Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Harmonic Underpinning

Those of you that know me and my pedagogy, are aware that I'm a firm believer in utilizing harmonic underpinning while teaching melodic instruments and concepts. That is, providing some context for melodic line when teaching parts in the orchestra or in private lessons. I really believe that everything makes more sense when there is a chord progression behind or underneath the melodic line.

This week in Interlochen's Intermediate Concert Orchestra, we do not have the privilege of having a student bass player.  We will have a faculty and staff bassist for the concert, but not until the dress rehearsal.  So, we are working with an incomplete voicing in the orchestra and I have noticed that there has been a great deal of difficulty in truly tuning from bottom to top in all of our repertoire. So, today I asked my stage services staff member to set up a piano in the front of the orchestra. Throughout today's rehearsal I played bass lines and chord progressions as best I could, accompanying all of the pieces that we are working on.

Wow! What a transformation in the orchestra. I was reminded yet again that harmonic underpinning is so important for true musical understanding and learning. Quickly, everyone in the orchestra was tuning in a much more meaningful, informed manner. I had to step back and asked myself, "Would we be better off having this harmonic reference right from the beginning of the rehearsal process?" I am sure that many orchestras use an accompanist throughout a concert cycle to help with this very issue. That is not something that I typically do, but today I am really convinced that it paid huge dividends in this orchestra.

This can be done either by realizing chord progressions on the piano or on another chord playing instrument like guitar, mandolin, and others. I realize that this isn't rocket science. But, it is always good to be reminded. I'm reminded of when my children were younger and studying violin repertoire. I would frequently play piano or pick up my guitar and play along with them. Or, other days I would pick up the bass and create a bass line while they were playing the melodies of the pieces . I have particularly fond memories of performing the Monti Czardas with my oldest son, Matt. I played guitar and he played violin. We did something similar with both of the Vivaldi A minor Concerto movements that are found in the Suzuki Book 4.

All of this goes to encouraging the student to hear the function of every note of a melody. Is the note a chord tone? Is the note a passing tone? Is the cord a tonic? Is it a dominant? Or is it something else? When a student hears a secondary dominant progression on the guitar or piano common, suddenly those accidentals make a lot more sense.

I know this is a quick one but I just had to get this off my chest tonight. It was a great rehearsal and I can't wait for tomorrow!



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