Every so often I receive an echo from improv people out there in the real world who are making it happen, changing lives, translating theory into practice, discovering new stuff, experimenting, teaching, learning. I recently got a wonderful note from one of these folks: Matt Van Brink of the Concordia Conservatory of Music & Art of Bronxville NY who passes along in detail some of his recent improv adventures. With his permission and to extend the learning of us all I reprint his letter here. Thanks, Matt!
Dear Jeff –
I just wanted to let you know how great it was to use your book during my two-week summer composition and songwriting intensive [ http://goo.gl/0CZuPC ] this past August. I had a group of twelve students, ages 10-17, some who had written compositions before, some who hadn’t, but all of whom chose to spend two weeks working on new pieces. By the end of the camp, each student had composed a short piece and presented it in what turned out to be an impressive and heartwarming concert. Two students wrote songs that they played and sang themselves and the rest composed instrumental works.
But since there are many, many hours to fill during this 9-5 Monday to Friday camp, we have a nice opportunity for play, which I strategically put at the beginning of the day. I’d like to share with you the daily schedule, since the improv component fit in at the perfect time of day for it.
Part 1, from 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM: Stretching & alignment, Improvisation & games, a short break, theory, and deep listening (whose playlists I would improvise).
Then after lunch, Part 2, from 12:00 PM – 5:00 PM: Clausura I (individual work on their pieces in the practice rooms), Kickball and running around, Canons & chorales, Clausura II or guest musicians, and a short warm-down at the end of the day.
For improv hour, I had them bring their instruments, so we had a nice motley assemblage of clarinets, guitars, singers, pianists, and a saxophone. And everyone took a turn on the Orff marimba and had a go inside the piano. The students loved almost every game that I presented to them. We started out on the first day with “what’s in a name” and it was a huge hit. We discovered a few of us had names whose syllables and stresses matched, so we even tried one’s tune with the other’s name. It was really playful and set the tone well for the improv segment for the next two weeks.
p. 290 (Ch. 9 – Amateurs): In his book Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music, Mark Katz explains that prior to 1900, the aim of music education “was to teach students how to make make music.” The advent of the record player and recorded music in the early 20th century changed all that.
p. 291 In the modern age, though, people have come to feel that art and music are the product of individual effort rather than something that emerges from a community. … We often think that we can, and even must, rely on blessed individuals to lead us to some new place, to grace us with their insight and creation – and naturally that person is never us.
…The rise of commercially made recordings accelerated a huge shift in attitudes. Their promulgation meant that the more cosmopolitan music of folks who lived in the big cities (the music of professionals), and even the professional musicians in far-off countries could now be heard everywhere. Amateurs and local music makers music have been somewhere intimidated.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Talking Heads star David Byrne: How Music Works. 358 thoughtfully written and researched pages, plus Acknowledgements, Footnotes, Suggested Readings, and Discography. Byrne has done his homework and writes engagingly about the creation of music, both his own and about many styles and genres, including pop and classical. I like the book so much that I have made it a required text for my fall course for non majors, Creativity in Music (i.e. where music comes from: improvisation and composition). I want to share in successive quotes some of Byrne’s thoughts on the subject. Here’s the first one, from Chapter Nine, Amateurs!
Creativity, which is nothing more or less than imagining something and then executing it, has been virtually removed from all but the most innovative curricula. This raises two questions: If the continuing presence of music is the cause of continuing to learn music; if the cause of music is human creativity, why is creativity not at the center of the music curriculum? Why is the act of thinking up music left just to a select few specialists, while re-presenting it, or over-verbalizing about it, is the province of so many?
–Harold Best, Music Curricula in the Future
I’ve been giving a semester course in non jazz/classical improv for past dozen years. My first improv book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians was published by GIA in 2008 (354 p.); it was based on my experiences in the first five years of the course. Since then, GIA has published 4 more. I have amassed more games in an unpublished Vol. 2 of the big book; I hope to convince the publisher some day to publish all those as well.
In the meantime, the course goes on. This week was the start of school. The course is Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 11:45. I prefer this set-up – two longer sessions – than 50 min. 3X a week. 50 minutes is just not long enough – you just get going and it’s time to stop.
I do the course a bit different every year. I want to try new things, so a third to a fourth of the course is different every year. The first day of the course (last Tuesday) is just me talking – telling them all about this kind of improvisation and what we will be doing during the semester. After that, most of every hour is spent improvising.
I’m trying something new: sticks. I always start with about two weeks of Rhythm Only, to work up some percussion/rhythm chops and combat the pitch-centricity that tradiationally-trained players bring with them. We start by building up some basic rhythm skills through body percussion – tap, rap, slap your lap. This time I had everyone bring drumsticks. I thought that we should develop some basic sticking skills (along with hand drum skills) to add an extra dimension to our percussion work.
Following is a brief description of what we did in class today: