October 12, 2018

Making It Up As I Go

When I was 13, I went out into the woods and began to teach myself to improvise and compose. I did not know it at the time though. I began by memorizing a short folk tune and adding small ornaments (a trill here, a grace note there) to it. I had seen several versions of this tune in sheet music form with ornaments so I made a point of adding ones that had not been in those versions. Some sounded good, others not so much.
The next week, I did this again. And then again. The ornaments got a bit longer and more complex (turns!) and after a few more weeks, something odd happened. An interval in the melody caught my attention. I don't know why but it suddenly sounded different than it ever had before in this tune or in any other. It sparkled and glittered. I spun it around and tossed it into other places in the song. I explored what notes played before and after the notes of that interval would emphasize the extra something I was hearing and feeling in my fingers.
In time, other intervals in this same tune caught my attention. And I worked with them in similar ways. Then I put together the intervals I especially liked (for no apparent reason) and explored how to weave them together in a way that showed off the magic I had found in them. With mixed results. But eventually, I realized I wasn't playing that folk tune anymore. I was creating a new melody.
This unsettled me. I knew composing was a deep pool of new learning and I was a bit reluctant to dive in just yet. So instead, I just told myself I was noodling. Then improvising. I took a small tape recorder out with me (I always did this somewhere I felt I wasn't being listened to at that time) and recorded a few of these little ephemeral notes and lines. I liked just knowing I could go back and hear what I had done again. Once or twice I even actually listened to those tapes (not often) and noticed things I liked and things I thought weren't really that interesting and tried to remember both.

Years later, my teacher had me add ornaments to a Telemann piece. Using our best information of how ornaments were added at the time. I loved it but it frustrated me wildly. I loved it because it was exactly what I wanted to do a great deal of the time. But so many of the ornaments I came up with did not fit the rules. And I could not seem to actually change any of the notes in the melody which I knew would have happened at the time. Still, it was a whole new way to play with those feisty little notes.
Then, again years later, I took a Jazz improv class. This had mixed results too but by then, I expected that. I knew I was trying to learn to do something different than Jazz so I accepted that not everything I learned here would work for whatever I was doing. And those little noodling tunes and exploratory ornaments I was playing in private kept going. And growing. And fewer and fewer recordings had dull sounding moments in them.
Then I went to play at the Renaissance Festival. Suddenly, I was playing music all day long. I got bored just playing written tunes and played some of my own improvisations. And some of what I now admit were compositions began emerging into the light of audiences. The next year, almost half of what I was playing was my own improvising or compositions. The next year, I had to remind myself to play music other than my own.
And that is the story of how I learned to "dream in music". To allow music to pour through me and, hopefully, into the dreams of others. To create a world of sound that constantly shifts and changes. Like rainbows through rain-clouds or starlight on snow.