Long tones made fun

I admit I’m a geek – I like to play long tones even after 30 years of playing my instrument. It’s a form of meditation when I get to forget about everything and enjoy making sound. I can wax poetic about it, but I also recognize that not everybody feels this way! Yet, more than anything else, long tones dramatically improve my students’ playing. So how do I make long tones interesting and inspiring for the less-geeky-than-me? Oh, I have so many ways…

Sound and silence

Instrumentation: Wind, brass, strings, pitched percussion
Age & ability: All ages, intermediate to advanced
Number of participants: 6-35

My long-time long-tone favourite is a game piece in which players have two choices:

    1. play a long tone
    2. play a silence
Campbell, Sound and Silence

The long tones and silences can overlap in any way, creating shifting textures and timbres as different instruments come in and drop out at various times.

Campbell, Sound and Silence, a variation

Pitches can be open or predetermined. Here are some examples of predetermined pitch sets:

Choose from:

          1. An E in any octave
          2. Any note of a specific chord, such as C Major or E minor minor 7
          3. Any note of specific scale, such as pentatonic, or D Major
          4. Any note from a tetrachord such as (0, 1, 2, 6) or C, C#, D, F#
          5. Any note of the chromatic scale

Any of these options can go on for a fair while. Encourage your participants to listen and respond to each other. Each group takes it in a different direction – yours will too.

More next time on shaping this game into collaborative composition.

What happens if…

Your students have a basic understanding of how instruments make sound. What happens if we deconstruct an instrument to it’s most basic element: the part that produces sound? What happens if we play only part of the instrument? What happens if we reconstruct the instrument using found objects? What happens if…

You get the picture. Today is about instrument design, modification and sound exploration.

Instrumentation: Wind & brass
Age & ability: All ages, all abilities
Number of participants: full class or groups of 2-3

Let’s deconstruct the clarinet, since it is the instrument I know best. The mouthpiece and reed create the basic sound of the instrument. The body of the clarinet acts as a resonator. To reconstruct a clarinet, we tinker with the body of the instrument.

Some useful materials for construction.

Found objects as resonators: What can be used as a resonator other than the body of the instrument? Think of household materials you already have, such as paper towel tubes of different lengths, rolled up aluminum paper, a popped balloon. Find a way to create an air-tight seal around the mouthpiece and the resonator. If there are small air leaks, use saran wrap around the join between the mouthpiece and the resonator to help the seal. How and why do different materials sound different?

Reconstruct the clarinet itself: How many different ways can you put a clarinet together? What does it sound like if you play the mouthpiece and barrel alone? Or the mouthpiece, barrel and top joint? What happens if you play with the mouthpiece in the bell? What happens if you put the clarinet together normally and hold materials across the bell and tone holes? Play a low E and cup the bell with a metallic bowl, aluminum paper, or tissue paper.

The Frankenstrument! Reconstruct the clarinet with other instruments: What happens if you play the clarinet mouthpiece with the resonating bodies of other instruments such as a trombone or flute?

My current Frankenstrument!

Warning: I supervise Frankenstrument construction to make sure the instruments don’t get damaged. Be gentle! Never force two instruments together. If two instrument parts don’t fit:

  1. Ask one participant to hold the mouthpiece and blow and another participant to hold the instrument body against the mouthpiece.
  2. Construct a tube to connect the two instrument parts.
  3. Use parts of instruments that are no longer playable or repairable.

Have fun! I’m fairly certain your students will surprise you with this one.

Making lemonade

Welcome back, everybody! Here is a story about creative music making to send us into the high season.

Once upon a time, I broke my arm. It was a clean break and bones heal, so it wasn’t a tragedy. Still, breaking an arm is a major event for a musician. After a lot of help from health professionals, my arm was more or less back to normal with the addition of a badass new scar. Yes!!! I could play again!

Ummm… oops. Patience is not my strong suit, so I overdid it a bit. I knew it was just a question of time, but I wanted to play. My arm just didn’t have the juice to play for very long. In fact, the juice ran out after 10 minutes a day. I’ve never been a big practicer, but even for me that’s nothing. So I decided I would play with both arms for the amount of time my newly healed arm could handle, and once that arm was done for the day, I would keep on playing with my ‘good’ arm alone.

Here was the challenge: I needed to not use my left arm to play the clarinet. The left hand operates the upper joint of the clarinet and is used in all fingerings for the clarinet. I had to eliminate the upper joint.

Could I play the clarinet with just the lower joint? Luckily for me, my mouthpiece fit right into the lower joint.

All of a sudden I had a right-handed clarinet, my left arm got a well-deserved break (…groan…) and I had access to a whole new sound world.

This is a blog about making music with everybody, so why am I telling this story? Because creativity comes out strongest when we need to find ways to work within constraints. I never guessed when I broke my arm that I would discover a whole new instrument in the half-clarinet. In fact, I’d never even imagined it. But when I needed to figure out a way to make music with what I had, I found a way. The discoveries I made as result have since become a major part of my creative activities. Click below to listen to Songbird, a work I composed and performed for half-clarinet and loop station.

I use this story to grab untrained musicians’ attention and encourage them to think creatively. If someone expresses a perceived limitation such as ‘I’ve never taken music lessons’, ‘I’m not a singer’ or ‘I don’t read music’, what is the flip side of that limitation? What practical openings do those limitations offer that you can use to make music that is different than you ever imagined?

Bonne rentrée à tout le monde!

Georgian Bay, Ontario, Canada, the inspiration for Songbird.