Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – An Introduction

On the 24th May, The Tinderbox Orchestra in collaboration with multiple Edinburgh bands will be debuting a brand new project called The Spontaneous Orchestra. The aim is to bring together an array of diverse bands including Frontiers Orchestra, The Black Diamond Express, Mantra, Urvanovic and Victorian Trout Conspiracy, as well as a group of innovative composers and conductors, to perform an entirely improvised set. We’ll be using ‘acetate’ composition, audience participation and a style of free-conducting called ‘Suggesture’. This last one is what i’d like to talk to you about.

Suggesture is a constantly evolving system of gestures used to focus the live improvisation of musicians. The system uses the role of a Suggestor, who ‘conducts’ the band using this vocabulary of hand signals. I have been developing this system for the past few years with The Katet during our late night weekly residency at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar. More recently we’ve used the system in collaboration with other groups, most notably, The Tinderbox Orchestra.

The origins of Suggesture are simple; a few note names, a signal for a full band hit etc. Over time, and through a period of ‘natural selection’, the signals, concepts and ideas changed, were broken down, and were replaced by better ones. As the rapport within The Katet developed, so did our scope for improvisation. Before we knew it we were having 40 minute improvised jams complete with head sections, choruses, transitions, development and solo sections and recapitulations.

To put it simply, we were playing brand new and exciting music from start to finish. Anytime it started to get boring we could change it up to a new and fully formed musical idea, almost immediately. And all the while the audience could watch the whole process happen in real time.

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In May of 2013, we met with The Tinderbox Orchestra in Summerhall for what was to be the first ever Suggesture workshop. We had never attempted to teach the system to anyone before and had rarely used it outside the Jazz Bar. Many of the players in the orchestra had never even improvised before. I didn’t know how a lot of the ‘suggestions’ would translate to the full orchestra as many of them were devised specifically for The Katet and its instrumentation.

There were a huge array of unknowns. But what happened on the day was nothing short of spectacular. Not only were we able to teach the orchestra the Suggesture basics, but we developed even more signals, almost like a spin-off dialect that would only work with an orchestra. It was an incredibly exciting and fulfilling day which culminated in an entirely improvised 30 minute performance.

There are many different methods and systems out there for improvising with a group. This one is fast, direct and incredibly effective. It doesn’t take us 2, 3, or sometimes 5 minutes to get to a ‘good idea’. Using this role of the Suggestor, we can get there instantly – as quick as you can think of it. We can develop the music tonally much faster than has ever been done before. Its easy to learn no matter what level of musician you are. Its fun and I think think its a very cool way to make music with others.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 is a blog series which will take you, step by step, through the basics of the system in detail. Accompanying each blog will be a video containing footage of the original Tinderbox Suggesture workshop, as well as interviews with some of the young musicians involved, plus appearances by members of The Katet. We’ll be releasing all 8 episodes over the coming weeks.

If you wish, please follow the blogs and videos. LIKE, SHARE and RETWEET #suggesture101. And of course, if you want to see the whole thing in action, make sure you make it down to The Hidden Door Festival on May 24th for what promises to be a very special day packed with exciting music.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 1: Notes, Hits and Holds

A number of years ago I started learning Wing Chun Kung Fu. It concentrates on using an opponent’s energy against them but employing very simple and scientific movements. I became very passionate about the system and how movements that were so elegant could also be so powerful.

I’d been playing with The Katet at The Jazz Bar for a few years at this point and, in an attempt to add a bit of spice to the set and try something a little different, I incorporated some of these Wing Chun movements into the songs by giving them a musical meaning.

Our very first signal was a full band hit and started off as a Wing Chun straight punch. Over the years this has evolved into a much more telegraphable downward strike, as you’ll see in the video. Next, we started using a ‘Tan Sau’ which translates as ‘Spreading/Dispersing Hand’ for held notes. This ‘hold’ signal was the first of many Wing Chun blocks that would become the basis of Suggesture. You’ll see more in future episodes.

The initial reaction to the signals was a sceptical one. There was definitely an element of pointlessness to it. Maybe that’s why it survived, because the band thought of it as a game. “Who’s Watchin’!” I’d call out during the gig before executing a couple of hits to start off the set. At the beginnning we simply called the idea The Hits, as that was all it was – a series of hits and holds at the start or end of a tune. Things started to get really interesting though, when we began strectching out middle sections of tunes. It was playing this game within the tunes that led to the demand for more signals, more rules to the game.

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This takes us to note names. In the jazz circuit the musicians call the keys using key signatures; 2 fingers up = two sharps = D major or B minor; three fingers down = three flats = Eb major or C minor. There are a few problems here. Firstly, in a completely free improvisation its unclear whether to play in the relative major or minor. And also, with a lot of contemporary music, players arn’t simply playing in a particular key. In funk, soul and blues music for eg. it can be much handier thinking of the music with a certain ‘tonal centre’. The key can be major, minor, both, or neither, depending on whether you’re providing the bass, accompaniment, melody or vocals.

But calling tonal centres wasn’t a new thing at the Jazz Bar. This was something that had already existed within the funk jam sessions pioneered by guitarist Aki Remally. Simple one-handed shapes could call notes like E, C and B very easily. This would allow the musicians to change the jam up just enough that it never got boring. However, try and call notes like A or G and all of a sudden you need two hands. Not to mention calling sharps and flats.

So over the next few years, through trial and error, I developed a set of chromatic note signals. I used enharmonic equivalents i.e C# instead of Db, Eb instead of D# etc. These signals are almost immediately understandable. They work in either hand i.e the mirror-image (b given in the left hand won’t be confused with d), and can all be called with a single hand. This leaves the other free to play an instrument and/or to specify; how the note is to be played; the scale which is to be used (if its chord for eg.); if you want two notes played, one above the other etc. It also lets you make suggestions to two parts of the ensemble at the same time.

Enjoy the video. Next up, we talk about Shifting and Chords!

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 2: Shifting and Chords

We’ve all heard it before, in one kind of funk jam or another, when everyone’s on a solid groove and all of a sudden the whole thing jumps up a tone, or a minor third, or whatever. You can call this transposition or modulation, or even “key change!”. We call it ‘shifting’. Its the easiest way to change key and its as simple as telling everyone how many semitones you want to move and in which direction.

On a geeky note – In our experience, shifting up or down a major third(four semitones), rarely happens. It doesn’t sound as good as other shifts. It’s not as useful. That’s the reason we sacrificed it and made the four finger shift signal mean a perfect fourth, and five, the perfect fifth. Also, these signals of the fourth and fifth are so strongly ingrained in live music culture that it would be dangerously confusing to mess with them.

When we first started suggesting chords with The Katet, we split the chord across the horn section. Trombone took the tonic, alto sax took the 3rd and the trumpet took the 5th. Since then it has become much more interpretive but this basic set-up is very handy to fall back on. With each player taking a fixed ‘degree’ of the scale it was easy to jump to any chord we wanted and no notes in the triad would be left out. It also meant that I could manipulate the notes within the chords using ‘shifting’, because I knew what note everyone was supposed to be on. In larger ensembles this becomes more difficult but there are still some subtle ways to play about with the chords.

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I think I’m primarily a song-writer, and from this point of view being able to suggest extended chord sequences is very important. And, with Suggesture, its also possible to call complex harmony by setting up a chord on top and with the other hand below, asking the bass player, and therefore, the bass/lower instruments in the ensemble, to player another note. This creates ‘slash chords’ and one can easily translate most jazz harmony using this method. i.e D half dim = Fm/D, Abmaj9 = Eb/Ab etc.

I guess the point was to try to be able to do something that no one else could. When improvising with a large group using other methods, the harmony is usually struck by chance. It sounds very “Modern” or “Post-modern” depending on how apologetic you are. How can everyone possibly know exactly which notes to play? Well, Suggesture retains a huge element of choice, whilst giving the players a framework created by the Suggestor, who at this time is acting very much like a composer/song-writer.

On the role of Suggestor – It’s worth mentioning how important it is to give the appropriate lead time. This is basically how much of a heads up you give the players with your signals. I spent many months messing up improvisations because the players weren’t reacting fast enough to the suggestions, or they were misinterpreting them. A huge learning curve was realizing that this was my fault. I wasn’t showing the signal for long enough. I wasn’t showing it all the way round to everyone in the band. I wasn’t being clear enough with my signals and frustration occurred on both sides. Once I took responsibility for this I started practicing and my conducting grew stronger.

