What a Concept: The Daily Arkady

Imagine that you were not allowed to speak unless you were quoting Socrates, Cicero, Aristotle, Winston Churchill, Lincoln, etc., not even “Please pass the salt” unless you were quoting. Imagine that you were an English major but were not allowed to write any of your own thoughts, no essays, not even an email; you could only copy down quotes from Twain, Dickens, Faulkner, Joyce, Cervantes, Goethe, Wilde, etc . Imagine that you went to art school but were never trained or encouraged to do anything but reproduce famous paintings, never, never paint or sculpt anything that you thought up, ever. Just copy Picasso, Renoir, Degas, Ingres, Leonardo – keep your vision out of it. Imagine if you went to music school and never played anything but the notes of some distant (and likely deceased) composer, never received encouragement or training to make your own music…

Oh, wait. That is, in fact, how it is in music school. No creating. Just recreating. Nothing wrong with re-creating. But leaving out creation leaves out half of musical life, and, truth be told, more than half of the fun of making music.

Any garage band worth its salt composes its own songs. Why is it that a terminal-degreed music student can’t write a convincing piece for their own instrument? Can I see a show of hands of those who suspect that something – something important – is missing from the current system of music education?

What’s missing is half of comprehensive musicianship, i.e. being at home in both literate and aural traditions, being able to be producers, not just consumers. We worship ink. Ink is status. Although music is (supposedly) an aural art, musical things that are only aural – like improvisation – things that don’t have an inky ancestry are suspect. Who would have guessed that our music is valued to a considerable degree and taught as it is because it is visual (or lends itself to visual representation)? Ink is all.

Music ed systemmatically excludes creativity from music from the beginning. Why? Why miss out on all that (highly motivating) fun, all that inner understanding of music, all that delicious multidimensional (musical-social) interaction of making up your own music? Why let jazz players have all the benefit and fun?

The short answer is: creativity is messy. Tricky to teach and to grade (multiple choice won’t cut it. Gotta get your hands dirty. Mistakes are made and treasured for the learning opportunity. New ideas happen, eek). Re-creating is comparatively easy to grade, easy to teach (following the book or routine or pattern), which is catnip to institutions, which are irresistibly attracted to stuff that can be counted, weighed, standardized, made uniform, linear, and neatly categorized.

Waiting for institutional music curricula to come to their senses and build in creative music at all levels appears to be on a time schedule on the scale of continental tectonic plate drift or mountain erosion. It may be well going on, but it’s unlikely that we are going to see any evidence of it in our lifetimes (although I have great hopes for Canada… check out tomorrow’s post for an account of Great Things Happening in Nova Scotia).

The answer is: don’t wait. Don’t wait for schools to teach you. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission, or let alone encouragement or training. Be proactive and get in on the fun. Do It Yourself!

How, you ask, and rightly so: you (like me and all of us) never got any training or encouragement at any step along the way that would reveal to us that we had a musical voice, and that not only could we spontaneously express ourselves in music, think in music, not only is the process more fun that is probably legal in some states, it is a terrific way to work on both your musicality and your technique.

Ok, how then?

Obvious answer and shameless plug: pick up a copy of Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. You could, and I recommend it, but you don’t have to. You can start right now, today, by adding a Daily Arkady to your practice routine. Either at the beginning of the day or at the end, or both, you see–

What? What’s that? What’s an “Arkady?”

Sorry. Let me explain.

“What’s an Arkady?” That’s exactly what I asked that fine day in the late ’80’s when I received a cassette (= method of audio transcription used by ancient peoples, only in museums today) in the mail labelled  ARKADY SHILKLOPER with no other information.

Very nice, I thought. Cool. I wonder what the heck an Arkady Shilkloper is? I put on the cassette. Cue the dropping of the jaw. Holy crap (or whatever we said back then)! It was a tape of an improvising horn player with a bass player. The player was Russian jazz horn player Arkady Shilkloper; someone had [probably] sent me a cassette because I was doing a series of articles on jazz horn players for the Brass Bulletin magazine.

