New Beginnings

Focusing on fresh, new introductions to the songs and instrumental pieces we play.

by: Elena Corey

(From Elena’s Music Matters column originally published in the Bluegrass Breakdown.)

“We believe in new beginnings, never breaking, always bending…..We believe in happy endings, you and I,” croons Emmy Lou Harris. We understand and underscore her sentiment. With the arrival of a new year come yearnings to being again, only this time knowing more than we did before and being able to do what we really meant to all along. Even if we’re only reacting to exterior events and motivations, such as fighting fear or frustration that there ar such terrible thing as terrorism in the world, we know intuitively, and have been reminded frequently, that the best revenge is to live splendidly and successfully to show that we are only minimally affected by onslaughts against our spirits. If our primary motivation springs from inner yearnings to be excellent proactively and not always reacting and responding to external pressures and squeaky wheels, it is even more true that we form our brave new goals and purposes in our minds to forge exciting, superior beginnings, benefiting from our past experience.

And so, musically, this month’s Music Matters column cries out to be focused around fresh, new introductions to the songs and instrumental pieces we play. We’ve heard a wide range of introductions to all kinds of music for years, and we’ve internalized much of what we’ve heard without bothering to analyze or be able to articulate any criteria regarding what makes a good beginning to a song. We know what sounds good to us. We retain a strong sense that the introduction must not miss-lead the listener. The beginning should foreshadow, or give a taste of what is to come. Classical composers have led us to this expectation by their practice of setting a motif first. E.g. In “The Messiah,” Handel introduces the six notes that will become the work’s signature very early in the piece. Those six notes, highlighted in the Hallelujah Chorus part, about two-thirds of the way through (i.e. the familiar words used for those six notes are, “And He shall reign forever..”) are introduced within the very first solo, as a part of another theme.

Bluegrass, gospel and old-timey composers also frequently follow this practice within the song, placing the identifying riff to occur early in the song, for instance as the final line in the first verse. Thus it often happens that the signature line (which may be the line in which the title occurs) is used by many musicians to introduce the song instrumentally. This tag introduction works fine–there is nothing wrong with it at all–but we may want to see what else is available that might offer more freshness, interest catching potential and overall sparkle. We tend to agree that we mustn’t diverge from the tempo, time signature, key, or other basics of the song for an introduction unless we’re so excellent that we can then provide a smooth transition to the body of the song, and not make the introduction seem just weird. If we use the tag and/or the familiar closing cadence chord sequence of ‘I, V, I’ or I, ii, V, I’ we’re on solid ground and won’t throw anyone an unwanted curve. But if we want to develop other introductions, what sequences will sound appropriate to our ears? Marvin Kahn and Murray Arnold, authors of “Breaks, fillers, endings and introductions” suggest devising simple melodic lines over these chords for variations: for ballads try (a) I, iii, IIIdim7, ii, V7 and back to I, or (b) I, vi, ii, bII, and back to I. Popular music instrumentalists also suggest using the V chord in fluid arpeggios over three measures resolving to the I chord on the fourth measure, or alternatively, using whole-tone runs ascending to either the starting melody note or the tonic of the starting chord. We all know that songs whose first lines begin on a sixth chord are easily introduced by walking (often by the bass) from one down to six, e.g. ‘Salty Dog’, ‘Don’t let your deal go down’, and the country standard, ‘Anytime.’

Rhythm introductions differ from introductions to ballads in their emphasis, as well as possibly in their chord progressions, but they are very valuable in setting the groove for the song. Useful rhythm introductions are often no longer than two measures, although they can be four measures. One rhythm introduction I find particularly helpful goes: I6, VII, I6, V7 in one measure followed by a straight I, VII, I for a second measure. If the song is moderately fast, that sets the tempo and gives an indication of the rhythmic feel of the piece. Waltzes offer a splendid challenge to our creative attempts to play fresh new introductions. They are often slow enough that we can suggest the identifying melody lick as well as provide additional touches we might devise to ‘fancy it up.’ Remember the classic introduction to ‘Rocksalt and Nails’? It walks up from I to IV, stays on IV for a while, building tension, and then moseys back to I, providing a classic and classy start for the song. Its appeal is durable. Fresh introductions to other bluegrass waltzes, such as “That was before I met you” also are audible on recent recordings. Fiddlers often request introductions to waltzes, strathespeys and relaxed airs whose melody lines call for accompanying chords of I, vi, ii then V, either in two measures, two beats per chord or stretched out into four measures with one chord per measure. Those same chord progressions can work as a framework for your own melody lines in introducing other songs.

However you start your new year, I hope that the fresh opportunities you are offered and your own refreshened visions of the huge panorama of possibilities available to you will provide you with new vigor and passion to play the music that you love. As you apply the ‘great introduction’ feel of our brand new year to your music, I wish you both fantastic beginnings and happy endings. Elena