Music Teacher's Helper Blog

New Adventures in Improvisation

The last day of the Christmas holidays in London was unexpectedly sunny, crisp and breezy. After the departure of some visitors, my husband Robert and I were about to go out for a walk and some tea and cake, when he suddenly pointed to a patch of light on the wall behind me. The reflections from the garden of waving branches and the wrought iron of a clothes post were casting flickering shadows onto the wall in an astonishing fashion, almost like a silent movie. Robert grabbed his iPhone and captured some video. “You could use that for a film-poem, “ I remarked, thinking about the beautiful short videos some friends had made recently.

When we got home from our walk, I began improvising to the footage on the piano, while Robert, listened and wrote.  Within twenty minutes, we both had something. Remarkably, when Robert read his poem aloud, it was exactly the same length as the video footage. He recorded it, using the free application Audacity, and then I recorded my part onto a different track so that we could experiment with individual volume and color.

I’m not a recording engineer, but I know what works when I hear it. In this case, I knew we needed to take the ‘edge’ off the sound on both tracks. It took a little while to find the right effect for the piano part. It wasn’t until Robert added a little reverb that it harmonized with the imagery. It sounded as if it had been recorded many years ago in a dusty, cavernous ballet studio on a slightly tinny upright. Perfect.

We both could hear that Robert’s voice was also cutting through the texture in a way that sounded too immediate, modern and dynamic. When he equalized it, using an effect called RCA Victor 1947, it all came together. He then exported it as a wav file, and dragged it into iMovie, an easy-to-use Mac application.

Result: a film-poem in one evening. If only making art could be this easy and graceful every time.

During the following week, Robert discovered that there were free time-lapse applications available for the iPhone, and shot some footage from his office window high over the city, using an app called Gorillacam. As he wrote on his blog,,  “Yesterday, with the help of an iPhone app, I propped my phone by the window for several hours and set it to take pictures six times per minute. I composited these images into video at 24 frames per second using Quicktime, then looped the clip back-and-forth, adjusted the colour, and added a panning and zooming effect using iMovie.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking about how best to reflect the images in sound. As I watched the flickering footage at the weekend, I realized that what one often hears accompanying time-lapse cityscapes are minimalistic, repetitive, fast-moving patterns. I wondered what it would be like to go for the polar opposite. I created a slow chord sequence aiming to mirror at once the golden light of the buildings, and the creepy effect of the looping footage.  When Robert read the poem simultaneously with the music, the rhythm of the chordal sequence tended to pull at the poem. However, when we recorded them on separate tracks, they worked beautifully when juxtaposed. Hey presto, another film-poem!

So why am I recounting this on a music teachers’ blog? Well, it seems to me that there are new opportunities here for us to work creatively with students. Imagine a student shooting video footage on their phone during the week, bringing it to the lesson, and then using it as a basis for improvisation. Or, equally, bringing a poem to record on a separate track. It is so easy now to use these applications to create something convincing. This could then be posted on youtube or easily shared on Facebook with their friends. So much of what we do as musicians is temporary, created in a moment and then disappearing once more. Preserving these creative events can be immensely satisfying.

What kinds of creative collaboration inspire you? What kind of applications have you discovered to use with students?  I’d love to hear your experiences.

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
A gifted p... [Read more]

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