The Heavenly Rut

-- Clint Goss, April 13, 2014

All your flute playing sounds the same, the wandering melodies don’t take you anywhere, and you’re dreaming of new musical forms, styles, and horizons. You’re in a “rut” … but we like to call it the “Heavenly Rut“. Wherever you think you are stuck, the music that comes out is probably just this side of heaven.

Here are a list of ideas we have used to help people build on their established flute playing and overall musicality, but expand into music that has a different sound.

A / B / A

Sometimes, people are looking to add a bit of structure to their songs. One of the most direct ways to add structure is to intentionally craft a song in the A / B / A form. This is basically a song where the beginning and end are noticeably similar, and the “B” section is “something different”.

The A / B / A form is very prevalent in most genres of music. Maybe it is because the repetition of the “A” section takes listeners back to a familiar motif. Or maybe it is because A / B / A echoes the pervasive “journey” storyline: starting from home, going to a faraway place, and ending back home.

Here are some straightforward ways to craft “something different” in the “B” section:

  • Change the melody.
  • Change the rhythm. This might be using a different rhythm in the “B” section, or it could even be to simply play non-rhythmically in the A section and to use a rhythm in the B section.
  • Change tempo.
  • Change dynamics. You could do a loud / soft / loud version of A / B / A.
  • Change the pitch range. You could play the A section on the lower notes, then move to the higher notes for the B section.
  • Change articulation. Contrast playing all the notes connected with playing slightly disconnected notes with tonguing or even very short notes.
  • Change emotion. Pick two different emotions and intentionally move between them in your sections.

Begin in a New Place

Most melodies and songs have one note that provides the “tonic” or “tonal center” for the melody. It is often the note on which the song begins and ends.

Very often, the tonal center for Native Flute music is the lowest (all holes closed) note on the flute. It is certainly a gorgeous note, but by no means the only starting point!

To add variety, try starting and ending your songs on a different note. Try to center the melody on that note: starting on the new note, returning to it at key points, and ending the melody on the new note.

Every note on the flute can serve as a tonal center – many work like crazy, others are workable, none are unmusical. You might spend a full week dedicated to songs with a single tonal center – getting to know it like a new friend, and finding out how all the other notes relate to that new tonal center.

You will find that using particular notes as a new tonal center dramatically changes the feel of your songs, and they seem to come from a new culture. Simply changing your tonal center to the first note up from the bottom note ( < xxx|xxo ) will impart a major/Western feel to the music.

Come from Rhythm

Many songwriters say that the best way to find a new song is to start from a new rhythm.

Put on a rhythm CD or track, get the rhythm in your body (maybe even for five minutes before you start playing) and start jamming. Some of the more complex rhythms can word wonders.

  • Stephen Deruby has a rhythm CD
  • Glen Velez “Rhythm of the Chakras” has some incredible rhythms.

To really expand your rhythmic repertoire, try one of the odd meters such as 5/4.

Try a New Scale

Pick one of the Exotic Scales on Flutopedia.

  • Start by practicing the scale up and down.
  • Then progress to doing a woven scale (there is a demonstration of that on each of the scale pages on Flutopedia).
  • Then work on some Scale Songs (see From Scales to Songs).

Finally, try some free improvisations in the new scale and see where it leads. You could spend a few weeks in the new scale to really get comfortable with improvisation with that new set of notes.

Play with a New Instrument

Explore playing with a guitar, piano, dulcimer, or any type of percussionist – especially ethnic percussionists. You could take your flute (preferably a high-pitched instrument) to a community drum circle. You could try going on-line to one of the live jam services (which I hesitate to name because they seem to come and go frequently).

Play to the Clock

For me, this was the best exercise to help me play structured songs.

The exercise is to improvise a composition that fits exactly in a one-minute timeframe. It must have a beginning, a middle section, and an ending. The goal is to take the listener on a (short) journey. You can do this in front of a big clock with a sweep second hand – starting and ending on the “12”. Try to bring it in and land it at exactly one minute.

In the words of W. A. Mathieu: We live a lifetime in each one-minute song, and then we get to do it again and again and again

Blues Form

The 12-bar Blues form is very familiar to most Western listeners. Here is an approach to structuring a song in this form:

Find a motif that you like that begins and ends on the lowest note – <xxx|xxx. Try for something about 10 or 15 seconds long. Play it until you are very comfortable with the motif. I’ll call this the “root motif”.

Then follow the outline:

  • Play the root motif.
  • Repeat the root motif.
  • Play a similar motif that begins and ends two notes up … on the <xxx|xoo note. Try to make it the same length and in the same style as your root motif.
  • Repeat the root motif.
  • Play a motif that starts on <xxx|ooo, and make it half the length of the root motif.
  • Play a motif that starts on <xxx|xoo, and is half the length of the root motif.
  • Play the first half of the root motif.
  • In place of the second half of the root motif, blues players often “go wild”. They may play something entirely different or even stop playing.

Cycle back to the start of this sequence, and you just might get the sense that you’re following a song form you’ve heard many, many times.