Communication is the essence of Suggesture, and arguably all music. At the end of the day, the music will come from the musicians, from what’s inside them. And it’s the responsibility of the Suggestor to pull this out of them, using his knowledge of composition, harmony, dynamics and structure. At the end of the day though, the most important role of the Suggestor is to inspire.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 3: Moving Chords

In more recent years, as we’ve progressed through the system, we’ve come across a paradox. When improvising with others musicians must be quite intuitive. They must use their musicality and their instinct to ‘feel’ what to play and how to play it. They must be quite reactive and sensitive to the music going on around them. However, when following the direction of a Suggestor, this intuition must be suspended. The players will have to trust that the Suggestor is performing with the same amount of intuition, instinct and sensitivity.

These two attitudes are hard to marry. If the ensemble has little faith in the Suggestor, the music will reflect it. On the flip side, if the group can read each other and play exciting, progressive music simply though intuition, the Suggestor’s job becomes minimal.

I think there is a balance between a player staying true to themselves and staying true to the suggestions. It’s not one group of people doing what a conductor says. Its everyone working together in their different roles towards a common goal – making good music. Hence, the idea of each signal or direction being a ‘suggestion’. As individuals or as a group, each suggestion can be taken or left, or interpreted, or approximated, or developed, or mistaken for better or worse. It doesn’t matter. Its the process that counts, and this relationship between the players.

It’s been said before, if you’re going to improvise badly, why not just play a great tune instead? There is a fair point to this. Improvisation skills need to be honed, practiced and executed well if the thing is going to be worth it. Just waving your hands about and creating a few hits and a few chord changes isn’t enough. The quality of the music needs to be weighed up against the effort of the process. One of the major benefits of improvisation verses composition is that, with Suggesture, there is much more scope to latch onto spontaneous ideas, develop them quicker and more effectively and have more fun. It’s always exciting performing without a prepared script but if the final product can rival a ready made piece, then that is certainly worth the risk.

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On a geeky note – When moving the major chord, we use the dominant scale or mixolydian mode. When moving the minor chord, we use the natural minor scale or Aeolian mode. The reason for this is that we think it sounds better. The flattened seventh in the major suits The Katet’s bluesy style of harmony. The flattened sixth in the minor always sounded better when using descending patterns.

However, all the scales are assignable. All a group has to do is agree which signal means which mode before playing. Any combination of fingers in the ‘scale’ hand can signify any number of keys/modes/scales, existing or made up. This means that the harmony of a moving chord is not fixed or limited. We just prefer to use the scales we do. Different groups will differ. People are like that.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 4: Rhythm Section and Review


I think as your rapport with a particular group or band develops, the less signals you need. On a gig, mid-jam, I’ve found that a lot of cues can be given with a look, or a raised eye-brow. This illustrates the importance of eye-contact, for any kind of conductor. With Suggesture, if the musical idea isn’t quite tight or unanimous enough, its because there’s confusion in the signal and, ultimately, its therefore the Suggestor’s fault. You can help the players create some amazing, magical moments, but you can also hinder a perfectly good groove and cause a total train wreck. More recently, with The Katet, I’ve been getting out of the way of the players completely. I walk to the back of the stage and let them go. I only come back in with a signal once they’ve hit their mark and are ready to move onto the next thing. Its important to remember at all times what the group is trying to do.

On the flip side, the more gestures you have have the bigger the scope for creating the music you’re after. These gestures are devised to be used in combination with each other. The more extensive the vocabulary, the more you can say, and the better you can say it.
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Let’s turn our attention to the backline. Most systems of improvisation involving drums and guitars i.e a rhythm section, are groove-based. This means that the players ‘hold down’ a repeating idea, be it a simple chord structure or an ostinato. The rest of the ensemble provides the variation or development on top of this stable idea. The ‘Groove’ is one of the most important musical ideas for the working musicians that I know. It not only involves the notes one plays but, crucially, how they are played, and very fine aspects of swing and feel. Therefore, improvising with the groove is a delicate affair. The relationship between the rhythm section and the Suggestor must be solid. One could debate ad infinitum about what groove actually is, so let’s move on before that happens.

