I recently saw a brief (6 min.) video presentation by Gever Tulley about a “Tinkering School” for children. It’s not a regular school; it’s six-day “immersive experience” where the kids take a wide range of materials (wood, rope, wheels, etc.) and make whatever they want out of them. You have to see the video to believe what these kids create. A roller coaster made of wood built by seven-year-olds! A bridge made out of plastic grocery bags. A boat. A bicycle. There is no curriculum, no tests. Just lots of tools – real tools (hammers, nails, soldering irons, etc.) – plus time to explore, experience, and “figure things out by fooling around.” Tulley: the kids soon learn that “nothing ever goes as planned. Ever. All projects go awry.” Sometimes they start with sketches and doodles, sometimes they just start building.Success is in the doing. Failures are “celebrated and analyzed.” The children have a change to imagine, creative, fail and try again, and solve problems to create things that interest them. Tulley is the author of 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do). What he’s interested in is having kids acquire good sense and mastery of “dangerous” things in life rather than avoid them and remain ignorant and unskilled in them. Walking is ‘dangerous’ to the very young, but we work on it and then move on to running, climbing stairs, etc. Tulley says, why stop there? Go another step and learn to walk on a tightrope. We learn by “fooling around”, and his book sets up chances for kids to learn, experience, and discover. In current society children are often raised in overprotected, overscheduled environments and may well miss out on the wonderful enrichment that comes from “doing it yourself”, making “mistakes”, getting dirty, using whatever’s around to make up games and projects.
How does this apply to the horn? Horn players (and most classical musicians for that matter) are raised in what might be described as overprotected, overscheduled environments, although we never think of it that way. We have our lesson music. Our band, orchestra, and chamber music. We learn technique. We learn repertoire. We learn how to solve problems. All good. But we’re also never off the leash. We never do the equivalent of grabbing a bunch of boards and nailing them together to make a fort or racer car. We don’t even know that this is possible. Or we would blanch at the prospect of nailing these loose musical boards together and making something on our own. We might get dirty! It won’t be perfect! I don’t know how! I might hit my finger with the hammer! My teacher didn’t say I could or tell me how!
So, even if we get a peek through the door, we quickly close it and get back into our Sunday best and take out our factory-made toy that we know so well.
More’s the pity. Tinkering in anything, music most certainly included, is a terrific way to learn a lot about a lot and have a grand and fascinating load of fun in the process. As we go through the process of making something new, we discover that we have never felt so alert and absorbed and alive, the feeling that psychologist Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi describes in his 1990 book, Flow.
So…. how do we do it? How do we tinker in music?
It’s easiest to do it with someone or something, but you can certainly tinker on your own. What are our materials? Not wood and string and glue, but scales and arpeggios and patterns, oh my!
Do the same as Gever Tulley suggests: you can play from a plan, a doodle, or just start playing.
A plan might be writing down a note or two or three or four or so (and with that few notes, you don’t really need to write them down). They could be random, or sound like a melody, or outline a scale or arpeggio. A great way to get used to making your own decisions (and work on technique as well) is to construct your own micro-etudes out of basic musical materials, e.g. you could take a simple triad CEG and Koppraschify it – see how many ways you can rearrange it. With your eyes closed. Then vary the articulation and the rhythms as you try new rearrangements. Add ornaments! Chromatic approach tones! Try it in different registers – middle, low, high-ish. Then pick your favorite rearrangement of the moment and see how fast you can play it. Then do it in all keys. Quickly, one after the next (e.g.: C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G). Do this until you can play through all keys with no hesitation and considerable speed. Repeat in minor!
A plan might also just be deciding on a form: ABA. Do something. Do something that contrasts with it. Go back to the first thing. Your plan could even be an event or an idea or animal, vegetable or mineral. Play the Battle of New Orleans. Play Genghis Khan. Play a rutabaga. Play butter brickle ice cream. Play a porcupine. Play yourself!
The doodle might be just that, a hasty scribble on paper. Or it could be in a more general sense, any graphic. Play a colorful magazine ad. Play the Mona Lisa. Play a photo of a sunset. Play a real sunset. Play your signature.
Or just start playing. You could start with a rhythm. Even just straight quarter notes are fine. The point is to start – the piece will take over on its own after that no matter how you start. You could take a slightly more complex rhythm – the rhythm of your name. You could start with a bit of melody, perhaps something from the solo or etude that you are working on right now, like that awkward passage full of sharps and make it your boards and nails and rope. Anything. Just start. A whole note is peachy.
If at any point while you’re playing you don’t know what to do, you can always 1) rest – it doesn’t have to be continuous, any more than conversation has to be uninterrupted, 2) hold a note out until you think of something new , 3) repeat what you just did until a new ideas appears, 4) or start up a new idea. You can also take what you just did and repeat it, but changed in some way: embellished/decorated, transposed up or down or played in diatonic sequence, or played faster or slower or in augmentation or diminution, or with new dynamics, articulation, even rhythms.
If at any point you find you can’t quite play the thing you imagine, 1) try again, 2) simplify it 3) break it into pieces and work on the pieces (just like you already do in working on solos, etc), or 4) make a note to self to work on that idea later.
It’s often useful to have a metronome ticking away to give impetus to your playing, something to push off against. Never underestimate the power of rhythm to animate and motivate your playing.
If you get to try a few “dangerous things” with a playing partner, you could start with assigned roles. One plays a solo, the other supplies accompaniment. The accompaniment could be a lot of things. It could be just one note – a drone. It could be just a repeating rhythm (ostinato) with one or two or three notes. It could outline a chord as an arpeggio. It could be a countermelody. It could rest and then fill in when the solo voice rests. It could imitate/echo motifs of the solo voice. It could do any/all of these in alternation. And both parts could switch back and forth either for a defined number of measures or at will.
Tinkering in music may be scary (dangerous!) to the uninitiated, but if you just get started, you will be amazed at the very interesting stuff that is in you. And how much fun it is to tinker, either alone or with others.
After all, if 7-year olds can build a roller coaster, why can’t we build things in music?
[This is a “reprint” of an earlier post in my other blog “Horn Insights”]