Artist Blog

Ayn Inserto: The Compositional Techniques of Bob Brookmeyer – A Brief Introduction

Those of us who were lucky enough to study with Bob Brookmeyer were exposed to his various exercises.  Whether it was in composition or improvisation, Bob had developed methods to help with our creative development. These exercises also aid in generating material in a more organic fashion, and lend a hand when you are “stuck” or need to edit your piece.  I am going to lightly touch on four of my favorite exercises.

A small side note: Bob’s exercises were never quite uniform.  You can ask any of his students about a certain exercise, and more than likely they had a different interpretation of them, were taught differently, or they evolved over time.  There were even times he would “tweak” the exercise on the spot to accommodate what he saw to be something worth using in a composition.  In essence, they became more like guidelines. So, this is my experience with the methods, and hopefully I won’t strike much controversy.

Another side note: Dave Rivello wrote a book that contains these methods along with a lot of other Brookmeyer moments in “Bob Brookmeyer in conversation with Dave Rivello” available through ArtistShare.


The White-Note Exercise

This is the quintessential Brookmeyer exercise.  It was the first one you did when you met him.  At New England Conservatory, first-year graduate students who studied with him had two 2-hour group lessons with him in the first week he was there.  There were three of us in my year.  He assigned three white-note exercises the first day and played through them the second.  Mine were absolutely horrendous.

My version of the white-note exercise is as such:

Compose one page of a melody, away from an instrument, using only the C Major scale from middle C (C4) and only within an octave (up to C5).  This should be in 4/4 time. There should be no chords. This exercise concentrates primarily on melodic and motivic development, and you shouldn’t assume harmonic content, although diatonic harmony will naturally be implied.

He also gave me three “starting points”.


In playing through the melody, Bob would do it on the piano with a C drone in his left hand.  He never wanted me to play it because he wanted me to be “separated” from the exercise and hear it with fresh ears.

The initial takeaway from doing the white-note is whether what I hear in my head is accurate that I don’t need an instrument to hear it, and that I can just put it down on paper.  It was astounding to me how that wasn’t the case initially. The exercise’s focus on motivic development is also very important.  When I first started doing it, I had too many ideas within the first few lines and no sense of patience or development.  I also was lacking space and “melodic cadences”.  There are tendency tones (2,4,6,7) within the major scale, and those needed to be resolved for us to hear the key of C Major.

As aforementioned, the objective of the exercise is motivic development.  Bob had a “rule of three”, where there should be repetition with variation, usually about three times so that the listener is acclimated to it.  He also had a metaphor about when you give a child a toy to play with but immediately take it away, the child will cry.  He likened it to the motive being taken away too early from the audience (don’t make your audience cry).  This exercise also works on a macro level. Not only do you use this way of development in the initial exposition, you can also do it in your compositional form.

This exercise also got me into linear writing.  As a pianist, I tended to compose immediately with melody, harmony and even groove.  This exercise changed the way I write, where melody is Queen and that is where I start.  Does that mean that I discount other elements? No, but it does allow me to focus on separate elements in my compositions. And whether or not I start a piece by doing a white-note exercise, I do use the fundamentals of it in developing all my pieces.

My composition “Eshel Sketch” is one that comes from the white-note exercise.  Below is a small snippet of the motive followed by the recording.


(Refer to 0:43 to 4:11)


The Three-Note Collection

This is a voice-leading exercise.  You are given a starting point, and then various targets throughout the exercise. For example, there is a three-note structure in measure 1 and another target in measure 7 (see below).  You move only half notes so rhythm is not addressed in this exercise.  These structures are not conventional triads, although they may resemble sus chords, clusters or quartal/quintal voicings.  It is discouraged to use root position triads, unless, it makes sense to “resolve” to one, but rarely does that happen.  You can do this at an instrument i.e. play it on the piano.



The three-note collection makes me aware of shape and direction, tension and resolution, and three lines that can also result in harmony.  Dealing with how to decide to use contrary motion or parallel motion, or symmetrical or asymmetrical lines is also something I got out of this exercise.

One thing I do love telling my students is that even if you feel that your exercise isn’t “successful”, you’ve still generated material.  There is a chance there is something in there that you like and can use.  Below are some ways I encourage that.

Here is an example of a three-note collection:



You can use any of the lines for a melody, or bass line:



You can use a structure you like to create a harmonic progression with its own unique intervallic relationship:

You can use the structure itself to be the upper structure of conventional chords:


Lastly, my composition “Dear John” is one that primarily uses the three-note collection during the exposition:

(Refer to 1:08 on)


Pitch Module and Rhythmic Module

I am grouping these two exercises because of their similarities.  These exercises are also some of the best to use when you are “stuck”. The concepts behind them are to really break down melody by initially separating pitch from rhythm.  Some may say that they are similar to serial techniques, but they have a looser approach.