One of the things I found during the Tinderbox Suggesture workshop was that, because we’d never worked with an orchestra before, there ended up being a lot of realtime adaptation. Certain hand signals appeared out of necessity. Others were altered to fit the size of the ensemble. For eg. – The question of how to address multiple sections independently of each other without getting too confusing. As you’ll see in this episode’s video, a simple solution is usually just around the corner.

This leads us to the idea of different ‘dialects’. Certainly the more Suggesture is used with groups of different sizes, genres, abilities etc. it becomes apparent that the same set of gestures will not categorically work with them all. Already the gap between Katet Suggesture and Tinderbox Suggesture has grown wide. With the Katet we continue to use more advanced theoretical concepts that work in a funk/soul setting, with heavy emphasis on a three-piece brass section. With Tinderbox, a lot of the signals are much more intuitive. Brand new suggestions have been created which are textural and orchestral-based and would not work in a Katet situation. This leads me to believe that the system will continue to grow and evolve through variation. The more bands it’s used with, the more the vocabulary will adapt and change. Hence, the different dialects.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 5: Pushes, Pulls, Bankai and Bends

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A few years ago I was hooked on a popular anime called Bleach. It featured Shinigami or ‘Death Gods’ whose unique swords were the manifestation of their souls. When they were in a tough spot, battling Hollows or Arrancars, they would summon their strength and power-up to the next level. Their swords would be ‘released’ and transform into magnificent variations on the original. This ‘release’ was called ‘Bankai’.

Every time I execute a Bankai, I picture my favorite protagonists from the animated series. I imagine their desperate situations and their unshakable resolve in the heat of battle. This dynamism is inseparable from Suggesture. It’s a system which works theoretically and practically, yes, but the reason for its success up until now is the philosophy behind it.

If you’re going to lead someone, you have to prove to them that you’re worth following. You have to show them your resolve. The Bankai is perfect for this. Most of the Suggesture signals to date have their origin in martial arts. There is no reason for this. It just happened. The reason it has sustained itself though, is because there’s something to it. It’s inspiring watching a person give their all in a performance. A Suggestor cannot perform timidly, cautiously, or half-assed. They must display 100% commitment if they are to expect it. This is why the physicality of the movements is key. Its a vehicle for the Suggestor’s intent.

When coaching other Suggestors, I often get a bit anal about the details of the hand positions and specific movements. Here’s why. Firstly, I believe the movements must stay true to their origins, as far as possible, with respect to the great traditions that shaped them. Secondly, it’s theatre. The Suggestor must be impressive not only through his skill and creativity,  but also through his body language. His body is part of the performance. Its not surprising that numerous audience members throughout the years have mistaken the whole thing for some sort of dance. You ever watch a dancer? Total control. Total confidence, thought and precision. Total expression.

The suggestions explained in this episode’s video were ones that worked immediately. As mentioned, we’ve probably had hundreds of signals over the years. Most never made it past the first gig. This was probably because they didn’t work straight off the bat. Yes, every signal should require a brief explanation, like the rules of any game, but, if after an explanation and a practical demonstration it still doesn’t work, then something’s gotta give. Maybe the concept needs addressed. Maybe the clarity of the signal needs worked on. Maybe the whole thing is pointless and there’s an alternate road around to the idea. Maybe its just not that fun in the first place.

It got to the point for me where this process of creating, trying and refining suggestions was almost as fun as writing tunes. For long periods I would go without composing new material and, instead, focus on coming up with new signals.

The Push already existed in our musical circle’s terminology. I just gave it a form- the Wing Chun palm strike. Funnily enough, the Pull was not something anyone would use when jamming. But it made perfect sense, as the opposite of a Push. In combinations these are a lot of fun, and in advanced Suggesture Pushes and Pulls can be called in realtime using two rotating hands to denote on subsequent beats of the bar. A lot of fun!

