Targeting Notes with Slonimsky Patterns

I had an interesting question by email today that I thought was worth addressing here. The question was, how do you integrate Slonimsky-style patterns into a "target note" approach to improvising? I should say up-front that I don't do much of this myself, and the solution I've come up with here is just a suggestion for your own experiments: let me know what success you have with it and whether you discover any "hacks" or alternative approaches that make it easier.

What is the "Target Note" Approach?

Say you're playing over the first four bars of "All The Things You Are":

Gm7   Cm7   F7   BbMaj7

A common approach is to find certain important notes in each chord and then play lines that "target" them by linking them together. These notes will usually be the ones that capture the flavour of the chord, such as the 3 and 7. So, example target notes for Gm7 would be Bb (the 3) and F (the 7); for the Cm7 you'd have Eb (the 3) and Bb (the 7). So, you might play Bb in the first bar, then a line that ends on Eb at the beginning of the second bar.

The advantage of this approach is it helps you outline the harmony without tying you down too much. You have a lot of freedom in between the target notes, but you always have a "safe place to land". You can play quite strongly outside lines and as long as you hit your target at the end they'll usually sounds good.

Applying a Slonimsky Pattern: First Example

Imagine you want to apply a Slonimsky pattern to these two bars. First off, I need to choose a pattern that contains pitches that will generally sound good over Gm7. This is where the organisation of my free ebook is helpful, because it goes by pitch content rather than interval structure (the way Slonimsky's Thesaurus does). This way I can choose a set of pitch content from the chapter titles and any pattern in that chapter is OK for me to use.

On Gm7 I've chosen to play G Whole-Half Diminished Scale. This is a mode of Half-Whole Diminished so I go to Chapter 6; all the patterns there contain notes from this scale. Fairly arbitrarily I chose this one, from page 60:

First off, this is a pattern for C Half-Whole Diminished. Because this is a symmetrical scale, a quick check tells us this is the same as G Whole-Half Diminished, so in a sense we're all set. However, the line as it stands starts on C and ends on Eb; the Eb is OK (that's a target note for Cm7 in the next bar, so I could just tie it over) but the C isn't a very strong starting-note.

To fix this I'm going to cheat and play a Bb at the beginning of the bar. This will lead nicely into the C, and push the whole pattern along by a sixteenth note so that the Eb at the end falls on the first beat of the second bar -- a strong target note:

Try it over the chords and hear the way the target note approach resolves the dissonant scale quite effectively.

Improvising Strategies

The trouble with the approach just outlined is that it's essentially composing something to play in that bar. You have to play it exactly that way to get the desired effect. If you vary it a bit, you may end up with all the wrong notes, or landing somewhere you didn't want to. So this doesn't work too well in general for improvisation. This will seem a bit convoluted, but I'll then boil it down into a strategy you can actually use.

Instead I'd suggest going back to the "recipe" (if you haven't already, now would be a good time to read the first chapter of the ebook). All these patterns are made by starting with a "base" and "decorating" it. The bases are easy to find, because they're all symmetrical stacks of intervals. If you target notes define the start- and end-points of the line, all you have to do is divide the distance between those two points into a stack of intervals that can act as the base, then add an ornament. Well, in theory; in practice things are more tricky.

Let's do this with our running example. Here a kind of schematic view of these two bars in terms of just the target notes we want to use:

This is an ascent of an octave and a fourth, or 12 + 5 = 17 semitones. 17 is a prime number, so we're not going to be able to divide this equally. But we don't actually need to. What we want is to divide them into four parts (one for each beat), with some remainder. The ornament will "make up" the remainder.

Here's one particularly obvious division:

We just go across the strings in fourths til we get near to the target note. This will be our base. Now we need an ornament, and if we want to hit our target note it had better be one whose net effect is going up a whole tone. Here's one possibility:

I picked this particular ornament because (a) the difference between the start- and end-notes matches the distance between the end of the base and the target note, and (b) it "looked" like it was going to be a good fit for the chord tones of Gm7. And it sounds alright to me.

Too Much Thinking?

Initially this seems like an insane amount of "calculation" to be doing just to come up with a line to play. The key to getting good at it seems to me to be to use fretboard visualisation to help you. The steps you need to take are:

  1. "See" the target notes for your line on the fretboard
  2. "See" a symmetrical division of the distance between them that gets close
  3. "See" the chord tones of the current harmony, and especially any notes you'd like to avoid
  4. Weave a pattern through these

If you're using a target-note approach to improvising you can probably already do (1). For (2), you just need to practice those symmetrical shapes -- diminished and augmented arpeggios, stacks of fourths and fifths and so on. Note, too, that you don't even have to use a symmetrical base if you don't want to. Step (3) should already be second nature to you. That just leaves step (4).

This step is probably always going to be a bit hit-or-miss. In the heat of the moment, you might pick an ornament that takes you through pitches you don't want to hear. But that's actually OK. First, the fact that you're going to land on a note of resolution means you can dish out a lot of dissonance and "get away with it" -- in fact it can sound very cool. Second, you can vary the pattern as you play it to avoid those nasty notes if you want to; after all, this is music, not mathematics.