I allow myself to toggle back and forth.
S: That seems really healthy. I know for a fact that I have a tendency to grab onto things and to sometimes practice in a way that goes past the point of necessity.
A: Yeah, that’s a recipe for tension. I made that recipe a lot. I still make it.
S: I understand.
But that’s really interesting; it’s kind of a mix of “Here’s this thing I can’t do,” awareness and the intention to work at the edge of your ability, and also, a recognition and reminder that “This music is beautiful and I love to play this piece.”
I dig that.
Do you have any ways that you use to keep yourself engaged in growth in these different artistic fields?
A: Like I said, I’m always thinking about doing art, but a lot of the time just I think of it and I don’t act. When that happens, I go and print off something I really want to play. For example, I really want to learn Paganini’s Caprice 24. Which I do. And I haven’t yet. I put just this one thing out on my stand. And then I let it sit there.
And I let it sit there, and it bothers me.
S: It’s like a teabag! It’s steeping!
A: Eventually, I walk up to the stand and I just do it. It’s kind of like when I go Hobby Lobby and I buy a bunch of things at the craft store that I don’t know what I’m going to do with yet. I leave it in a bag on the kitchen table. I’m a very organized person, so the fact that something is out and kind of messy really draws my attention. I don’t know if it’s the best method… I kind of feel like I’m tricking myself into doing it but…
S: I think that that’s brilliant! That’s a really good idea. It reminds me of seeds in the soil, or the tea bag steeping…
I have so many piles of music around here…
A: But the piles are intimidating, they make me freeze up and get anxious!
S: I know, and I lose track of things. I’ve got these lyrics I’ve written, tunes I’m working on, all these books for lessons…. some business junk that’s partially done.
A: Right! So I find that stack, I clean it off my stand, and I clean my stand. That’s my ritual too. And I put the most important thing I need or want to do on there.
S: I might have to use that in my own process…
Do you find that your insights into your art-making process inform other aspects of your life? If so, how?
A: Well, I’m not sure that I could say how the arts inform other aspects of my life, but I can say that my different art practices definitely inform each other. I find that my music informs my photography and digital art, especially because music makes me think of textures. When I play a lot of music I think: Textures. Maybe aurally, but you know! Then I pick up my camera and I find myself taking pictures of things with texture. (Laughing) Once I even took a self-portrait with my hair, and I was like “Wow, what an interesting texture!” And later in Photoshop I made a kaleidoscope of it; I did a bunch of wacky things with the dropper tool and colors. And usually, it all turns out! Music causes me to want work more with textures, but visually!
Since music is so ingrained in my brain, it is always informing my life – I can hear a lawnmower right now, and I can’t help but wonder, “What is the pitch it is sounding at?” And I can I see it as the bass of the current orchestra of life that is playing in this moment.
Oh! And when I meet new people, I think “How would I write them in a book?” and I internally write a poem about them. Sometimes I see people as walking poems…
S: Whoa, that is beautiful! I like that very much! I didn’t realize that…
That made me think of a few things: I find a similar crossover between music and art in my own process as well. A long time ago I wrote this odd-time, wacky looping guitar riff. I loved it and played it over and over again. The more that I played it, the more that I realized that it had this visual element about it. I was studying how the melody moved across the neck and one night, I just decided to actually sit down and draw out the abstract motion on the page using the flow of the sound along the fretboard as a guide.
And going back to that idea you mentioned – when you first meet a new being, you think to yourself “Who is this person as a poem?” I’m going to have to sit with that one, that’s so cool!
S: I’m curious about the impulses that drive you towards creativity. Can you share some of these experiences?
A: I have a hard time with this one, because I can’t think of any hallmark experiences that made me say “Ok! I’m going to be an artist,” or “I’m a musician now!”
There was one time where I wrote my first set of lyrics when I was 5, and I really surprised everybody around me – but I don’t think that I felt very surprised myself. I’m not sure if I decided so long ago that I can’t remember, or that it’s something that always was, but it something that kind of just is. I have found that when I have tried to make decisions that lead me away from the artist’s path, I am often met with a lot of resistance.
I’ve been told I CAN be a very logical or mathematical person, so I thought I’d try and take a “safe” route after high school and go into accounting – there are always accounting jobs. I tried to sit through the introductory workshop, but I had been thinking “visual art, music education, creative writing!” I had written these things down dozens of times as degree path ideas.
S: The holy trinity!
A: Maybe even a side of horticulture and photography. I thought I’d try accounting for a year. Well, I actually tried accounting for 10 minutes in one little lecture hall for an introduction as a freshman.
And I couldn’t take it.
Everybody already knew how to read graphs, and they LOVED graphs. And I was like, “How can somebody love graphs?”
I was thinking, “I love music and poetry like you love graphs.” Their arms were up in the air and they were cheering and waving…for graphs. And I just felt this sinking feeling, and I actually left. I walked out of my own college initiation… I left after lunch.
I just knew. I looked around and thought, “This is not my place. And these are not my people.” No offense mathematicians. Any other path just didn’t quite jive.
[After the strange graph party,] I walked myself straight into the music department instead.
S: I’d love to hear about any crossover experiences, inspirations, or insights you’ve had in your practice of art through multiple mediums. We did mention this a bit before, but I’d love to hear about any specific experiences you’d like to share.
A: I’ve been doing so much gardening today – it’s really been on my mind. I think gardening is an art I’ve taken up too; and today I thought of an allegory that relates to this question. I always want to garden like I always want to grow my hobbies and my art. I recognize through gardening, that the plant can always get taller; and though it might not always be time for it to bloom, you still get a positive result if you put the effort into nurturing the plants.
This recognition of the benefits of caretaking informs the way that I relate to my different art practices: photography, visual art, poetry, music… There’s always a positive result if you put the effort into cultivating your arts – the idea of consistently adding fertilizer to these things. You’re eventually going to get a good result.
Also in regards to this idea of crossover effects, I think for me, poetry crosses over with my music a lot. The lines between poems and lyrics get blurred a lot; I think that the musicality of rhymes and syllables makes me wonder, “Is this a poem, are these lyrics, what do I have here?”
I’ve always thought of doing poetry book with my photography and matching it together. I have A LOT of raw materials to sort through; I just haven’t done it yet, but the idea of it is there.
S: I think that allegory of gardening is interesting, I relate to that metaphor in my own practice –
A: (laughing) Have you LOOKED at your windowsil basil?!
S:It’s – it’s looking kinda sad, it’s a SAD basil plant.
A: There’s like ONE LEAF LEFT!
S: There is more than ONE leaf! There’s like… three, ehrm. I’ve had A LITTLE bit of success with gardening back in time, but that’s informed my relationship to learning too!
I’m kind of a weird cat, I, somewhat randomly, decided to teach myself how to write with my left hand because I realized I had two, so like, why not?
A: I made a similar decision too back during my senior year of high school, so I feel you there haha! It might be a musician impulse because we use both of our hands a lot.
S: Sure! For me, I always wondered what it might be like if both of my hands could write at the same caliber. What if I could write two different paragraphs at the same time? That kind of thing has always interested me.
The same allegory of “The Arts as a Garden” has shown up for me in learning how to juggle, learning how to play guitar, and cultivating new skills and practices that I had no previous experience. I realized, “Man, this is something that I need to nurture.”
Now I think I’ve had way more success in cultivating the garden of my artistic habits than I have with actual gardening (laughing).
I think it’s really interesting in that allegory – even if it’s not blooming right at this moment, taking care of, adding fertilizer, and nurturing this process will eventually and quite naturally lead to the bloom.
For you, I think it’s really interesting that you have these two, almost contrasting perspectives active in your arts practices. On one hand, you are very garden-minded, consistently taking care of and nurturing your plants and art practices; but on the other hand, you tend to take a much freer approach to your arts, cutting out the unnecessary rigidity and flowing with the ‘weather patterns’ that move you day by day.
For me, I feel like I need to stamp myself on the forehead, like “WATER THE PLANTS, FOOL!” I really want to cultivate a more regular nurturing approach to both gardening and my own art practice.
A: Well, sometimes I feel that I need a healthy dose of that too; everything isn’t always there for me either, but that’s my ideal framework. That’s what my process looks like when all the wheels are turning.
S: Lately, I’ve been reading this book, Atomic Habits, that I think you might dig. (More info at jamesclear.com) It’s been getting my gears spinning on a daily basis, I think I’ve finished it twice now (laughing), it’s really interesting. The whole premise is based on the idea of making microscopic but reliable change to your life on a regular basis can lead to HUGE results.
A: Yeah! I think that small amounts of practice, but more consistently prove more helpful than GIANT chunks and cramming.
S: For me, I have been finding myself asking the question, what do I actually need to do to keep developing? How do you address that when it shows up in your life?
A: A couple of months ago I had an online concert and I realized I need more solo repertoire. So, I allowed that to be the target of my hyperfocus. I think that allowing a period of hyperfocus is really important to me, because if I focus on too many things all at once I get anxious and overwhelmed. If I sit and think to myself, “Oh my god, I need solo flute rep, but oh my gosh my high range is unclear and my vibrato needs work, my fingers are too tense…” [it becomes unhelpful]. Allowing myself to hyperfocus on things for short periods of time allows me to get more done than if I focused on everything, 100%, all at once. That’s what works for me
S: I think I do something similar. I find that when I decide to just hang out with some practice for a chunk of time, hyperfocusing on the nuances of what I am doing, then when I let go and forget about it, and then come back later, it has changed. It seems like there is germination period where the work that I’ve done has subconsciously grown. There is something magical about intensive, focused attention, letting it go, then coming back to it.
A: That reminds me of studying! I used to make flashcards for biology; I had like, over 100 of these things. I would spend an hour studying them, then I would then go to sleep. The next day when I pick it back up, the information is just there somehow… in a different way.
S: (Laughing) I think that sleep is a really interesting part of the process of learning, but that easily could become a whole topic of discussion! Maybe we can come back to that sometime!
This concludes part 1 of of the 3 part interview with Miss Aleah Fitzwater; Thanks Aleah for taking the time to share a glimpse into your process of practice. Aleah is an advocate of ScanScore for her arranging process; we talked at length last week about the usefulness of ScanScore for arranging. For more info, check out the software here! Stay tuned next week for Part 3 of this Interview, where we will explore topics related to future collaborations!
If you like what you see, please subscribe! And if you’d like to set up an artist interview, please feel free to send a message or drop a comment!
This week begins a three part interview series with local creative stallion, Aleah Fitzwater. Ranging from visual arts, music, to poetry and more, Aleah is carving a unique space for herself in the wide world of artistic expression. Her website is located at https://aleahfitzwater.com; here, you can learn more about her specific projects, check out her music and photography portfolios, and follow along with her blog ‘Fusion!’
Based on a podcast style interview format, Aleah and I shared a sprawling conversation, first talking about some of the software that she has been using recently in her musical process; later, Aleah shared her perspectives and insights on her approach to practice as it relates to the many artistic mediums she enjoys creating through. Finally, we chatted about what lies ahead in the future, brainstorming upcoming collaborative projects together.
This interview is one of a three part series.
Pt.1: Blogging and Optical Music Recognition
Sam: I know that you are a writer, musician, and artist, could you tell me about the different projects you are working on?
Aleah: Sure! Lately, as far as my career goes, I have been working on a lot of music blogs. I write for an OMR software company, I review instruments like piano keyboards on various sites, and sometimes I write about mixing and mastering as well.
