I want to talk about drones, but not your ordinary ones. Other sites and musicians have talked about the benefits of warming up with drones, exploring shapes and intervals. All of this is great and something I personally use now and then too. If you haven’t explored this area before I would suggest you at least try it. It’s an amazing way to open up your ears and explore music’s various layers.
If you’re sitting there thinking, “I’m still not sure what you mean by drones. Aren’t those the remote control things you fly around to annoy your neighbors?” Well, yes. But, not this topic. Here’s a great YouTube example of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen talking about how she uses a drone:
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“A musical drone is a harmonic or monophonic effect or accompaniment where a note or chord is continuously sounded throughout most or all of a piece.” – Wikipedia
Instead of rehashing what others have already talked about, I want explore some other ways we can use a drone through the lens of targeting. Targeting is aiming at a goal (note) with purpose. It’s one of the central points of how I improvise and teach improvisation. While it’s great to explore a scale, intervals, or free-improvisation with a fixed pitch (drone)-I have found that beginners and intermediate musicians often have a hard time hearing the note they are aiming for.
There are a number of great tools that create a drone. Ingrid Jensen mentioned her device in the video above. You can use just about anything that will create a sustained pitch. I have used a piano with the sustain pedal, computer software (garageband, Logic Pro, etc), YouTube (which has a WIDE range of options that you could spend hours searching), or one of my favorites: iReal Pro
Beginners and intermediate improvisors have to be intentional with what they practice. It’s too easy to get distracted and let your imagination go on a tangent. That’s ok when it’s time to explore and foster creativity. But, students need to hear where their line is going. What does it sound like when you are targeting the 3rd of major chord? How does that sound different when you’re targeting the 3rd of dominant chord? What about minor? If a student can learn to hear what targeting sounds like it opens up the creative mind to be able to explore it in real-time. This is why I like using iReal Pro because you get to choose not only the harmonic situation (major, minor, diminished, etc), but you get to do it while keeping time and locking in with a rhythm section that won’t slow down or speed up.
Here’s how I use iReal Pro as a drone:
All of the above is good practice for any musician. It will get you to focus on the sound of targeting so you can hear where you’re going. This will also give a student plenty of practice!
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