The bend is one of the few signals I must pay homage to the late great Frank Zappa for. ‘Zappa’s Way‘ as they called it, was a very quirky and inspiring system of hand signals with musical meaning. The main problem with Zappa’s Way for me, is that the resultant music was closer to noise. This, of course, is not a bad thing and it’s understandable as Zappa was developing this system in the wake of the death of the Modern era(mostly noises). I remember at university, his compositions were being used as case studies for Post-modern music. His music and his improvisation style were ahead of their time but one can only make squeaking and pooping noises for so long. Hence, Suggesture’s focus on harmonic and thematic development. Though Zappa’s bends would be used to slide all over the place, ours are simply used to warp the sound. Again, this signal works every time, even without an explanation. All one has to do is bend one’s body over to the side and you’ll find the group does the same. Just like dancers mimicking each other.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 6: The Fork

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As mentioned in the previous blog, we’ve had many, many signals and it’s a case of trial and error to see which ones survive. If they work, they work. If they don’t, they don’t. When i’m devising signals in my head at home, the idea may seem to have some weight but, practically, when put in front of the band, it fails. There are seven or eight other thought processes to consider, seven or eight other creative minds. If a signal works with a few players but not all, then it won’t work universally, therefore it’s not right for the system.

I’m very proud of what Suggesture has grown into and it wouldn’t exist without the players in The Katet, and in particular, their feedback. If a signal doesn’t work its usually the players who can tell you why and therefore inform you how to move forward. If a signal does work, it’ll be these players that turn the concept into music. It’s a wonderful thing to watch and be a part of, and the nature of Suggesture means that we can always work together to create new concepts, ideas, signals and suggestions. Therefore, the music that we make will constantly change and evolve.

The Fork is one of my favourite suggestions, not only because of its simplicity and immediate effectiveness, but because of the dimensions. One can treat it as a rhythmic device, but you can go a little deeper and use it melodically. Once you have your simple riff, you can then maniuplate this riff in many different ways using other suggestions and before you know it you have an extended and intricate groove. All of it coming from the position of four fingers. The Fork is a great amabassador for how Suggesture can and should be used. Enjoy the video!

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 7: Lines

When it comes to improvising music, the hardest thing to achieve is a coherent sense of tonal harmony. But once you have a sense of this it gets even harder to stop the music from becoming boring. Either you can stay atonal and interesting, or you agree on a set progression and stick to it. As soon as anyone starts to expand the progression or play with the edges of the existing harmony, you get clashes. If the music is meant to be tonal, then clashes appear initially as mistakes and unwanted. Suggesture aims to tackle this problem by making it as easy as anything to move the key, change the chords, transpose any harmonic idea etc. However, and this brings us to our next topic, we can’t just sit playing chords all day.

When listening to any music it’s obvious that one of the most engaging aspects is melody. Yes, we all have our preferences; some of us prefer beats; others really dig complex structures; some of us focus on the overall mood of a piece. But the importance of melody cannot be understated when it comes to story-telling. You can have the same chord structure for six minutes and if the melody is strong enough, if it tells a story that’s interesting enough, if the journey it takes us on is attractive enough, if it changes and varies itself enough to the hold the attention of the listener, then mission accomplished. The question is how to improvise melodies with a large group. “Just let someone solo,” you say. I say, “No”. That’s boring and easy. We use ‘Lines’.

You can come up with as many signals and suggestions you want to try and create as many melodic devices and themes as you can – the idea being that if you can show everyone what notes to play, they can play them in realtime and at the same time i.e a unison theme. But, for me, it was a revelation when I realized you could just ask the players for these themes. Usually, after one or two repeats, an entire ensemble can pick up up the melody. Job done. Also, this opens the door for the players to be as creative as they want with their thematic material. This is the main method for the players to shape the music themselves.

Lines 1At its simplest level, Lines can be riffs that the rest of the ensemble can pick up and jump on. At a more advanced level, in a layer on top of the riffs, these lines can be themes, variations and counter-themes that can last 8 to 16 bars which can be repeated, shared by multiple solo instruments in maybe a question and answer fashion, and eventually by whole sections in harmony maybe as a recapitulation. Once these themes take hold, they can then be used by the players as a basis for variation in a development section. So, using Lines, there’s scope for hefty melodic and thematic development when it comes to orchestral improvisation.

