Here are some basic
methods for "songwriting" with the NAF. This article can be used as an adjunct
to the article, "Some Strategies for Improvising." Many people feel that
everything they play "sounds the same." Following these suggestions will help
you to "build" a song from a simple riff which has variety and interest for both
the player and the listener alike. The suggestions are given in a "building
block," or stepwise, manner. Continue to add each dimension one-by-one as you
continue playing your riff. As you will experience, the variety one can create
becomes exponential as you incorporate more and more of the dimensions below,
while still maintaining the continuity of a song. After you identify your riff,
you can change the order of the steps below and/or play with different
combinations of steps, depending on what you are trying to achieve. The more
you practice this method, the better prepared you will be to improvise, and the
more your improvisation skills will expand and grow. As with anything, these
are merely suggestions. There is no "strict" method. Be creative and have fun!
Basically, when playing
the NAF, one has three options in terms of form:
(1) Wander: You can
wander, which is essentially formless. This is a more "meditative" way to play
the NAF. There is no discernable rhythm or structure.
(2) Structured (e.g.,
AABBAA): This way of playing has much more concrete form. Parts ("A" and "B"
and "C", etc.) are easily identifiable and played in a particular order.
Improvisation is somewhat of a mix of (1) and (2), above. There is a loose
pattern of playing a riff, leaving the riff and playing something else, and
returning to the riff. This is repeated several times, always returning to the
riff again and again.
It is useful to keep in
the back of your mind a general roadmap of the characteristics of music to guide
you in your songwriting explorations: A single note in isolation has little
meaning in and of itself; music must be listened to as a whole. As you put
notes together, musical phrases begin to emerge. Phrases can then be connected
to make melodies. Melodies become themes. Themes evolve through variations.
And all may be combined to make beautiful heart music.
The following suggestions
will help you to work more with (2) and (3) above:
O Start with a riff,
i.e., a short melodic sequence of notes. Keep it short and simple: Four to six
notes is sufficient to start with. The biggest mistake people make is trying to
make their riff or song too complicated. Think of your riff as "home" and
always remember to "return home" every once in awhile. This gives your song
O Play the riff over
and over again, each time varying the embellishments. See what sounds best to
you, and what best expresses your mood, theme, motif, etc.
O Next, start your
riff in a different place.
O Now invert your
riff, or turn it "upside down" and play it. Inversion is about balance and
symmetry, rather than an exact duplicate of your riff turned "upside down." A
perfect reversal of your riff is not always feasible. One approach might be as
follows: Use the same number of notes in your inversion as in your initial
riff. If your riff starts on the higher notes with your fingers up and ends
with your fingers down, try beginning your inversion on the lower notes with
your fingers down, and ending with your fingers up.
O Then play the
inversion with different embellishments.
O Next, start your
inverted riff in a different place.
O This time, play your
riff accenting or accentuating different notes (e.g., if the first two notes in
your riff were held longer, and the second two were shorter notes, try playing
the first two shorter and holding the second two notes longer).
O Experiment with
different hooks. A "hook" is what immediately grabs your attention or sticks in
your mind. You may want to present your hook in a brief intro to your piece.
Hooks can be rhythmic, melodic, or a hook can be a special/different
embellishment that stands out in your song. Remember, you have exactly seven
seconds in which to create interest in your listening audience and grab their
attention. (The term "audience" being defined as any one or any thing within
earshot. This includes animals, insects, humans, birds, trees, plants, etc.).
O Now that you have
all of the major components of your piece, it's time to "connect" them. Flesh
out your song by creating small "bridges" of extra notes so that each of the
components you have worked out above flow into each other smoothly. You can
also mirror and amplify any of the embellishments contained in your riff here.
We sometimes refer to these extra notes as adding more "soup." The riff, and
its permutations, are the "bones" of your piece; the embellishments are the
"spices;" the soup is what allows everything to flow together. Be creative.
Your riff (and its variations) is the thread that weaves throughout your piece
and gives it continuity. A good rule of thumb might be to use one riff per
"sentence" or phrase. Try to focus on one "sentence" or phrase at a time,
remembering to use space in between each "sentence." Don't worry if you don't
seem to have an entire song in your head; sometimes it comes note by note in the
moment of playing. Try to make each "sentence" or phrase you play resolve,
i.e., be melodically complete in and of itself.
O Play your
improvisation for at least six to ten minutes, so as to give the piece time to
"gel." This will also give you time to "feel into" your piece, and allow
variations and themes to naturally emerge and develop.
O Shading will always
give your music variety, colour, emotion, shape and texture, as you are playing
each note on a "curve." Each note has more than one "value" or colour available
to you. Use the full range of the voice of the flute for each note. It is
helpful to think of the NAF as an extension of our breath and voice, rather than
just an instrument we are playing. Sing with your voice.
