A recent show by The Vijay Iyer Trio inspired me as they pushed the limits when it came to creating new musical sounds and organic sonic textures. You can too!
In “Add a little jelly to your home studio recordings,” the Disc Makers Blog published advice on stretching your sound-making abilities, from trying new instruments to adding stompboxes, wildly transposing your playing to twisting digital plug-ins in ways no one has ever heard before. But what about getting the most sonic mileage out of your core instruments?
During an October 2016 performance at Columbia University’s Miller Theater in New York City, the critically acclaimed Vijay Iyer Trio did just that, pulling all sorts of wonderful sounds and textures out of the simple lineup of acoustic grand piano, acoustic upright bass, and drum kit. Here are a few strategies, employed by those fine musicians on stage that you can use to stretch the sonic limits of your own music, no matter the instrument or genre.
Use the entire range of your instrument
During the performance, pianist Vijay Iyer often played significant passages on the lowest chunk of his instrument’s 88-key keyboard. He would also use the highest notes in prominent ways. Sometimes he would play very low and very high in quick succession, or even at the same time. Bassist Stephan Crump did the same thing, utilizing both the lowest and highest notes that his instrument could play in unexpected and effective ways.
The lesson here? Don’t limit yourself by getting stuck in the middle. While many players reside squarely in the central range of their instruments when it comes to songwriting, performing, and recording, don’t be afraid to see what happens when you add the very lowest and highest note ranges that you can play into your songs. You may be surprised at the unexpected moods and textures you can create. (This can even be true for vocals. Experiment and see.)
Use all techniques available to you
At times during the performance, Crump would switch, with ease, from plucking the strings of his upright bass to playing the instrument with a bow, giving him a wide variety of sonic textures to work with — from sharp and percussive to mellow and sustained — depending on what the music called for. Similarly, he would occasionally use his bow with his right hand while his left hand slid up and down the strings in the instrument’s highest register, creating a swooping, seagull-like sound effect that played beautifully off of Iyer’s improvisations.
Drummer Tyshawn Sorey also switched things up when it came to technique, pulling out different sorts of sticks in order to mold his acoustic drum sound to the mood of the moment. At one point, he even pulled out a dish towel and laid it on top of the his snare drum as a way to mute the drum slightly, just mildly altering its tone to best fit the vibe that the trio was laying down.
In your own playing, try getting comfortable with different techniques to get different sounds out of your instrument. Whether that means trying a violin bow or EBow for guitarists and bassists, various mutes for horn players, or — like Sorey — different sticks (and towels) for different occasions, having access to sonic variety will help you pick the perfect tone to help your music sing in the moment.
Stretch the boundaries
Sorey pushed the limits of what his drum kit could do multiple times during the performance. At one point, he scraped the bottom of his drum stick across various cymbals, creating distinct, ethereal tones that melded wonderfully with the notes Iyer and Crump were playing at the time.
Sorey also made a point of regularly playing different areas of each cymbal and hitting them with different parts of his drum sticks, creating a wide variety of textures, some subtle and some striking. He even got textures out of his drums by pressing a drum stick into the drum heads and sliding his hand up and down the shaft, creating a swooping, pitch-gliding sound, almost like a cuíca.
When it comes to your own instrumental work, follow Sorey’s example and look for boundary-pushing sonic possibilities, not limits. If there are interesting and unusual ways other musicians have gotten unique sounds of your instrument (or instruments that are similar), give them a try and see if you can weave those approaches into your own playing and songwriting. Or just experiment on your own and see what crazy new sounds and textures you can create.
Do you have any advice on stretching the sonic limits of your instruments? Share in the comments below!
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