After I regained control of my nervous system after hearing the tape, I wrote a report in the journal of the International Horn Society on Arkady (now world famous, but relatively unknown at the time), a portion of which was as follows: “Shilkloper… swings like nobody’s business. He rips and riffs and goes places that horn players aren’t supposed to go without a net, map, seat belt, crash helmet, overhead air support, and a note from their mothers.” I’m told he still uses the quote on posters [in Russian]. I had the great delight of hearing him in concert with the Moscow Art Trio a couple years later, and it was a transformational, transcendental, transmogrifying experience on the chromosomal level, a complete redefining of what a concert experience could be. I’ve seen him since at horn workshops and in several concerts at our university and he never fails to unhinge my jaw and fricassee my synapses. His latest intergalactic feat is something that can be approximately described as bebop alphorn. The Swiss are scandalized. Holy Swiss Cheeses!

[Moscow Art Trio]

On one of these occasions I asked him, what do you do to warm up? I like to ask famous people stuff like that.

He said, “Oh, maybe some overtones, and then I just play music.”

I was stunned.


What a concept… Music!

He says he starts with a shred of rhythm or snippet of melody and then just follows it. Or a mood. Or a key. Sees where it goes.

See the difference between his warm-up and your warm-up?

Your warm-up is full of daily vitamins, lots of arpeggios and scales and stuff. Good stuff. Fine stuff. Really. It is also always the same, and there are days when you want to kill yourself at the thought of doing it yet one more time (every day is Ground Hog Day (see the movie) for classical warm-up routines!) But your routine is good for you, you think. Your teacher said so, and it was good enough for him and his teacher and good enough for you and your students, so there. Why change?

But something’s missing (besides being the boredom factor). Deep down, you know this.

Arkady engages his brain. And his heart. And his ear. He has to listen like the devil to what comes up each moment as he goes, then make a lightning calculation what should come next, calling on his technique, musicianship, rhythmic and melodic imagination, music theory, aural skills, memory, musical taste, knowledge of form, timbre, and music history (includes everything he’s ever heard, classical and not). He has to focus every milliwatt of concentration on the line he is creating. You (i.e. me, for many decades), on the other hand, have try to keep your mind from wandering as you play your routine for the twenty-seven thousandth time.

His is different every day. It is real, raw, infectious fun, besides stretching his technique into yet another dimension.

So why don’t we get in on it? Why haven’t we?

1. Nobody ever told us we could. Or showed us how. What do I do? How do I start? Huh?

2. We’re scared spitless. Mistake! WE MIGHT MAKE A MISTAKE! AH-OOGAH! AH-OOGAH! Danger! Not that! Somebody might hear! Anything but that! OK, getting a little melodramatic here to make a point, but the point still holds. If you haven’t ever made anything up, it’s scary. The culture and educational system has programmed us to fear mistakes and get our egos toxically entwined instead of thinking – “A mistake! Oh boy, a chance to learn something new!” It takes courage to perform the auto-ego-ectomy and try to speak and think in music.

3. It’s too hard! I could never play such a blizzard of notes! Gentle reminder: If you decided to learn Chinese, would you expect yourself to be able to be an auctioneer in Mandarin on Day 1? Probably not. Grant yourself release from that expectation in music.

4. No time! Right. Watch out for that false philosophical excluder often forced upon us: EITHER/OR. It’s not either your current routine or a D.A. (Daily Arkady). You can have both with only a soupçon of planning: Do the routine one day, a D.A. (focusing, say, on the same technical elements as the routine) every other day. Or: start the day with the routine, end the practice day with a D.A.. Or vice-versa. Or: Do part of your technique as usual and ever, part of it invested with imagination, i.e. the D.A. Remember that both approaches use the same material, just in different ways. You can have your gâteau and eat it, too!

One thing to keep in mind as you retreat from trying anything of the sort: the first principle of improvisation is to stay safe and comfortable. Choose notes where you feel in control. (The second principle is of course to break rule one as often as possible, but that’s later…). Revise your definition of improvisation and you’ll be fine. Old definition: improv = jazz = bebop = quarter note at 220 bpm. New definition: you choose the notes. Pick ones that you feel good about, ones that you can easily find right now. If you hear something you can’t play as you’re playing, make a note of it and make it a project later.

You also get to choose the style. Doesn’t have to be bebop or jazz. Play something sweet and slow and singing. Or brusque and brisk and marchlike. Or sad and mournful. You pick. And remember: Improvisation is not about virtuoso playing. It is about virtuoso listening.

Give it a try and you will discover some shocking facts.

1. It’s easy.

2. It’s fun.

3. It’s great for your both your technique and your musical imagination.

Still scared? I give you permission to start with a whole note tied to as many whole notes as you like. At some point, a second note may suggest itself. Move a step or half step to it. Listen, listen very carefully. The music is there – listen hard and you’ll hear. Hear it, and you can play it. It’s possible (nay, likely) that at some point you’re not quite sure what the new note is. Guess! Go for it! If you get it, great, go on. If you don’t, either 1) keep moving until you find it or 2) go with whatever note you did get and make it your new now note. Better yet, repeat what you just did, new wrong note and all. (this will come in handy when later someone is listening – you are building in “unity” and showing that you meant to do it, hee hee. Jazz players do this all time…).

Need some ideas to get you started? You came to the House of Ideas. Everyone’s D.A. is different, and it’s different every day, but here’s a few ideas to get you started that have some of the spirit of the Daily Arkady. Remember, these are just starters, something to get you going. You never know where you will end up. You might start out with David and end up with Goliath. Or go from chalk to cheese. Start with Zeppo, end with Groucho.

Just listen closely and you’ll hear where to go next.

Play a duet with the metronome (slow to moderate tempo). Except all your notes have to go between the metronome beats.

Play one note only. Make it interesting by inventing catchy rhythms. Yes, you can do this. Drummers do this every day. Once you can do this, I give you permission to add one more note, but (at first) it has to be only a step or half step away.

Play a steady steam of notes (one rhythm), starting with half or quarter notes. Make it interesting by using the notes of a major scale (you may repeat a note), one octave only. Then: repeat using 8th notes.

Make up a short melody – but not too long. Every melody you make up, you have to repeat 3X exactly before you play new material.

Turn up some music on the radio really loud: play along with it (loudly!) in some way: copy the melody, fill in at the end of phrases, play a bass line, play some counterpoint, add a catch rhythm, outline the chords, play something that fits the chords.

Play something that is very lush and beautiful – but completely atonal.

Have a friend Bang on a Can [to coin a phrase] with a steady rhythm; be energized by that rhythm and make up something short, choppy, and irresistible. Throw in some occasional funny noises (ok: extended techniques).

Make up a melody using only the notes of the major pentatonic scale: 1 2 3 5 6 [=scale degrees]

Make up something rock n rollish using only the notes of the minor pentatonic scale: 1 b3 4 5 b7 (in C: C Eb F G Bb).

Record yourself playing any major chord on the piano, say, five minutes or so, very rhythmic (or have a friend do it). Make up stuff that fits the chord. Then play a bunch of stuff that doesn’t, on purpose. Then mix the two.

Repeat. This time, begin all phrases on a “wrong” (dissonant) note – and resolve it.

Using only the notes of the diminished arpeggio or the augmented arpeggio, make up some brilliant fanfare figures.

Take a corner of your current routine (a scale, a key, an arpeggio, a technical pattern) and make it your starter. Start it as you always do, then change it somehow: play it very slowly. Or with swing rhythms. Or different note values for every note. Or in 3/4. Or 5/8. Or with wide spaces between notes. Or down an octave or two. Or make it into a march or sarabande or calypso. Or both at the same time.

Or: just ask yourself: what do I need today, this morning, right now.

Or: how do you feel this morning? Cheerful? Annoyed? Achy? Quizzical? Hungry? Caffeinated? Stressed? Insouciant? (sounds like an updated list of 7 Dwarfs names…). Play something thing that reflects that mood – but wanders through the basics of the instrument and music. You can have it all – music and technique!

Or: just Play! Make (literally) music. Or rather, discover music. That’s all a Daily Arkady is.

What a concept…

[Bonus concept: a D.A. could easily be done as a duet. Enlist a BFF or BFFT (Best Friend for Today) to join you. Then you Arkady the heck out of your F# harmonic minor scale while your friend DA’s the F# minor arpeggio, for instance. Switch! Or you both work on B major, but make it sound like a Sousa march. Or: your cat just died, so you play a dirge in your least familiar minor key, one playing a slow chromatic walking bass, the other coming up with a sad/sweet melody in the key. Switch roles with a poignant look at some point. And then there’s trios… If you get as far as trios, you probably ought to get the Big Book, and then write a note to my publisher and ask about the publication date of my Improv Duets and Improvised Chamber Music for four players that you’ve heard rumors about…]

[A revised version of a post originally in Horn Insights 4-15-11]