O The rhythm you
choose will greatly affect your song. One can play the same song twice, using
two different root rhythms, and each time the song will sound completely
different. In addition, using Rhythmic Variations within your song will create
interest and variety. Find the pulse you want to use as your root rhythm.
Start playing slowly, so you have a place to "go." Then introduce some Rhythmic
Variations (which may be several increments faster, but still within the context
of, your root rhythm or pulse), always returning to your original tempo at the
end. Playing cascades is a useful technique when transitioning between Rhythmic
Variations, and also help to maintain the flow of your song. Remember, the
speed at which you play your riff, the emphases or accents you use, as well as
the rhythm you choose will greatly influence the emotional tone of your piece.
O Experiment with the
Dynamics (loudness/softness, ebb and flow) of your riff.
O It's OK if your riff
doesn't hit exactly the same notes each time, or even have exactly the same
number of notes each time you play it; your riff will still be recognizable.
This also gives variety to your song. At some point, your riff may even begin
to expand, change and grow. Surrender to the process and see where it takes
O As you continue
playing, at some point, parts of your "song" will begin to take on a more
discernable form. This is where you may begin to identify an "A" part and a "B"
part. You can then arrange these "parts" in whatever order you wish (e.g., AABA,
AABBA, ABABA, AABBCAA, etc.) These forms are used throughout almost any
songwriting genre. This is a useful nomenclature to begin to use for yourself,
especially if you are playing with another musician(s) or flute player(s). When
you are ready to end your song, return to your riff and try varying the notes in
your riff slightly, in addition to drawing the notes out longer. Many
traditional Native American flute players use a Chirp to end their song. Any
embellishment employed in a dynamic way will help you to create that dramatic
sense of "ending."
O Remember to leave
SPACE in your music. Space, or silence, is every
bit as important as the notes you
play. Learn to make friends with silence. Try to think in terms of
sentences or phrases. At the end of each sentence is a "period." This is where
you rest, take a breath, and leave some space, whether when speaking or playing
the flute. Place your space strategically for effect. Your music will be much
more expressive and pleasing to not only your ears, but others' ears. When
playing with other musicians, your leaving space gives others a chance to be
heard and showcased. A good place to start with improv is to choose your
favourite piece of poetry or prose. If each line had a voice, what would it
sound like? Space frames what you want to say. At the end of each line or
sentence you play, rest, breathe, and frame it with space. The human brain
cannot take constant sound; it is a form of torture (remember that jackhammer in
the background that nearly drove you out of your mind?). As an exercise, try
playing without any space, and watch how fast your anxiety level rises!
Consciously using space will create interest in your listening audience, give
you a chance to breath, fall back and regroup, and be more relaxed about where
you are going next while you play.
O Keep in mind that,
just as different flute keys evoke different moods and feelings in our audience,
the same is true when composing on the NAF. Different flutes, of differing
keys, seem to have different music in them. If you don't feel like you are
getting anywhere, try changing keys and start again. Songwriting can also vary
with your mood from day-to-day, as well as how any particular flute key affects
you at any given time.
O Occasionally, a song
will emerge the first time you pick up a flute; however, this is quite rare.
Most recording artists will tell you that their process around creating a song
may take hours, days, weeks, months, or perhaps years. Don't get discouraged if
something doesn't come together perfectly right away.
O When you are
satisfied with the outcome, ALWAYS remember to record your efforts and label the
jacket of whatever medium you are using with the date, what key of flute you
were playing, come up with a title and note it on the jacket, as well as a brief
note as to what form you used (e.g., AABA, AABBA, ABABA, etc.). You might not
think you will need this at the time; however, later, you will be very glad you
took that extra minute to jot these things down! This riff has now been
"installed" in your body, and become part of your flute medicine musical "bag of
bones" and will now always be available for those impromptu flute performances,
whether alone on a mountaintop, at a flute circle, or in front of an entire
arena of people.
O Lastly, listen to
your favourite music (flute or otherwise) and try to identify what it is about
that particular piece or genre that attracts you. For example, is it the rhythm
that stands out for you? The melody? The lyrics (if applicable)? The
spaciousness of the music? The flow? The feeling you experience when listening
to it? Any hooks that appeal to you? Etcetera. If it is the melody that draws
you, try playing the intervals of the melody on the NAF. Don't worry that the
notes don't exactly match. Often it is the intervals that make a melody
interesting. Experiment with different songs and different intervals; often
these experimentations are the seeds of beautiful melodies on the NAF. Also
begin to consciously note how singers and musicians employ space, or silence, in
their music. Once you begin to understand what pleases you, you can begin to
incorporate those elements into your own music.
c Stephanie Baldridge 2004