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Improvising On The Electronic Keyboard

by Bob Steele



The short answer is atonal improv is improvising on a musical instrument with complete disregard for tonality, key and time signatures and the rules of classical harmony. If it were drawing you might call it doodling—perhaps inspired or preconscious doodling from which graphic ideas are sometimes born. In instrumental music it would be called noodling, again flowing from the preconscious and a way to germinate musical ideas. Walk through the halls of a music school and you will hear it as part of practice routines, students probably warming-up for more important challenges.

My daily routine these days is to spend ten or fifteen minutes before breakfast improvising atonally on an electronic keyboard. For many years I used a piano but the piano is in the basement and managing stairs is now a problem. A kind friend loaned me her unused instrument and I have found that there are interesting advantages. For classical study, the piano is best but for atonal improv, I find myself preferring the electronic keyboard. I will make the case that every home and every classroom should have at least one.

A brief history of tonality sets the scene

We are all aware of the radical changes that have occurred in music over the centuries. Think of the sound patterns to be heard in Bach, and following Bach, in Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, Debussy, and then in the 20th century, Arnold Schoenberg! Until Schoenberg it’s all been tonal (key driven) and then suddenly he and his companions started composing music free of traditional harmonic conventions but subject to new sets of rules. In post modern times, composers have generally found it more rewarding to work within a framework where all musical resources, including tonality, are employed.

Jazz has its own harmonic conventions—the “12 bar blues” and the simple structure of pop songs. You can improvise endlessly on these chord structures so long as you keep to the formula. Jazz has continued to evolve and a few experimenters introduced “free form” jazz which tended to be atonal.

In 1950 I stumbled on atonal improv in which sound patterns dominate performance, not classical harmony nor traditional jazz conventions. I developed it for my own pleasure, for the sense of creative fulfilment it gives me and for a feeling somewhat akin to spiritual meditation. I’m not a music theorist nor a composer but “atonal improv” has liberated me to take pleasure in finding and composing sound patterns. I believe your students may also find such pleasure.

When children draw they sometimes produce works of art: can they achieve the same in music? We really don’t know yet.

I am astonished at the level of sophistication children reach when they are motivated by a theme that moves them. I have drawings by six year olds in my collection that are “works of art” to be enjoyed for their aesthetic energy. Is there anything comparable in children’s musical development? Music is an abstract art, more difficult to use as a language than either words or drawings for articulating and expressing thoughts and feelings about daily life. On the other hand, I know from experience that music can be enjoyed from a very early age, if not as an act of making, certainly as an act of listening. As a child, I had my ear close to the radio on Sunday afternoons listening to the New York Philharmonic. It was not a problem listening to music of a very abstract nature—a Beethoven symphony, for example. Music excited me far more than reproductions of classical paintings. My experience  suggests that making sound patterns on an electronic keyboard would enrich life not only for children but for all ages because it would be an opportunity to make music.

An early attempt to teach atonal improv

As an art teacher I have had few opportunities to explore musical improvisation with children. Moreover, the music classes I did teach were all at the beginning of my career when I was concerned with basic teaching strategies rather than exploring new ways to make music. I do remember one sequence of lessons that could be replicated easily.

We had been listening to “storms in nature” as they occur in musical masterpieces: the “William Tell Overture,” the “Beethoven 6th Symphony” and the Ferde Groffe “Grand Canyon Suite” which is programmatic from beginning to end. I announced to the class that it was now our turn to make a “storm” using musical sounds which we would improvise on the piano. I explained that it was possible to make up sound patterns even if we had never had a piano lesson. First we discussed what we knew of storms—the sudden whisper of a breeze, a distant roll of thunder, a flash of lightning, more thunder but louder, the arrival of rain, hail and serious wind, the storm passing, the sun bursting through, the meadow larks singing.

I knew that middle school kids would be too embarrassed to put their hearts and imaginations into performing if the rest of us were staring at them from our desks. To minimize embarrassment, I asked everyone to put their heads down and shut their eyes for the duration of each student’s performance. If they were willing to have a go, they would indicate by splaying their fingers on the desk; if they would rather not, they would display a clenched fist. I would circulate and tap a “splayed fingers” child on the head. There were plenty of volunteers! It was an easy topic with an obvious subject matter and the performances were imaginative and we all enjoyed them, especially, I should emphasize, the performer. This suggests that telling a story in musical language may be a good way to begin.

Electronic keyboards have advantages over pianos

In these troublesome times of budget cuts, electronic keyboards are relatively inexpensive. The one I am using cost my friend $100 at a church sale. A reputable piano house sells low end instruments for $250 (unweighted) and $600 for a superior model (fully weighted). “Weighted,” I believe, makes it feel more like a piano.

The electronic keyboard has another advantage because it accommodates earphones. This means the performer can improvise without the embarrassment of knowing that someone is listening. The therapeutic and developmental value of atonal improv is gained because it engages the preconscious. Self-conscious nervousness blockades entrance to this state of being. Moreover, with earphones the sounds will not interfere with others in the room.

Electronic keyboards also make it possible to improvise in the voices of other instruments. I periodically imagine that I am playing a violin cadenza complete with “double stops.” I also imagine that I am playing the single reeds and double reeds, the trombone, the harp, the guitar, the organ, even the pan flute. I love the bassoon as the electronic keyboard interprets it. Of course it doesn’t have the resonance of the real instrument but the keyboard doesn’t make that claim. It produces a metaphoric sound suggestive of the real thing while still sounding like an electronic keyboard. And let’s not forget: if you did have a real bassoon, you probably wouldn’t have a flute or a horn!

What about the student with a musical background?

When I came up with atonal improv for my own use, I had been playing the piano for some fifteen years, five taking formal piano lessons. I had also listened to a lot of classical and semi-classical music and a whole lot of jazz. Much of it would be in mental storage. Would such musical background be a rich cache of material for use in the flow of preconscious improvisation? I suspect that it would be.

Playing with Tone

In drawing, tone is black and white plus degrees of gray from light to dark. In music, tone is clusters of notes played simultaneously or in rapid succession. Tone offers many possibilities.To illustrate, lower all ten fingers on the keyboard on randomly selected keys to create the thickest chord possible. Keyboards have the facility of continuing the sound as long as the fingers are depressed on the keys. Lift the inner fingers while keeping the left and right extremities depressed. Chords can be manipulated in many ways: play a chord to build tension and expectancy: play a second chord to bring a resolution: play multi-chord sequences letting the pattern emerge not by thinking consciously but by “feeling” new chords empathically: play a sequence of chords with spaces between each one: play a “fat” chord in the left hand and invent a melody line for the right hand: play a “fat” chord in the right hand and invent a melody for the left hand.

Atonal improv in a high school jazz program (imagined)

The music teacher in a high school knows that the students in his jazz program read their big band scores well enough but are shy about taking extended solos. His ambition is to have all his student players able to handle solos in the jazz idiom. He establishes listening sessions where records of the great soloists from the past are studied. He also sets up an “atonal improv” program which he feels will establish confidence and even generate musical ideas for solo playing.Throughout the school term players on a changing roster will find time and place to communicate musically to each other using the instruments they play in the jazz ensemble.



Bob Steele

Bob Steele has been teaching the arts for some 65 years at every age level. His longest stint was at UBC where he taught graphic arts and art education for 28 years. In 1990 he started the Drawing Network devoted to spreading the word that children use spontaneous drawing as a language medium and an aid to literacy. He is currently working on a reformed curriculum that would give equal emphasis to the ARTS, STEM and PHYSICAL CULTURE.

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