React and play!
By Thommy Andersson, dec 2016 - dec 2017
The project explores exercises in ensemble playing aiming at:
- developing an understanding of the common strenghts and limitations of both the individual musician as well as the ensemble as a whole
- developing and improving the individual player's abilitity to keep focus in an ensemble setting
- developing and improving the ensemble's ability to maintain a common focus
The exercises serve as a starting point based on basic musical elements regardless of specific genres or combinations of instruments.
The educational material 'React and Play!' is based on the project.
The exercises are documented in a series of video examples:
About the project
With `React and play`, it has been my wish to develop and illustrate the ability of individual musicians to react to and identify the common sound of the orchestra across instruments and musicians and to adapt to the overall sound of the orchestra.
Through the development and testing of a sequence of specific exercises that focus on the need of listening to each other when playing music together, I wanted to see if the musicians would gain more insight into the listening process.
My thesis is as follows:
It is a prerequisite for the creation of a common qualitative sound that an understanding of the association between rhythmics, articulation and dynamics is established.
Throughout the exercises, focus is on the importance (and the necessity) of not rushing the results in an ensemble situation, to bring all musicians together in harmony – in a common sound - and to work with the above four core musical elements as a starting point for the exercises.
The focal point of the exercises is to strengthen the musicians' mutual understanding of sound and harmony and to challenge their prejudices/ideas as to how they perceive themselves and each other in a group.
There is also an artistic development dimension in doing the exercises as they serve to uncover the most basic elements of the music of the participating orchestras.
Joint basic knowledge such as harmony, melodics, form, ‘patterns’, claves, etc. is integrated as a natural part of and an added dimension to the four cornerstones on which all exercises are based.
Similarly, the exercises may be seen as creative approaches to artistic collaborations across and/or within other artistic trends where groups of practitioners work together to investigate a common sound/a common expression. The exercises are intended for musicians, teachers and ensembles.
The exercises are described in their full length and may be simplified or made more challenging to fit an appropriate level in relation to the ensemble's capabilities.
The exercises have been tested primarily on students at the Danish National Academy of Music (SDMK) and musical foundation course (MGK) students at 'Musikhøjskolen' in Frederiksberg, but also on professional musical groups (including choir, string quartet, jazz groups) and on a few classes at the intermediate stage of Danish public municipal schools.
I have used the exercises with my ensemble team at SDMK at every meeting since August 2016. Typically, during the start-up phase we have used the first part to repeat an exercise to activate the concentration by means of an already learned exercise and then switched to a new one.
To many in the ensemble, it was a new approach to never play compositions, but rather to constantly work on basic skills such as dynamics, rhythmics and articulation.
The SDMK ensemble team consisted of saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass guitar, double bass, drums and two guitar players. I have proceeded rather chronologically and have tested most of the exercises with this ensemble.
Using long notes, the first exercises are about intonation, common dynamic sound and the overall sound of the ensemble.
This presents different challenges for different instruments - how to play a particular pitch on drums - and how to solve the long notes on the piano/bass/guitar.
It was a good opportunity to explore the possibilities of the instruments from an impartial point of view in relation to aesthetic traditions, giving the musicians a good understanding of the characteristics of the individual instruments (harmonics, attack, dynamic options, decay, etc.).
The general response from the students was very positive. Initially, they might have been doubtful as to why they had to play the same note over and over again - without any form of tempo, defined harmonious context, etc., but eventually the doubt was replaced by an aha experience as they immersed themselves into the sound of what was happening and began experiencing it without any reservation. As a result, the ensemble saw a significantly better blend and gradually a common sound emerged.
Later exercises are performed in an underlying tempo which is, however, not explicitly played. Here they benefited greatly from practicing together and from being responsible to maintain group time where you must constantly react and adjust in order that everyone may be on the same side timewise. When e.g. they only had to play markings that move on the strokes in a longer loop, their ability to hold on to their inner time/period sensation despite the few externally played sounds was put to a test.
Some exercises use different subdivisions which are played alternately in particular ways and here the musicians became aware of the extent to which the shifts between some subdivisions were more difficult than others.
Several of the musicians used the exercises in simplified versions in their own ensembles outside of the classes at the Academy and in teaching settings where they themselves taught harmony at music schools, etc.
Especially exercises where different subdivisions are played simultaneously, but where only one musician may play in each layer at a time, and where you may change layer as you wish, make it necessary to listen to other subdivision layers at the same time as the musician him-/herself plays a fierce layer - and it is easy to differentiate, allowing someone to e.g. just play a note while others try to build phrases.
Similarly, the awareness and the execution of articulation and dynamics are practiced in subsequent exercises.
The reaction time is especially trained in exercises 10-13, where a short note is sent around in the orchestra circle. It is simple, the participants think it is a lot of fun, and at the same time it is a very demanding concentration exercise over time, a kind of musical presence marathon.
These exercises worked very well in all the contexts where I tested them, including a school class (4th form) and miscellaneous classical ensembles.
Together with three students from SDMK and two professional musicians, I have recorded demonstration videos of all exercises as it is my hope that this visual supplement will make it easier to understand the descriptions of the exercises.
The majority of the involved musicians who have tested all the exercises have had the experience of finding a more creative and concrete approach to the listening process when they play together with others. The musicians (students) with whom I have completed an extended sequence at SDMK say they can feel that after doing the exercises, their musical skills have improved considerable with respect to the following:
- awareness about harmony
- open readiness
- bodily language
- focus on the differences of the instruments
- a desire to concentrate
- the feeling of a new form of fatigue after having played
They have also appreciated the illustration and experience of the importance of mutual concentration for the ensemble development.
The nature of the exercises are not genre specific and at the same time may easily be differentiated for the individual participants. The exercises are also sufficiently open and simple to allow the musicians to easily continue building on the concepts themselves and create own exercises as needed.
If a musical teacher with insight into and/or a desire to improvise uses the exercises in the teaching, it will immediately generate a particularly great benefit.
It has been exciting to put words on how the musicians have continually experienced a concrete difference in their musical skills in the contexts of which they are already a part.
As the exercises make it possible for everyone to act as leaders in the exercises, a clearer communication will emerge among the musicians, both physically and with their instruments.
Many of the exercises are performed in a format where the group is divided into simultaneously playing duos, and this had a major effect on the participants' ability to zoom in on a particular instrument within the entirety and to experience the differences between the instruments. On the other hand, it also seemed useful to be able to retreat and observe the process in the exercises where duos play alone.
Some instruments offer challenges in connection with the performance of the exercises, e.g. drums and pitch and note length. Here, it is important to point out that these challenges should be dealt with concurrently, individually or together with a main instrument teacher.
With these exercises, I hope that those who test them will develop their own methods and tools in the form of new exercises that may strengthen the work morale and mutual understanding among musicians in an ensemble, enabling them to listen to the entirety and be aware of their own role, giving them the ability to make rapid (improvised) artistic choices along the way, where mutual energy and concentration are developed based on an individual and a mutual sense of harmony.
I hope that the exercises will help ensure that musicians in further education programmes within music, students at music schools and at public municipal schools as well as musicians in general within the professional environment regardless of genre will be inspired to work with the exercises of the project in combination with their regular working methods.
Thommy Andersson, November 2017