Cough, Hack, Snort, Spit, Compose

I was almost scared to go to Music Theory yesterday. I hadn't done much of anything over the past two weeks, and for two primary reasons: (1) I've just been strapped for time, and (2) I've hit a wall.

Now, I've written about the wall I've hit in numerous posts, so I won't bore you with that again.

But I think I've figured something out, with a little (a lot) of help from Vance, my Music Theory teacher (who also happens to be an iNtuitive Feeler, I learned yesterday!).

He'd wanted me to take these little four-measure, one-note melodies and harmonize them using all available triads in all available inversions, along with diatonic sevenths in all available inversions. And use non-chord tones freely.

For some reason, I would just stare at the page of melodies and feel befuddled. I'd try to harmonize, but my mind would immediately say things like, "Nope. Can't do that. Parallel fifths," or "Nope. Can't do that. Big conclusive V-I cadence in the middle doesn't sound right," or "Nope. Can't do that. Doubled third in the 6 chord."

It was like being in a maze but finding that, no matter which way I went, I was destined to hit a big ugly wall. No cheese. Not even one moldy little crumb.

Now, I suppose it's good that I've internalized the rules so well. But ... I seemed to have let the rules stifle what little creativity I could use in these exercises.

So, yesterday at Music Theory, Vance said to play one of the one-note melodies a few times, just to "get it in my ear." So I did.

"Now," he said. "Add some accompaniment in the bass. But don't worry about making them into 'block chords.' Just play what feels right. Play what sounds good to you."

So I immediately went into what I call "New Age Mode," a sort of Yanni-ish, George Winston-y style with harp-like broken chords in the left hand hand. It's really a type of improvisation that I can do without thinking. And the little melodies sounded much bigger and quite pretty. Even though I played some weird chords that I "hadn't covered yet" with Vance.

I'm not a big fan of the New Age piano music I've heard. Oh, I think it's pretty and relaxing, and I have several new-age-piano CDs, but I don't find it that interesting, musically. And part of me is definitely jealous of folks like Yanni and George Winston, who have acquired fame playing something that I know, I KNOW I could play. For writing music like the music I KNOW I could have written. For being famous while I sit here in Cubicle Land and write things like, "This page intentionally left blank," for a living.

So I tend to pooh-pooh my New Age style. Yes, there is a green-eyed monster in the cubicle.

"Don't worry about it," said Vance. "Just play that way, just to get the music and the chords in your head. Worry about writing the block-chord harmonies later."

So I did that.

And I realized--and I told this to Vance later--that part of my problem is that I'm trying too hard to play by the rules. Part of me, the straight-A student of old, thinks that, if I could only learn the rules, I'll be able to compose. Something in me just wants to get an "A" in composition. Because an "A" will mean I've succeeded.

But I'm a grown-up, and I'm not taking this "class" for a grade. I'm taking it because I want to compose. There are no grades. There is just the goal of being able to write down on paper what I hear in my head. My measure of success is exactly that: my measure. Not the measure of some teacher who is following a set of scheduled lesson plans with a numeric grading system for right answers and wrong answers.

And it's not just about the rules. I'm letting the rules smother any attempt at creativity. I'm paying too much attention to what's "supposed" to happen (theory-wise), instead of really listening to what DOES happen. I'm too much in my left brain and need to go spotted-unicycle-riding-with-a-yellow-parasol in my right brain for a while.

So my assignment for this week is to (1) experiment with New-Agey broken-chord arrangements of the little melodies, and then when I have some chords I like, (2) write in the corresponding block chords and analyze what I've written.

I've already done one little melody, and it's so pretty I think I might do something more with it. Add a few lines. See if I can't come up with something interesting.

Vance is wonderful.


Piano class yesterday evening was great, despite the fact that I accompanied most of everyone's performance with my hacky cough and snorty noises. I felt like crap. But the Mozart sounded the best that I've played it so far. I went through the Suzuki melodies with just a few minor mistakes, and I think it helped the other Suzuki (beginner) students to hear them. Turns out one other student is an iNtuitive Feeler. There are more of us out there than I thought!

It's noon on Saturday, a beautiful day outside, and I'm at home drinking hot liquids and taking Robitussin after a long night of waking up every ten minutes to visit the bathroom for one cough-hack-snort-spit session after another. I really wanted (needed) to go hiking today ... maybe tomorrow. For now, I need to rest. Then cough and spit. Then compose some more. I feel like crap, but it's a pretty good day anyway.


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