Ben Folds, the National Symphony Orchestra, and Magic: Improvisation Unpacked

Improvisation

You may have recently watched a viral video of Ben Folds improvising a work with the National Symphony Orchestra. It’s rather impressive and demonstrates a host of skill sets, not just by Ben, but by the entire orchestra. To create something new on the  spot like this takes knowledge and talent. While Ben is calling the shots, it’s a team effort. These musicians have put in a lifetime of practice to get to this level. Let’s unpack what you are seeing in this short video; there is A LOT going on.


Improvisation

Ben Folds doing what he does best – singing his head off!

 Selecting Home Base

The very first thing that is selected is a key center. This is basically picking the musical neighborhood in which all the musicians will play. All basic, western musical keys consist of a set of seven notes. You might be familiar with the song from The Sound of Music, Do Re Mi” in which Julie Andrews lays out the pattern for a major scale – Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti and Do is repeated at the top. You can start on any note on the piano and sing this pattern. The easiest way to find it on the piano is to play C to C on all white notes – that’s the key of C Major. The audience selects a minor. Minor keys are a slightly different pattern. If you were to play A to A on the piano using all white notes, you’d get the a minor scale. With the key selected, the musicians know to hang out in the musical neighborhood of a minor. If they were artists, they might agree upon the same color palette.

Tempo

The next choice the audience makes for Ben and the NSO is the general tempo. Tempo can really affect the mood of a piece of music. Give the choice of a ballad (generally slow) or something upbeat, the audience (nearly unanimously) selects upbeat, indicating a faster speed.

Text

Ben is a song writer, so they needed a text. The audience is asked to find an interesting bit of text from the evening’s program booklet.

The key, tempo, and text selections can be seen below.

The Magic Starts – with a Joke

Ben sits at the keyboard and readies himself to create something entirely new. This is amazing when it happens by yourself as a composer – when you find that right sound and jot it down on staff paper or on the computer. It’s another level of awesomeness when you do it with 50 other people in real time. Be fore he gets started, he makes a wonderful musical joke, invoking Beethoven. He asks, “It has to be something completely new, right?” Without missing a beat, he mimics (although incorrectly – but we’ll forgive him) the main motive of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

After creating a grove, Ben moves on to a basic melody with the text. He then starts assigning parts to the various sections of the orchestra, starting with the cellos. He instructs them to play “arco,” or with the bow rather than plucking the strings with the fingers. He plays a pattern using the notes A, E, and the next octave B. Without telling the cellos what the notes are, or writing out the rhythms, the cellos nail it. This is exactly what happens in a Kindermusik class when children learn new songs by ear. He further instructs them to alter the pattern on the second iteration. “Just one on the second one.” He then asks for the same pattern at a different pitch level, creating a different harmony. He then asks for a low C and a then a low E, both held for four counts. Note that everyone knows what time signature he’s in just by listening – four beats to the measure. Here’s the creation of he cello line:

“It takes a second to create a whole song.”

Winds – Flutes, Oboes, Clarinets, and Basson

Next, Ben moves on to the reed section and suggests a “one size fits all” accompaniment figure for them. he then, like composers do ALL THE TIME while composing (one of my teachers used to say that there is no good writing, only good rewriting), decides to just give a harmony figure to the clarinets. You’ll note he uses the term “concert” G and E. This is too complicated to explain in detail, but some instruments, clarinets among them, transpose. This means that they might play a written A, but it sounds a “concert” G. Don’t worry about it too much!

So – he asks the clarinets to pick a pitch – E or G – and rock back and forth to that pitches lower neighbor on fast moving notes. It sound like a little flutter. He puts it together with the cellos and decides to make a small change – joking with the audience that it “takes a second to create a whole song.” On the fly, Ben is fitting the pieces together as he creates them. Take a listen:

Violins,Violas, and the Rest

Moving on to the rest of strings, he improvises parts for both the first and second violins – slow moving notes in harmony. Not wanting to leave the violas out in the rain, he gives them what he calls a “little timing shizzle.” He gives them what is best described as a rhythmic ostinato – a pattern that repeats over and over. It’s also syncopated, meaning it happens on the off beat. You’ll feel it.

He then turns to the double basses and says “You know what you must do.” Their repeated quarter note figures on the lowest note of the harmony are sort of a bass line trope and why the audience (and the basses) laugh.

Ben then asks the drummer to do his thing, relying on his musical instinct. He asks for a trumpet solo and…ta-da…the under pinnings of a new song are created.

The Final Product

And with that, away they go. You’ll note in the final video that some instruments Ben never mentioned play – the horns in F are an example. These are top shelf artists. They know how to join the fun with the information Ben has provided.

He set out to create something new in ten minutes, and that’s exactly what he did. Just shy of the ten minute mark he completes his instructions and the conductor counts everyone in. Ben riffs a melody on text from the program book and eventually gets to the selected text. The act of creation isn’t complete until the music is delivered to an audience. The fun part about this compositional process? The audience was there to see it unfold before hearing the final product. That mad it even more special.

Listen to the end result – its a lot of fun to experience the new song after watching it be built from nothing by a room full of classical musicians, lead by one of the most talented singer-songwriters of our time.

Ben demonstrates the joys of creating original music and improvisation, and he does so with four chords, a room full of incredibly talented orchestral players, and the words from a program book. The truth is, with just a little bit of knowledge, anyone can write a song, and it expresses who you are in a way that mere words just can’t. I’ve taught lots of students over the years, and one of my most special memories is teaching a brother and sister (ages 8 and 11) how to write a song during a summer program. We had so much fun coming up with words and a melody. It was rewarding for all of us.

Writing music is similar to building a house. In the end, you’ve created something. But things crumble. A song lasts forever as long as there’s someone around to sing it.

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