For the pitch module, after you have found a theme or motive that you want to work with, take only the pitches. It is best to work within 3-7 pitches, so if you have a longer theme, you should work in subgroups. If you have repeated notes, do include them e.g. if you have a phrase that starts and end with the same note, you must include that note twice (initially in the order they appear in the motive). Do the following with your pitch module:

  1. Reorder the pitches in as many permutations as you can.
  2. Transpose the permutations.
  3. Examine the intervals, then pick two at a time and freely create permutations.


See below for an example:



Another fun thing that you can try is to combine different modules or portions of different modules.


For the rhythmic module, you do the same thing by isolating the rhythm.  Working in smaller modules will help.  You can go through various permutations by displacement, fragmentation, augmentation, etc.  See example below:



And voila! You can combine the pitch modules and rhythmic modules together.  Thus, you end up with a melody.  None of these exercises are binding, so you are usually a half-step or a rhythmic figure away from something you may like.


When I am “stuck” or a student is stuck, I tell them to just sing the rhythms without the pitches, or play/sing the pitches without the rhythm.  This allows us to hear motion and also see if we have “done enough” to the idea itself.  I also have them take whatever part they are stuck on and have them put it into the exercise to generate more material that is organic and unique to their piece.


I do use these methods quite a bit; my composition, Vinifera, uses the pitch module in its exposition.



In conclusion, these exercises (and many others) don’t just generate material, they are also ways of methodically working through a piece.  For example, I may have a student who is having trouble with their melody and I’d say, “Do a white-note on it.”  That doesn’t mean that they will be only using C major, but rather taking the contents of their melody and applying the principles behind the exercise. I hope that this information was helpful to you.  Thank you to ISJAC for having me this month.


About the Author:

Ayn Inserto is a groundbreaking composer who is emerging as one of the preeminent voices of her generation. She received her Master of Music degree in Jazz Composition from the New England Conservatory and is a winner of the IAJE/ASCAP Emerging Composer Commission honoring Frank Foster and the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers’ Awards. She was picked by Bob Brookmeyer to study jazz composition as his protégé.

Her music has been performed at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai, Dizzy’s Club (Jazz at Lincoln Center, NYC), the Berklee Performance Center, JEN Conferences, Reno Jazz Festival, Billy Higgins Jazz Festival, New England Conservatory of Music, Brown University, Montreux Jazz Festival, the Umbria Jazz Festival, McGill University, Senigallia, Italy, Terni Jazz Festival, the Sant’ Elpidio Jazz Festival, and the Fano Jazz Festival.

Inserto has been commissioned by Carnegie Hall for the NYO Jazz Ensemble, The Jazz Education Network, ASCAP/IAJE, the Commission Project for JazzMN, Madison Technical College, Amherst College, Cal State University East Bay, Los Medanos College, Foxboro High School, Harvard Jazz Band, Marin Catholic High School, Fairfield High School, and Jennifer Wharton. She has given masterclasses and clinics at the Panama Jazz Festival, Brown University, IMEP Paris College of Music, International College of Music in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Seoul Jazz Academy, Tokyo School of Music, Singapore Polytechnic, Arcevia Jazz Seminar, Rossini Conservatory of Music, the National Youth Jazz Orchestra from London, UK and the Sydney Conservatorium.

Inserto has served as a panelist for the Jazz Improv Convention with Dr. Billy Taylor in New York as well as for the Tribute to Bob Brookmeyer at New England Conservatory. She also has been a clinician for the JENerations Jazz Festival, an adjudicator for the Berklee High School Jazz Festival, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fellowship, the Massachusetts Council for the Arts Composition Fellowship, and the International Alliance for Women in Music Jazz Composition Contest. She is a mentor for the Women in Jazz Organization and a member of the Board of Directors for the Jazz Education Network.

Her big band, the Ayn Inserto Jazz Orchestra, has recorded three albums with special guests Bob Brookmeyer, John Fedchock, George Garzone and Sean Jones. The ensemble has garnered many positive reviews such as Downbeat Editor’s Pick, The Boston Globe 2018 Best Jazz Albums, Top Ten Recordings of 2018 (Cadence Magazine) and the Jazz Journalists Association Best of 2018 (Large Ensemble) List. She currently resides in Boston where she is a Professor of jazz composition at Berklee College of Music.