So, yes, the relationship between two tones is not necessarily black and white (see previous post). Tonality puts those two tones into a context which could consist of the many shades of gray, unrestrained technicolor or a tasteful complimentary color pallet. When I use color in a drawing I sometimes have trouble limiting myself. However, In last Sunday morning’s exploratory session with some new watercolor pencils (above) I made it a point to work within some constraints.
My weakness for unrestrained color combinations has its corollary in sound: I am an avowed congregant in the church of dissonance. When I improvise for myself I very rarely end up using diatonic harmony (subject for an introspective future post?). I do not shy away from this in my playing for children’s classes. Though they may be only able to reproduce a limited range of tones in their singing voice, I see no reason not to expose kids to all sorts of tonal relationships, beyond major and minor. Walks can be Lydian and lunges Phrygian, and stories can be excellent backdrops for all sorts of harmonic worlds. The sun can rise with a Schoenbergian series of perfect 4ths; chromatic birdsongs à la Messiaen can stop bird-loving giants while they are hiking through diminished-scale forests in their tracks; later we can float on the open seas of freely juxtaposed triads for a feeling of the awesome power of nature.
But when we are doing something that calls for more precision, there is no substitute for diatonic tonality. For little ones taking a solo flight out their adult’s “nest” I end the phrase on a dominant when they bend down to pick up their worm, and resolve it with an authentic cadence when they return. Every once in a while (ok, pretty often) one of the little birds just wants to keep flying. If I stay on that dominant long enough (or even back-pedal to a tonic second inversion) and stay there long enough, that little bird will get the signal: time to land. I’m going for the feeling of one of those long trills at the end of a cadenza that says to the orchestra, “It’s time…”
Older kids are ready to recognize and respond to tonic and dominant harmonic function with an association type Dalcroze game (“this=that”). For example, during locomotor movement (walks, runs, skips, lunges, etc.) they could be asked to sit if a phrase ends on the tonic, but stay standing and reach toward someone if it ends on the dominant. Whether they are children or adults, if they are doing something at all complicated like a Dalcroze dissociation (“this equals NOT that” or “do these different things at the same time”), I will most likely play as clearly as possible with the major or minor color wheel and 8-bar phrasing punctuated with half and authentic cadences at the appropriate moments. Clarity of form through classical harmony does wonders to regulate the mind and organize body.
Speaking of organizing and regulating mind and body, we’ve organized a special workshop series in New York City at the Lucy Moses School for plastique animée. Four Saturdays in April and May of 2023. Join us for a physical experience of tonality (among other things) that just might get you out of your head when it comes to harmonic analysis.