There is nothing like a really long break to clear one’s head. Thanks to the gods of Albuquerque Public Schools, this has been the longest winter break in recent memory. Three weeks. Three weeks of no lessons or rehearsals. Three weeks of empty days and quiet nights. Three weeks! My heart lifts just saying those two words.

It might have been a perfect holiday all the way around. For once, we managed to exist in that elusive space called Just Enough. We went to cocktail parties and had dinner with friends. We saw three movies in the theater and watched many more at home with our cats curled up next to us. We read stacks of books. I drove up to Colorado for 24 hours to meet a friend. We spent Matt’s birthday at Los Poblanos, a historic inn in the north valley neighborhood of Albuquerque. We went to the gym and to yoga classes. I swam laps in the pool and practiced almost every day. Matt cleaned up his study. We saw former students, now grown-up and visiting for the holidays, for drinks or coffee. We listened to music in the evenings and drank wine with the fireplace full of flickering candles and the twinkling cranberry lights glowing on the mantle.

One day we drove down to Socorro in the late afternoon and watched thousands of cranes and snow geese fly through the reservoirs at the Bosque del Apache at dusk and then again at dawn the following day. The sight of thousands (literally!) of birds taking off at once was magical.

Perhaps the most magical thing about the break was that for the first time in memory we reached a place where the holiday had been long enough. We had had enough sleep, we had drunk enough wine, we had eaten enough chocolate. We were ready to go back, back to lessons and rehearsals, meetings and emails of our regular life. Quite simply, I missed my students, my routine, my work. If that isn’t the definition of “Just Enough,” I don’t know what is.

But if holidays are good for the soul, they are often equally good for one’s creative mind. One afternoon while pouring myself a cup of tea, apropos of nothing, I thought, “What about Reverse Grab Bag?”

Grab Bag, as some of you might remember, is that compositional exercise inspired the ideas in Improvisation Games for the Classical Musician by Jeffrey Agrell. It works like this:

On my bookshelf sits a bowl of poker chips. Each chip has a note written on it: A-flat, F-sharp, C, and so on. We use this bowl to draw keys for transpositions, keys for scales or chords, etc. The “chip bowl,” as we call it, takes the blame off me. If students draw B-flat for their scales, it’s not my fault.

For “Grab Bag 5,” students draw 5 chips at random. Let’s say: C, B, G-flat, A, A-sharp. Sometimes they get a “double.” No problem. It has just become “Grab Bag 4.” (A “double” is like D-flat and C-sharp. Good to make students find the double. Even better to have students look for possible chords—major, minor, diminished—out of the mix of chips they have drawn, kinda like a musical Scrabble. This can be tricky, particularly because some chords will be spelled enharmonically: C, E-flat, F-sharp)

Students are then assigned to write a composition using only those 5 notes. Rhythms, style, character, and so on are up for grabs (no pun intended), but the composition is limited to ONLY those notes. The kids think this is great fun.

I’m not sure why a cup of tea inspired Reverse Grab Bag, but there it is. Reverse Grab Bag, as I have imagined it, would be the exercise of doing an improvisation/composition using all notes EXCEPT the 5 (or 4 or 8) drawn out of the chip bowl. This variation on a theme is hardly rocket science, sure, but I suspect as we begin lessons this afternoon this idea is just clever enough.