The basis of becoming tonally fluent is not ear-training. You already have an inner sense of tonal relationships. This video explains that we need to awaken our sense of tension and resolution (or home and away) as a first principle of fluent tonal sense.
Neutral tone is a counter-intuitive way to give the singing voice power and fullness. This soft, muddy tone can be shaped into all kinds of vocal styles.
The ability to play rhythmically comes from a natural inner feeling in our body and soul. It feels good and we know when we’re engaged with it. Letting go to play and express ourselves from that place of rhythmic freedom takes practice.
When we strip away all the techniques and analyses about what rhythm is and how it works, what do we find at the very source?
When we practise scales and learn the theory of chords and voicing, the process is laborious and often dull. So I found a way to bypass this boring work by practising drills that get around the keys using lots of intricate harmonies.
To be fluent tonally, to handle harmony and melody with effortless ease, you need to know all your harmonic blocks as unified structures plugged into the whole keyboard map. We tend to focus on the musical surface, often simply the melody, using our “karaoke” sense. Or we try to grasp theoretical objects like chords and intervals. But if we train our innate ability to tune into the wash of harmonic colour that underpins music at every moment, and learn how these harmonic blocks plug into the structure of the keyboard map, we then find it easy to grasp all the possible tonal shapes (melodies and chords) that are woven into this harmonic fabric.
Scales and arpeggios are considered good practice and to question something that is so normal and ubiquitous might seem almost sacrilegious. But the truth is I don’t practise them or teach fluent keyboard musicianship using them because I find that they encourage a linear and mechanical approach that blocks musical fluency.
Why is it difficult to be spontaneous and self-expressive as a musician? It should be easy: it is a simple act of letting go, tuning into yourself and feeling whatever is there: dark passions, love, vulnerability, powerful, deep consciousness that expresses an infinite variety of feelings about what it means to be alive… Music comes from intelligence that does not calculate or measure but rather flows, simmers, swells, smoulders and bubbles inside us in a place beyond thought. Musical truth is almost self-indulgence, letting the body and soul guide expression without censorship, without any self-conscious checking of its validity. It is to return to the mind of a child, before knowledge, belief, mimicry and the relentless desire for an impressive performance eclipsed pure expression of feeling. It is a kind of innocence – an honesty so personal that it is pure self, alone, unity with everything, without reference. It is unbridled joy and pathos – the exhilaration of being.
Unconscious fear triggers ego control
And this, of course, is exactly why it is so difficult. All this joy and pathos is terrifying to the reasonable, civilised ego that seeks comfort, satisfaction and approval. The unmanaged, primal motivation of fluent music-making triggers shame and horror within the ego mind. So to mask this fear and shame, the head gets to work, taking over the show. The ego mind generates a myriad thoughts, techniques, comparisons and aspirations to take the music out of us – out of our body and soul – and put it somewhere safe: on a pedestal, in the iconic face of a star performer, in a textbook, in the familiar strains of a hit song, in the rarefied glass case of a concert hall, or wrapped up in cellophane hidden inside a glossy commodity, branded and packaged as cool or clever. It places music anywhere but deep inside us. But the craving for its magic never subsides and we grope for it, believing it to be always out of reach, feeling inadequate, playing by numbers, attempting lame karaoke, learning theories and techniques to execute musical code, going through the motions, trying to create the best facsimile of music that we can. And the sounds we make are not real music… Music which does not originate in the body and soul is neither original nor musical. Real music is undeniable, raw, part of nature’s rise and fall, shimmering, unfolding like waves or galaxies in constant, magnificent creation.
The courage to feel
It takes enormous courage to acknowledge and reveal our inner musician consciously, to defy the ego’s dishonest claim to musical intelligence and surrender to such an animal force – a creative urge as mysterious as nature itself. The judging, comparing, controlling mind will always try to deny the existence of such deep forces of creativity and intelligence. It will fearfully hold onto the belief that anything that cannot be described in words or numbers – anything that cannot be evaluated or controlled – is simply not real. But the unfolding meanings of rhythmic and tonal syntax do indeed describe what this profound consciousness perceives, it relates these extraordinary feelings that are beyond the scope of words. When we make music fluently, it comes from and expresses intelligence that words can never contain. And so these words that I write are too mere stumblings in the dark, a futile attempt to clarify infinity, scratching the surface of a thing that has unfathomable depth.
Focus and let go
Only when we master and focus our mind, hold it still and quiet enough for the fear to subside, do we find the courage to truly let go and make music with complete abandon. We can then jump into the abyss, we can achieve escape velocity and fly. We feel fully, the lights come on and this inner world is described by our spontaneous outpouring of music in breathtaking, vivid detail. And the paradox is that singing or playing music then becomes as simple as breathing, pure childsplay, free-flowing, effortless and natural.
The crossed rhythms (4s against 3s) in Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu are notoriously awkward. In this video, I describe some simple practice approaches to demystify the difficulties and generate the wonderful flowing, agitato effect.
In this video, I introduce the first and most important step to having a free technique, which is to feel the natural, flowing rhythm and groove of the music in your body.