from the blog.

Featured Improv: “Mary Had A Little Lamb”

Our featured improvisation today is our take on Mary Had A Little Lamb, recorded at Florida State University during our recent residency.

I love improvising on this melody for a few reasons. First, it’s familiar to all. Since the melody is already stored in the audience’s brain, there’s no need to waste any time teaching it to them! This means it’s exceptionally easy to riff on it, create motivic references, and do all kinds of fancy things to it right out of the gate, without the music sounding like gibberish.

Second, the melody has regular melodic and harmonic rhythm. This is a fancy way of saying it sounds like a nursery rhyme––which, of course, it is! The shape of the melody and the way the chords move underneath it are predictable and simple. This creates a very strong framework on which to hang more adventurous harmonies and elaborations of the melody. It’s surprising the degree to which the original tune can be altered and still recognized.

Finally, and nearest to my heart, the melody has lyrics. Of course, we don’t sing while we play (you’d thank us for that, I’m sure!) However, the lyrics open up a whole new level of expressive possibility. Text painting is one of them. This is a technique utilized by centuries of classical composers from the Renaissance to Romanticism, in which elements of the text are reflected in the music. If the text talks about a babbling brook, for example, perhaps the composer will write flowing, rapid lines in the accompaniment. The beautiful, simple text of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” is ingrained deep in our pysche from our childhood. Think about the first two strophes:

Mary had a little lamb,

Little lamb, little lamb,

Mary had a little lamb,

Whose fleece was white as snow.

And everywhere that Mary went,

Mary went, Mary went,

Everywhere that Mary went,

That lamb was sure to go.

What associations does the text create for you in your imagination? For me, the lyrics speak to innocence, naiveté, and loyalty. Great! We have a framework for our text painting.

But wait…there’s more. Music is an amazing art form because it can express multiple emotional states simultaneously. What if we invert the meaning of the text? What are the opposites of our associations? Maturity, wariness, betrayal? Hmm…this is heavy stuff for a nursery rhyme. It could be that the tranquil character of the original melody is due not to the melody’s completeness, but its incompleteness––there’s a whole other emotional half missing!

So our “Mary” explores a variety of emotional states, in large part thanks to the text. I find it reminds me of thinking back on one’s childhood. There’s still a sense of innocence, but innocence at a distance, as viewed through a layer of glass, and the reflection of one’s current self stares back at you, in a mirror.

Listen and enjoy!

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