As far as personal projects go, I’ve been recording a lot of spoken word poetry, and have been arranging Northern Downfall for five flutes.
S: Can you tell me a little bit about those last two projects that you just mentioned?
A: I find myself writing poetry a lot, oftentimes words just kind of fall out of my head, and I need to write them down. I’ve been trying to be more open about sharing my poetry more recently. I was inspired to arrange Northern Downpour because, on the Pretty Odd album, Panic! At the Disco uses a lot of MIDI flutes. One day when I was listening back to some of the songs, it made me laugh. I love Panic! But, I thought, “Man, MIDI flute…” I chose Northern Downpour in particular because it has a lot of movement. Even though I’m stacking the same instrument on top of itself, it has enough texture for that sort of setting to make it work.
S: You mentioned OMR technology? Could you tell me a little bit about what that stands for and what it does? Because I don’t actually know.
A: Well, you should! So, OMR stands for optical music recognition. It’s kind of like computer science and sheet music had a baby. Basically, optical music recognition teaches your computer to recognize music elements, and it digitizes them into an editable format.
So, before OMR really was a thing, we would have all these PDFs. People love putting music in PDFs. But, say you want to arrange a piece of music in PDFs. Before OMR, there was no easy way to digitize that music. So, you’d have to spend hours typing it into Sibelius.
In the ’80s the college MIT had the idea to start doing optical music recognition like the way text was currently being digitized with OCR Technology (Optical Character Recognition). OMR is a lot more complicated than OCR though, because of how many elements are in music (staff, note heads, key signature, articulations). And that’s why this technology took a lot longer to develop, too.
One of my favorite things in the history of OMR is this robot called WABOT. Originally it was this robot that could move its limbs and whatnot. WABOT-1 wasn’t really related to music, but WABOT-2 played the organ with its ‘fingers’ (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/0167849387900027 ). That was the first really big piece of optical music recognition hardware/software. It didn’t take long for them to learn that, well, all these arm and legs and fingers don’t really help us digitize the music in the way we’re looking for.
S: That’s so interesting! So did it have mechanical fingers and a camera?
A: Yes, yes it did! It literally read the music and played the organ.
S: How has OMR evolved past that point? Is that what this software ScanScore is doing now, are they building little robot buddies with mechanical fingers?
A: No no, that was very early in the synthesis of the idea. Now, it’s more along the lines of a companion program to Forte notation software or Sibelius, Musescore, anything like that. A lot of the times notation programs have some OMR capability, but, it usually isn’t very good. What I like about ScanScore in particular is its accuracy. In addition to this, it has a mixer, and you can edit the misreads really easily.
S: Wait, I know Sibelius has a mixer tool too; you can adjust the levels and pan of the instruments. Is ScanScore’s mixer similar?
A: I’ll walk you through the process here. So, say you have a PDF of Fur Elise so you can do a Fur Elise remix or something. You can pop it into your program by uploading it into ScanScore. And say you want to hear it in MIDI flutes or something. You can go to the mixer and you can change the allocation of the instruments. In ScanScore it is more of a draft sort of format, so you can hear what it sounds like. It’s a really good tool for composers and performers. Say a contemporary composer hands me a piece of physical sheet music and I don’t know what it sounds like. I can take a picture of that piece and have ScanScore play it back to me, which is something a notation program can’t really do.
S: You can change the type of instrument that plays back too?
A: Yep, and you can also pan and EQ to some extent. Oh! And there was one more thing I wanted to mention here, let me backtrack. So, as far as the process goes, once people get their score the way they want it, most people export their file into a MusicXML and then put it into their favorite notation program. OMR adds another piece of software in the mix, to save us a lot of time.
S: Does that pretty much sum up the process of how you use ScanScore?
A: Yeah! Basically, you can take a picture with your phone and link your devices with a QR code, and the music gets sent to your computer and digitized. You can also upload pictures of PDFS, or you can use a physical scanner that connects to your computer. After that, it all works pretty much the same way.
S: Now, how do you apply ScanScore in your own musical process?
A: I use ScanScore (https://scan-score.com/en/) in my own arrangements, specifically. I guess you could call me a bit of a lazy arranger. Sometimes I find myself diving into MuseScore’s online community to find melodies. So say I know a song really really well, but I don’t want to have to sit there and transcribe the melody. I figure somebody’s probably done it at some point. And so I find it. Say I find Northern Downpour, I know I did that with this one. So I found it on MuseScore, and it’s in a downloadable PDF. And I mean, MuseScore is still riddled with all sorts of problems, and I still have to listen through and edit rhythms. But, it’s still better for me to do that than to play the song fifty- million times to get the melody on the page, you just edit someone else’s mistakes. So! I am the lazy arranger.
S: Sure! And I mean, say you have a book like this (The Beatles), and even vocal music in general, it tends to have a lot sixteenth notes with the stems all broken apart. Vocal melodies can be really intricate on paper when they’re actually relatively easy to sing. That’s a really good idea. I spend a lot of time transcribing melodies, and so sometimes I get burnt out when I get to the arrangement.
A: Yeah! I mean, with the underground/ Indie band sort of thing, you just have to bite the bullet sometimes. I recently did a cover of Anarbor’s 18, and, while the song is fairly popular, I still had to transcribe it all from scratch. But, if it’s Panic! At the Disco or something, a lot of the time you can be the lazy arranger!
This concludes part 1 of of the 3 part interview with Miss Aleah Fitzwater; Thanks Aleah for taking the time to share a glimpse into your arranging process. Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of this Interview, where we will explore topics related to The Art of Practice.
If you like what you see, please subscribe! And if you’d like to set up an artist interview, please feel free to send a message or drop a comment!
Please use a discerning gaze when reading these claims, which deserve critical examination. This documentation represents a snapshot of my internal landscape at a certain point in time in my life during my collegiate career.
On Gravity in Sound
Similarly to how Pulse is a center of gravity, so too are all chords their own universes with their own gravitational centers. Chord tones are like stars and planets, with massive gravity and a tendency towards grounding the more ethereal and weaker tones. Of course, one must tune into chord tones of all qualities; to hear and feel them through all changes – subtle and magnificent – is to stay grounded within the natural relativity of sonic landscapes.
It becomes a game. How do these massive points of density interplay and shift? Where does the tension grow? Where does it break?
Arpeggios and chord tones are the world against which all music dances and through which all music breathes.
Last week, we considered the gravity that exists within rhythm; this week, it looks like my past-self decided to focus on the gravity that exists within harmony.
If I’m being honest, in my initial re-read of this entry, the language makes me cringe a little. I can see that my spirit was full of fire and my intention was strong, but I’m not sure that I would say this the same way now.
How might I say this now, you ask?
Well, if you aren’t asking, I certainly am.
As I consider this question, I find myself gazing towards my personal relationship with harmony; I think that I left something crucial out of my initial considerations, all those years ago. I completely neglected the importance of melody when considering the musical universe of harmony.
If my memory serves me, I remember encountering several critical and life-changing perspectives about harmony from my jazz and history studies at the University of Toledo. This wisdom was transmitted to me, perhaps during my studio lessons with my professor, Jay Rinsen Weik, or maybe in a composition lesson with the gifted Dr. Lee Heritage – both professors heavily altered the course of my thinking about composition. It may be so that each told me the same thing in different moments, or even that these nuggets of wisdom arose from somewhere else in the fertile environment of UT’s music department. Wherever it came from, what I learned was this:
Chords, in and of themselves, in a certain way, are inert. This means that in isolation, chords don’t necessarily lead anywhere or have much to say without a relationship to melody or larger context. (This one definitely traces back to Dr. Heritage. Forgive me if I have misrepresented your words, sir.)
