I almost always gravitate towards f#minor - which is the name of a particular key, meaning a certain set of notes/pitches that in combination fit together and sound delightfully pleasing to the ear. Tonight for some reason I shifted slightly and started oscillating between g minor, A and b minor, adding in a few bluesy twists. These bluesy twists have been what I've been working on most over the past year.
See, I grew up learning to read the music and play the musical instrument. Piano, flute, recorder, voice, later the saxophone, all alongside music theory lessons and school music classes - yes, I was extremely lucky to have a Mum who strongly advocated for and could set aside enough money for all of these lessons and education. Later, as a Masters of Music Therapy student teaching myself and you-tube teaching myself guitar and a range of percussion instruments I began learning by ear, listening to the music or thinking about what I wanted to play and then figuring out how to play it. Watching and listening to others play and attempting to recreate it, re-training my inner ear to have a mind of its own. Looking back now I can see that my inner ear and embracing the quality of the music was exactly what one of my teachers had been trying to teach me. Having had two decades of lessons and music classes and such definitely set me up to do this. I could look at the guitar strings like a fragmented polyphonic piano and work out the fingering for chords fairly easily. The hardest thing was and still is getting my wrist and hand to physically manoeuvre around the fretboard. But I digress.
I remember sitting in what was to become the lecture room I spent most of my masters life in, for the entrance audition and interview in 2009. I was at the piano, stumped, because they'd asked me to play Twinkle Twinkle. I had just played a Beethoven Sonata, I could have played them a Chopin Nocturne, or a set of Three Fantastic Dances by Shostakovitch, but did I know how to play Twinkle Twinkle? No. Could I work it out on the spot? No. Could I improvise on the piano to the theme of a bunny rabbit getting caught in a slow-building then full-hitting storm? The me of today gets excited by such fun, the me in that audition room was crumbling inside - but I gave it a go. I got into the course, so my bunny's storm can't have been all that bad...I must remember to ask my lecturers next time I see them... Hence, in the years since, I've been working on my piano improv - that is, improvising, making it up as you go, either freely or with constraints - such as a key like f#minor, or chord progression like the blues chord progression, or a theme like bunnies and storms.
Enough about bunnies, onto Pandora! My fingers began exploring the bluesy twists, that then turned into blues scales - being the sets of notes/pitches within a key played in order one after the other, with thumb twisting under palm to reach the next note going up the scale and fourth finger reaching over the thumb coming back down. As the thought, "Well these aren't joe-bloggs accessible are they" came to mind, I began just running up and down on the white notes. I added a bass line, and then started focusing and centering my play around one bass note. Suddenly the sound set changed. And all of a sudden I realised this was the next step! My fingers had knocked on Pandora's box and it unleashed modes as the next thing my fingers needed to get their head around on the piano, taking what I'd learned on the sax in high school (but clearly not fully absorbed) to the keys of my grandparents' Danneman piano. I jumped up excitedly and raced to tell my husband what had just evolved in the half hour I'd been playing yet almost spontaneously in one instant -
I had seven whole new sound sets which I could enable my clients to easily access and play on the piano, just by playing only the white notes!
Often when inviting someone I'm working with to sit with me at the piano, I'll introduce the idea that you don't have to have ever played any instrument before, but that you can sit for the first time ever and if you just play the black notes - a piano is made of white and black keys which are called notes, and are different to the keys I explained earlier, we don't make it easy on ourselves with our language do we. Anywho, if you play just the black notes the combination will sound like it fits together. This happens musically because the combination creates what's called a Pentatonic scale. And this is how I can most often immediately engage someone in playing an instrument alongside me that otherwise might have seemed daunting and inaccessible. Instead we're creating music! (Not my idea by the way, it's a common strategy employed by registered music therapists). Yes, I've put a boundary, a limitation, a demand on our play by saying they can't play the white notes, but we're able to play. And starting to explore, and express self, externalise emotions and relationships and concepts and tricky stuff, and then reflect on it and how it made us feel and what we gained and more.
I've been using this 'Flight of the black notes' or 'All about the black' strategy for a while now, and it has been co-creatively, wonderfully successful with young ones at three years old working on fine motor control and hand-eye coordination, through adolescents exploring self-identity and relationships, through older adults with dementia who are no longer using words but can express themselves using music.
And now I have seven whole new sound sets which can be just as easily used! Modes are types of scales, seven of them are made up of all of the white notes - the differentiating factor that makes them distinct sound sets is, basically, what's the lowest or most common note being played? So if A is the bass note played by the left hand for most of the time, it's likely that you're playing A Hypodorian. Each mode scale has a unique sound, just like the Pentatonic has its own unique sound. With seven more, the possibilities of the type of sounds and associated emotions and memories and concepts we're playing are exponentially increased!
I can't wait!
NZ Registered Music Therapist, co-creator, songbird, collaborator, advocate, lover-of-music.