A Quick Guide to Instrumental Music

This article deals with the way I see the group creation of improvised (unwritten) instrumental pieces, usually done from the results created by jamming together.

Most fixed members in groups who remain through one same formation for a long time tend to develop their collective musical instincts up to a point that may lead them to create beautiful moments together. This may happen in such ways that, in time, it might seem to outside listeners like either all the (improvised) music they played has been previously arranged or they not only possess some kind of extra-sensorial perception that makes them simply read each others thoughts, even before they are transformed into action, but are also capable of reacting to them in interplay as if it was made to be that way.

I’ve been member of a band where it was kind of spooky, even for us. It was a quintet called Mosaico (defined by Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “a surface decoration made by inlaying small pieces of varied colored materials to form pictures or patterns or the process of making it”). We were: Alexandre Valladão (guitar); Guilherme Hermolin (flute, alto sax); Henrique Domingues (Rhodes piano) and Pedro do Canto then Felipe Reis; bass and me, Mario Leme, on drums. Unfortunately the band lasted for no more than five years, but it was the best musical company I’ve had to this day, twenty years gone by.

No matter if we played for an average of twenty weekly hours, we sometimes could only stare at each other in amazement after two or three of us stroke a variation together – sometimes melodic, harmonic or rhythmic, sometimes all blended together. It was so flagrant that many listeners have asked us what was the name of the piece we had just played after we had only warmed up a bit. Usually I’d start a beat, the bass player would follow and the others came onto it. We had not previously arranged anything about format, as is usually done in a jazz context, for example, we only let our minds flow freely.

Of course it hadn’t always been that way, some early registers of pieces we would eventually record later on sounded like free form improvisations over concrete music made by savage handicapped half-deaf monkeys, compared to the “official” registered results. But it’s just like learning to walk, you get to fall, sometimes, before getting on your knees and so on.

The years I had with that band have thought me more about music and music making than any course I ever took, and the experience I gathered made me develop a practical method to help me and others to produce music from the results of practice sessions (rehearsals are a whole different thing in this context, mark it, they are repeated practice sessions of the achieved results to be recorded or exposed in shows).

The basic tools, from scratch to art, are: The simplest of recording systems and at least one attentive pair of ears, all else is consequence.

Once the tape is rolling, just go for it, every time you practice, and be sure to have some spare time to listen back to the recorded material. From then on, there are seven basic steps to be taken:

1. Conception (this is when you design a certain piece to be turned into a recorded musical production, always using practice session recordings to take those spontaneous ideas off tape).

2. Definition of what has been conceived from options chosen from recordings and adding of “thought out” parts to them.

3. Perfecting what has been defined, in terms of musicality and execution (individually and in group).

4. Repeated rehearsals of each musical piece.

5. Demo recordings, in stereo, to detect possible previously undetected musical problems.

6. Once it works, it’s ready to be recorded in proper multitrack.

7. Mix-down of the piece.

That may have looked quite simplistic, but nothing drastically different is done by a number of famous artists. The only difference is that they sometimes go into a real recording studio to do their all brand-new stuff. It’s a well known fact that they sometimes have nothing going but a few scratch ideas in mind. The development process itself is very much the same in itself, only sped up by the exclusive focus, the top quality of equipment and musicians employed and the capability of artist and producer to work with all those elements within time limits.

I’ve done quite a few recordings using the step by step method, and it was quite a thrill when the first one of those made it through FM radio airplay, back in 1982. It was a seven minutes long instrumental track called “Maratona” (Marathon), which had started its days as a guitar riff in a studio jam before rehearsal. Ever since that day, “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life” and our music has reached the stars.