The great guitarist, Jim Hall, had a fascinating concept of harmony: rather than conceptualizing chords as blocks or stacks of notes, Jim Hall preferred to conceptualize harmony as the intersection of different melodic lines, each with their own integrity and direction.
Could I site the information for this second claim? God I wish. I’m going to have to dig around on the internet and in my notes to see if I can trace the source.
In the meantime, lets look at each point, one at a time.
Chords are fundamentally inert.
In many ways, this was a point of contention for me when Dr. Heritage first asserted that chords were basically meaningless on their own. I was studying in the jazz world, and there was a blatant worship of chords and chord changes. Every one was talking about the changes, how the chords were built, what the good notes were, what notes to avoid. This worship of chord changes largely informed my original entry. It was easy for me to get lost in the infinite soundscapes of harmonic drones, exploring tensions and consonances in sound. Droning harmony was and still remains a favorite experimental setting for me to explore the nature of sounds on the guitar. It was from this deep communal regard of chords in the UT Jazz department and through my direct experience of mining sounds out of drones that I began to conceptualize the celestial perspective of harmony that is so apparent in the original entry.
I don’t think chords are meaningless on their own. I don’t think they are inert, frozen, dead, and without motion. I know this, both in my own experience and because droning tones are foundational for the ancient and improvisational Hindustani music.
But I think what Dr. Heritage was trying to convey was closer to the second point on the list.
Without context, a chord is just a block of sound.
When I use a chord or some stack of harmony as a drone, I am using the harmonic and looping sound as context to explore melodic improvisation against that sound.
So perhaps Dr. Heritage and I agree more than I initially thought. Context is important for harmony to convey meaning.
But you could also argue that people have the capacity to give meaning to anything. If I want to play the same chord over and over again, asserting my musicality, who’s to argue?
Philosophy aside, I think that Dr. Heritage was trying to underscore the importance of melody. Now that I’ve been stewing in this conversation for awhile, I can remember him talking about harmony as the intersection of different melodic lines.
2. Harmony as the intersection of melody
When two singers are singing different melodic lines, there are moments when their voices might sustain and overlap on different notes. The relationship between these different notes create a resonance, a musical interval, a little pocket of harmony.
Melody is often the animating force for musical expression. We love when the chorus hits on the radio, little fragments of songs often get stuck in our heads, playing endlessly – ear worms – and I think that most people have heard a melody that they love so much that they can’t resist singing along in the shower.
What if harmony is a musical phenomenon that occurs when multiple melodies intersect?
God, there is so much I could say about this topic.
What I will share is this: By shifting my understanding about harmony, I have enabled myself to encounter new musical possibilities in my own composition process. Music doesn’t have to be constrained to “theoretically perfect” grids and charts, using the “correct” harmonic voicings and adhering to all the “rules.”
Often when I write now, I think primarily about the melodic integrity of what I am playing or singing:
Does it catch my heart? Does it make me feel?
How can I use the ideas within the melody as a springboard for the rest of the composition?
Can I play a countermelody on the guitar/my instrument at the same time?
Or maybe I could harmonize a line that I am playing on my guitar with the melody I’m singing, using the rhythmic contour of my vocal line as inspiration for my guitar/accompaniment.
Can I make little melodic lines pop out above, below, around, and through the chords I am playing?
Can I make satisfying decisions about voice leading, considering each note in my chord as a separate melody line; each saying something meaningful, each pointing somewhere?
And yes. At the same time, all of my exploration with drones, experimentation with tensions and consonances, and the celestial regard for harmony that I wrote about about in the original entry – ALL of it informs my current process. For me, this is a process driven by the pure love of harmonic exploration, except now it is better informed by the singing heart of melodic intelligence and the driving force of rhythm.
How do you conceptualize harmony? I’d love to hear about your perspective. Do you agree with these perspectives? Disagree? Have information contrary to what I’ve shared here? I would love to hear from you. Drop a comment and let me know how you receive this entry!