This takes me the my idea of ‘Symprovisation‘, or ‘Sympro‘. Its not hard to imagine how far Suggesture can go. My dream is to be able to stand in front of a full 60-piece orchestra and create a symphony from scratch, in 3 or 4 movements, for a packed audience, using this system, or what this system will become, to such a high level that the unknowing ear would mistake it for a fully composed, fully rehearsed piece. Along with the Suggestor’s control of progressive harmony, the use of Lines, developed far enough and practiced hard enough by the orchestra, can make this dream a reality. Wouldn’t that be something?

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 8: Soloing

In Rock music, a solo is usually taken as a section of its own. It’s a separate part of the song and may have a completely different feel or chord structure to the main body. In many cases, it’s even written. In Jazz, the musicians play the head of the tune and then its time for the soloist to improvise over the top of the same chord progression. In Funk, the band will usually lock down or land on a groove consisting of one or two chords and let the soloist improvise over that. Each tradition has its own style and its own treatment. In Jazz, for eg. the music is solo-based, whereas in Funk, it’s groove-based and therefore the solo is secondary.

The Katet’s improvised music developed out of this funk tradition. When the song has reached a middle section, let’s say after the second chorus, it can open out. Playing our residency at The Jazz Bar, we and the other late night bands have found that holding on to a good idea means keeping punters on the dance-floor for longer. This means that if after two or three verse/choruses you’re only 2 minutes into the tune, it’s best to keep things going. So what do you do? You groove. You jam. You take solos. Taking a solo is the equivalent of everyone having their say around the dinner table. Throughout the night, everyone gets their turn to take centre-stage and drive the song forward for a bit before its agreed to switch/trade solos, return to a head, verse, chorus or some other section in the tune.

With Suggesture, because the parameters arn’t set, the solo can be many different things and it can take many different forms in a live setting. Every Suggestor can choose how to treat the soloist. There are two ways in my mind; either hand over control/direction of the music to the soloist and let them decide where it goes from there; or retain control/direction and use the solo as a tool while you shape the music as a whole. One way is obviously more collaborative than the other. Me, personally, I like to keep my options open. I find, from experience, that what happens is often somewhere in between the two.

Most of the time I like to use the solo almost as a distraction for the audience, and during the solo I’ll set up what’s gonna happen next: be it new harmony, new rhythms, new tempos, an entirely new groove, lyrics, maybe a chorus etc. Now, what happens next is usually informed by the soloist. It’s a realtime reaction to whatever’s to what’s happening in the moment.

In fact, most of what the Suggestor does is informed by the music the players make, by the feeling of where the collective wants to take things. It’s up to the Suggestor to identify this and take it confidently in that direction. And there are techniques you can use to do this. As well as the solo being a platform for that particular player’s musical expression, you can also use it as a creative tool. You have to know how to react to a solo. Is it running out of steam and you need to change things up? Does it need breathing space and you need to step out of the way? Do you want to cut it off at its peak to create a dramatic transition into a new section, stopping the soloist before they can reach a natural conclusion?

This last one is a controversial idea. If the group is improvising together, then at what point, as a soloist, do your ideas become less important than the Suggestor’s? Surely the aim is to play the best music possible, and therefore have more fun. So, what if two good ideas clash on stage? The answer is in the name. The Suggestor must always remain secondary to the players making the music. The only way he gets his way is through trust. The relationship between himself and each soloist will be different each time, different from one night to the next. It’s about being adaptive, working together, moulding around each other. At the end of the day, its about making music together.

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Suggesture is a method for improvising with a group. It’s no better or worse than any other. It’s only one way. But it is a good way, because the process is good, the relationships are good, and the result is good. I hope it outlives us all.

We’ve reached the end of our Suggesture 101 series. I’d like to thank The Katet, The Jazz Bar, Jack Nissan and The Tinderbox Orchestra, Ruth Barrie(Camera) and Gavin Brown(Photography) for everything that they’ve given to this project. We’re all very grateful for the support we’ve received from you, the readers and viewers. You’ll be hearing more from me in the future as this system continues to evolve. In the meantime, why not try out some suggestions with your band, your choir, your class or your family. See if you can figure out why something like this exists in the first place. Start with the question:

Why do we play music together?