A beautiful metaphor for the dynamic field of tension between melody and harmony was expressed by cellist Jérôme Pernoo last year: melody to be pictured as a person’s face and harmony to be pictured as the internal ‘state of mind, emotions, well-being and soul’ of the owner of that face (in this metaphor rhythm to be presented by the body). Thus, communicating very clearly how the ‘same face’ can change expression and radiance according to different dynamics on the inside.
Violinists might find the following metaphor appropriate for this same relationship between melody and harmony: ‘the worlds above and under water’. Melody to be seen as - what is often known quite well by the 'melody-players' - the part above the water and harmony being the underwater-world, that asks to be explored if one wants to know the whole. If the musical score is viewed as this ‘whole’, one can understand how vital it is for melody players to put on diving mask and snorkel, and see and experience for oneselves what is there, instead of ‘being told’ about it.
Origins of this research
After more than twenty years of teaching and playing the violin, I came to the point where I started experiencing a rather spacious gap in education here. There seems to be an empty field between - on the one hand - the profoundness with which violinists teach or know the own part of the score well enough to play their role in it convincingly and - on the other hand - the harmonic ‘knowledge’ (or better: the harmonic experiencing) of this same score. Harmonic consciousness very often shows to be too theoretical, much more elementary and often not very well connected to the level of playing and to the musical intuition. Violin students might be able to play Tsjaikovsky violin concerto reasonably well, but not be able to play around comfortably with a I-IV-V-I sequence… How often do I find myself in a lesson emphasizing to ‘listen better to the piano part’ for harmonic colour, but more and more there was the experience that only pointing that out, does not result in the active listening and experiencing of it, that is desired. To achieve active listening and a greater sensitivity here, a search for ‘something more powerful’ started, something much more connected to the playing and musical talent inside the student himself. This gap became more and more noticeable (and annoying), both in working with my students and in my own playing and relationship with the repertoire.
Thus, a strong need was born to explore ways how to be able to teach - both my students and myself - in such a way that that gap can be closed. In such a way that harmony is experienced first before being 'labelled'. Therefore ‘knowing’ harmonic progressions and colours in another way, much more from the inside and connected to the own musical intuition, identity and instrument.
That was the first incentive for this research. Next to that there has been another strong impulse to embark on it.
Over a major part of my previous years of teaching I found myself every now and then implementing moments of improvisation in the violin lessons. In an ICON-seminar in October 20141 my own improvised playing was given a strong impulse. The experience woke up a clear awareness of the treasures that are to be found in improvising music: the joy of experiencing the creative moment, the intense sense of connecting, reacting, communicating on a profound level with co-players, the experience of non-judgemental music-making. The increasing awareness of the own musical identity, the appeal to use the musical fantasy and imagination, the increasing awareness about the role one plays in the music - about leading, following, taking initiative. The fun to exaggerate. The experience of entering the continuum of ‘performing composed repertoire-improvising-composing music’ and the changed attitude that is thereby created in the relationship with the already existing repertoire. The search for an instrumental technique that is much more connected to the own musical instinct. The ‘being in the actual moment’ and an opportunity to speak music as a ‘living language’ - every one of us in an own unique way - instead of ‘reciting’ it. The energy that comes from improvising music, the joy of accepting and reacting to something unexpected. The playfulness of it and the childlike way of fiddling around2 with sounds and rhythm, together with others.
That was the second incentive to undertake the research found in this exposition: the urge to learn, experiment, grow, enjoy and gain experience in musical improvisation in order to be able to use it as the fantastic, educational tool it is and become a more skillful improviser myself.
The two needs combined have led to a fascinating, exploratory journey in the shape of this master research.
Influences on this research
The process of the research has somehow evolved as ‘an improvisation’ itself. Crucial has been that from the moment it started, I have been in the lucky circumstance of being surrounded by and profoundly guided by ‘masters’ in this field: Bert Mooiman, David Dolan and Karst de Jong. The fact that these three musicians are all three pianists created an exciting and sometimes not so easy challenge to translate things to ‘violin-world’. It is by this translation to the violin that I hopefully can add one valuable stone – harmony for a melody instrument – as so far I have not come across many experienced role models or hands-on guides in classical music in this sense.
It must be about twenty years ago that a book came into my hands that I worked through at that time with a lot of pleasure and fascination: ‘Sketching at the keyboard’ by Laura Campbell3 - a clear and practical guide to learn about harmony by playing. Looking backwards, it is obvious that the acquaintance with this book is one of the early seeds of the present research.
The journey of the research has been ‘living’ in a ‘big, shared playground’ of music-making, energy and ideas together with many inspiring colleague musicians.
My library of books connected to the subject of this research kept growing. It provided a big source of ideas, reading and playing through them. In the next chapter a closer look at the already existing material is provided.
Two balances to take care of
When working with students in the way presented in this report, I found there is a delicate balance that asks to be carefully watched: the balance between guiding students ‘outside their comfort zone’ and at the same time taking care of their sense of ‘safety’. It is of crucial importance to create a ‘safe playground’ where students can dare to take risks, allow themselves to be vulnerable, make mistakes and grow. I believe it is only in that area that music-making and improvisation can take place in the colourful, touching and imaginative way that makes us enjoy it so much. The body has proven to be a good ‘thermometer’ for this aspect, and over the course of the research, listening to the ‘knowledge of the body’ became more and more an important factor. I have experienced the importance of this delicate balance myself at numerous moments during the explorative journey of growing in improvising music and I have become aware of the intensity, joy and energy that is hidden in the moments that one has the courage to be present while being vulnerable.
In addition, there is a second balance to take care of: the one between our intuitive, ‘magical’, full-of-fantasy way of listening and the more structured, rational, ‘thinking’ way of approaching harmony and music in general. In my experience our instinctive knowledge is far more ‘capable of knowing’ than our thinking mind. In improvising music, there are moments of experiencing this balance very clearly, the moving back and forth between different ‘mind-sets’ and the intense power and ‘knowing in another way’ that our musical instinct possesses. When working with the ‘Invitations’ it is vital to try to keep an eye (ear) on enough – as many as possible - moments of connection with our intuitive music-making.
About this paper, text, audio, scores, navigating through this exposition
This paper can be seen as playing a 'double role': on the one hand it is a report of the research undertaken, on the other hand it can serve as a 'handbook' that could be consulted by musicians, music teachers and anyone else interested in educational and practice material, that aims at 'enhancing harmonic awareness through improvisation on the violin'.
The real content of this research is to be found in playing and listening – so in ‘practise’, in ‘doing’. Therefore, text is not the most appropriate instrument to communicate this real content and therefore the text of this paper is ‘decorated’ with audio on the right-hand side. It is strongly recommended to listen to those audio files and read the short comments that appear when clicking on the audio file. Also, audio has - at times disturbing - limits in how the real content of the work can be communicated. This real content is a process of increasing awareness and it is a difficult thing to catch a process in anything else than in the actual happening and doing of it.
Considering the recordings, it is therefore important to keep in mind that all recordings are made as ‘reporting of a process’. In these times, where our ears are ultimately used to listen to polished recordings of the highest level, we are not inclined easily to listen to processes equally strongly. When our ears hear something that ‘does not compare well’ with the great recordings that are in our ears, our attention might drift off in a non-desired way. To by-pass this obstructive difficulty when using recordings, an explanation is given of what the recording at hand is supposed to be illustrating.
Considering scores, it is important to mention that when working in the way presented in this paper, scores are preferably absent as much as possible, the best way of working with the invitations is by ear. When (bits of) musical scores appear in this paper it is done to make ideas clear or to serve as an example.
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