Last night I had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend of mine from WVU, Mike Dawson. You may know Mike from his Instagram page and/or YouTube channel that is chock full of excellent content, or from the podcast he hosts with Mike Johnston called the “Mike and Mike Podcast”.
Mike was in London for the first time, giving a masterclass on creative practice skills. In it he touched on an idea that some of our teachers at WVU showed us, and something I have mentioned here on the blog before: forcibly limiting yourself in various ways in order to foster creativity. I always explain to my students that these exercises help develop the control to play exactly what we want to play, when we want to play it, rather than letting parts of ourselves go on autopilot, or work by muscle memory. Mike described this in three simple words: Freedom Through Discipline. By disciplining ourselves to only play certain things, or not play certain things, we are developing the control to be completely free with our creativity and improvisation. Mike employs this idea in his own way, so I’ll leave you to check out his work yourselves, and rather than attempting to give you a recap of last night I’d like to share with you one of my own ways of putting this concept into practice.
Mike does a lot of playing with ambient loops that often don’t imply any specific time or feel. Rather, it’s up him to see where his creativity takes him with each sound. So today I gave this idea a try. I pulled up a random template in Ableton and composed a beat over it. At the time I just played, and I didn’t write anything down, but for the sake of this post I jotted it out when I was finished.
Since the loop had a decidedly acid house sort of feel I decided to imagine my playing as a drum machine. The 4-bar groove repeats exactly the same, ad nauseam. I could “mute” one or more channels, or fade channels in and out; the channels being the voices of the kit. Therefore, the only rules I imposed on myself were this:
1. When playing the groove, I MUST play the groove, and only the groove, note for note; no extra notes or different voices, and no leaving out notes unintentionally.
2. To improvise I can only change the volume of each voice, or take one or more voices out completely
This sounds a lot easier than it turned out to be. For one, I thought of the bass drum line as a short AABA form, so it was important to stick only to those two rhythms. To not add extra notes just because I felt like it, or because I lost my focus was surprisingly difficult for the first couple minutes. Taking out the snare had its share of difficulties as well. While it seemed easy enough at first I noticed that my left hand and right foot weren’t alway perfectly aligned. This was another thing that Mike touched on in the masterclass; use this disciplined practice time to highlight problems in your playing and iron them out.
Lastly I tried full mutes of the entire groove, attempting to stop on a dime in a specific spot in the phrase, and coming back in in a particular spot. To come back in, say, on the & of beat 2, with full confidence, in perfect time, and without adding or leaving out any notes is much harder than it sounds.
I encourage you to find your own loops, and write your own parts, but if you’d like to start by trying mine, the notation and loop are below.