Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Learning to Underscore, Part 3: Building Blocks

If you have a repertoire of songs in your head, you have the building blocks you need to synthesise some new music.

I sort of imagine this to be a bit like Lego. You've got a nice collection of different bricks you can build with. You can buy a kit and follow the instructions to make a police car or a fire truck or a dinosaur or a spaceship. Once you get good at it, you start to want to steal bits off of one set to change another. Maybe merge the police car and fire truck. Or you start to create subtle variations on the original - like that spaceship, but without the wings swept forward that way. Or those Lego flowers instead of guns. After you start to figure out what works and what doesn't work, you start to get good at making your own stuff from scratch.

There are a few exercises you can try that might help to unlock some of those building blocks. These are going to feel pretty weird. If you're used to just building Lego using the instructions, I'm going to ask you to make the same stuff, but in blue this time. Or twice the size. Or this bit of this set together with that bit of that set. If that's going to bother you - get over it. :)

Lets try an exercise. (With music, not with Lego. Sorry.) Take one of those songs from that repertoire of yours we were talking about, and play it, but this time change it a little. Change the melody, change the chord progression a little, swap from major to minor key, chop bits out, extend it a little... Don't be too concerned with what works and what doesn't. Just play with it.

One thing I liked to try as a new improvising musician was taking the melody and chord progression from a single verse or chorus of an existing song, and playing it over and over again, but each time making one change from the original. End on a different chord. Play a harmony to the original melody. Replace an interim chord with something different. Again, don't worry about what seems to work; you're just getting experience doing something unexpected. Lots of unexpected stuff doesn't work. That's ok.

There are dimensions you can vary other than melody and chord progression... Play with the tempo, play with the accenting and the feel... You don't have to remain true to the original. You're just using it as a catalyst to create some new stuff.

If you're struggling, try this exercise without using the melody of the original song so much. Play with the chord progression, maybe augmenting right-handed chords with a little melody tinkering. Generally when I'm underscoring a dialogue-heavy scene I'll avoid a strong or noticeable melody - I want to contribute to the overall setting, not steal focus from the story.

This whole process might feel quite unnatural. Most of the time, a performing musician is quite concerned about reproducing music and being true to its original form. You get a lot of practice and training on this. So I suppose there's an amount of un-learning to be done here. Don't worry - it becomes more natural. And quite liberating, too. I really enjoy sitting down by myself at a piano and just playing some freestyle improvised stuff - not to scenes, just whatever I feel like. I know I often come back to patterns or progressions I favour - those are probably just the building blocks I enjoy using more. I don't think any of it would be particularly impressive to an observer just happening by, but it makes me feel good. And it feels completely natural. I can sit and play one 'piece' for 30 minutes, and leave the piano feeling refreshed and happy, having just created something. (I sort of want to record them so they can be shared.)

At some point you'll begin to be able to start leaving behind that original music and start skipping off on your own. Maybe you come back to the original music again, maybe not. It doesn't matter - you're creating new music, doing whatever you like, whatever comes in to your head.

The next step is to start putting some of that freestyle improvisation to work for scenes.

Next week: Putting it all together in a scene.

This is part three in a series on learning to underscore improvised scenes.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails