Violinist Christian Howes knows something about helping students find their creativity.
A classically-trained jazz violinist, he is the founder of Creative Strings Academy and also runs annual Creative Strings Workshops where string players can immerse themselves in a variety of musical styles such as world music, jazz, rock and fiddle. He would like to see that spirit of creativity integrated into music education, and in early March at the 2019 American String Teachers Association Conference in Albuquerque, Howes put a whole lot of fresh ideas on the table. In the course of just a couple of hours, Howes outlined a series of concrete ideas about teaching improv, getting students familiar with the fingerboard, and opening students' minds to a greater variety of musical genres. (An outline of his lecture can be found here.)
"We have separated our musical education cultures," Howes said in opening. Generally, when we learn music, the educational model falls into one of three categories: classical, jazz, or participatory music. "In each of these settings, we learn some skills and not others," Howes said. If we could integrate the best of all those ways of learning, then students would gain a broader range of skills, opening up more possibilities for the kinds of music they can explore and play well.
As someone who has worked to draw out the creativity in classically-trained musicians -- including himself -- Howes finds that the classical training model, for all its positive aspects, can be deficient in fostering certain categories of learning. For example, "we don't foster the creative process," Howes said. By that, Howes means that many string players with classical training don't have the confidence to improvise because they rarely get experience doing so during their training, and they also are not trained to visualize harmony on a stringed instrument. For similar reasons, they can also be reluctant to branch out to other genres.
How do we branch out? How to we cultivate a mindset that will allow us to explore improvisation and other kinds of music?
"Set aside time during practice to engage in the creative process," Howes said. "Creating anything is just about making choices." One of the biggest problems is actually having too many choices. If you begin with the infinite universe -- this can be overwhelming. "The key to the creative process is actually to limit the choices." If you are helping students to improvise, you have to do it for them, and you have to make sure you give them parameters that take into account their knowledge and their technique. What are those parameters? It helps to start simple, as Howes demonstrated in what he called an "Icebreaker Exercise" for improv.
First, give students some extremely do-able parameters, such as playing quarter notes on the A string. He then expands the parameters: play quarters on the A and E strings. Expanding the parameters a little more, he tells them to play quarter notes on notes of the A major scale. Of course, they have to know the notes of the A major scale! That is where a teacher must take into account the students' knowledge and skills. Don't ask them to play in A minor if they don't know it; don't ask them to play all spiccato notes if they can't do it. Back to the icebreakers, Howes then asks students to play quarters on any note of the chromatic scale. Then, throw in a rest here and there. Then, allow for free tempo changes, and suddenly the parameters are very wide.
The parameters can be anything you choose. You could choose an emotion, like happiness or sadness. You could choose a technique, such as harmonics, string crossings, pizzicato, or playing in third position. You could choose parameters based on pitch, picking a key, mode or chromatic notes.
"The key is to create structure so that you can jam with other people or improvise, within your own knowledge.
If you are trying to get good at improvising, keep in mind that it takes courage and requires a lot of experimentation. Howes suggested recording yourself and then listening back. "Do 100 improvisations, and then throw them all out," he said. You have to accept being "bad" at it in the beginning, so that you can get good at it. (We violinists aren't very good at that, are we?)
As a young man, Howes had drawn the conclusion that he just wasn't the creative type.
"But we all are," Howes said. "You owe it to yourself to push against these boundaries you've set for yourself. And if you don't do it for yourself, you need to do it for your students."
Making modes relatable: LIMDAPL
Howes brought up the topic of modes, those scales such as Lydian or Aeolian that don't necessarily follow the same interval patterns as a standard major scale. Howes stressed that we can learn to use modes in a practical way. I know that when I learned the modes in music theory class, I memorized their names and intervals in a very academic way, and then promptly forgot most of it. I certainly rarely applied it, other than trying to identify the right mode for the Gilligan's Island theme song.
Howes argued that it's better to be able to use modes than to know their names, and he had a really brilliant way of demonstrating it, especially for string players:
Building on an acronym he picked up from Rob Thomas at the Berklee School of Music, "LIMDAPL," Howes demonstrated a way to get to know the modes, from "brightest to darkest."
First he started by turning on a "C" drone -- C was going to be our tonic (first note of the scale) for all of the modes. He then started with Ionian mode, which is basically a major scale. For this exercise, you do need to know the order of your sharps (F-C-G-D-A-E-B) and even more importantly, the order of your flats (B-E-A-D-G-C-F). If you add a one sharp to Ionian mode, it becomes Lydian mode. This is actually the first and "brightest" mode, and it is the "L" that starts our acronym. Then comes Ionian, and then we start adding flats, one at a time. Add B-flat and it becomes Ionian; then E-flat and it becomes Mixolydian, etc. Here is a summation:
LIMDAPL - modes from "bright" to "dark," using "C" as a tonic for all:
Got that? It actually took me a while -- watch the video a few times if you need to! At the end of the video he also demonstrated ways to practice in the various modes -- a series of exercises that rivals Schradieck, if you do them all!
His point is: to get to know those modes inside out is to get to know the fingerboard. Another way to become versed in modes is to take a simple fiddle tune or Suzuki tune and put it through all the modes. He gave a few examples:
The modal approach to practice works with tunes that will go over a single tonic drone; then you just take them through the various permutations, based on a circle of fifths.
When it comes to voice-leading, internalizing harmony, reading jazz charts, "A lot of us think that if we just listen hard enough, we will get it," Howes said. "It won't work. You need to use your mind!"
Classical musicians (like me) who are accustomed to reading music and simply playing what is written, can be struck with paralyzing fear when they see a jazz chart. It has a melody, but then it has chord symbols written over that melody. When it's time to improvise, the idea is that you look at those chord symbols and come up with something that makes musical sense, based on those chords.
That means that you need to understand a few things: What are the notes in all of those chords? And where are they located on your fingerboard? Sounds simple enough, but it's pretty hard to do on the fly. To help music readers get started with this process of learning chords and learning to create melodies from them, Howes devised "chord stacks," in which he simply writes out all the chords in a given piece, and then the beginning improvisor can read through, just choosing one note from each chord. In fact, he did so for a piece we all know and love, the Pachelbel Canon. "I'm giving you all the notes in a D minor triad, in an extended range," Howes said. Using that visual tool, "All kids have to do is drag and drop, and it's a 100 percent success rate."
"As violinists, we play the melody, but we are oblivious to the inner voices and bass line." The idea is that eventually, you internalize those chords and learn effective voice leading.
Howes closed with thoughts on why is important for string players and for all players to be open to alternative styles. "When we try to see someone else's perspective, we expand our understanding of ourselves and of our music." When approaching the music of a culture other than your own, it is important to do so with humility, curiosity and an open mind. If you don't know someone's perspective, then "go to the source of that perspective -- it means connecting with people."
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NOTE: Just this week Christian also released an interview on his Creative Strings Podcast that he did with the legendary jazz violinist Jean Luc Ponty. Click here to check it out.
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