My book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (354 p,. 2008, GIA Publ.) has been out for a while and has enjoyed a certain modest success among classical musicians who would like to start creating their own music (aka improvising). But it has lacked one thing: video/audio examples of what this classical improv thing is. There is of course no one right answer – what it sounds like will depend on whose playing, and even the same players may have wildly different versions of any particular game. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have some examples of a few possibilities of some of the games. Continue reading
One of my favorite blogs is Dr. Noa Kageyama’s The Bulletproof Musician – he hits it out of the park just about every time. His latest post and one that I highly recommend you read – now – is “Why Improvisation Should Be Part of Every Young Musician’s Training. Wonderful article with some excellent research backing it up. I have only two qualms about it: improv needs to loosen its common association with jazz, as in improv=jazz; improv can take many forms – jazz is just one. And: Improv should be part of not just young musician’s training, but part of the life and continuing training of every musician of any age and instrument.
Last week was very busy; I gave lectures, presentations, and led improv games at the Arizona State University (John Ericson was the perfect host), then came back home (after a lot of airline delays) to segue into a tour with the Iowa Brass Quintet in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois (no improv there, unless you count the little jazz cadenza I got to do in our Porgy and Bess medley). Then came a three-day residency at the University of North Dakota (which still has huge piles of snow…) where I did in equal measure brass and improv workshops and presentations. Great people there, great attitudes – lots of new BFFs. Many thanks to my wonderful UND host, Kayla Nelson.
I got to do two improv concerts. The first one was partly based around something new to me. Dr. Mike Witgraaf had me play into a microphone; then he processed the sound with a software program (KYMA) and effected further changes using two hand-held Wii (the game) controllers via Bluetooth. The result was played through speakers, which mixed with my live sound. You can listen to the results here
1 http://youtu.be/k4F-ELZD4Yo 4:05
2 http://youtu.be/NwRogbxIbyM 4:07
3 http://youtu.be/lFBQV7wQXsI 5:59
4 http://youtu.be/sRMazAfJVeM 4:53
The second concert was also a lot of fun. I started off with a Daily Arkady (just start playing and see what happens). Then came an improv trio – me, Jim Popejoy on vibes, and a student djembe player (her name escapes me now to my great embarrassment, but she played wonderfully). We just did the classical improv thing – start playing, listen to each other, adjust/adapt to have a balance of unity and variety (the predictable and the unpredictable). Man, that was fun. We finished up with a Soundpainting. The ensemble had just learned about 30 or so SP gestures earlier in the day, but they did terrific on such short notice.
In the third improv (regular readers of this blog know that I mean classical improv, not jazz improv, not theatrical improv, and that by classical improv I don’t mean improvising as they did in the Classical Era, I mean improvising with your own voice as a classical musician) class, we did a review of the last session – using sticks (on cardboard, on padded chairs, on notebooks, etc.) to acquire basic skills in control – steady pulse, adding accents (duple, triple, clave), dynamics, basic rhythms, free mix-and-match, density (from lots of notes to lots of rests), imitate (what you hear others play), add multiple timbres (hit something different to get a different color). It is a lot of variables when you add them all up when we get to the free play sessions, but they did well. We stressed that the most important part of this is listening. It’s great to add variety to your free sticking, but listen to the group: imitate the ideas of others and stick (pun intended) to the beat; if you hear the group getting ragged, simplify, go back to the steady 8th notes without an accent. Listen to yourself; continually adjust, adapt, and (re)calibrate. It’s easy to feel like you are riding an effortless, continuous stream of notes, but we need to stay alert to what is happening every second and make micro-adjustments. Paying attention is important. Don’t let the brain turn dull as soon as it perceives a pattern (e.g. regular sticking) and fall asleep.
Although we haven’t officially gotten into it yet, I added some Soundpainting (see www.soundpainting.com) gestures that seemed appropriate: the Density Fader, Volume Fader, Finish Your Idea, Exit.
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:
The quotes below are taken from an article by Adam Perlmutter entitled “iMPROV for Everyone”
Improvisation …is a practice that has most often been taught only in the context of jazz in the classroom. But it has actually been part of many more musical traditions, cultures, and periods. Classical icons like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, revered for their composed masterworks, were all expert improvisers… around the world, from Bulgaria to Mali to India, improvisation is a central element of being a musician.
A couple more notes on our activities in this semesters improv class (Improvisation for Classical Musicians)…
We started out with a lot of rhythm. Classical musicians focus mostly on pitches; rhythm is a stepchild as far as the quantity and quality that we focus on it. So we learn basic percussion/rhythm skills: tapping (either body percussion or small percussion or drums) duple, triple, and mixed accent groups, plus some basic rhythms: Long Short Short (LSS), SSL, SLS, taking rhythm solos.
The first composition is a Bricolage piece: each person brings something from home that makes some kind of noise. Each person in turn selects four players and teaches them each a different ostinato rhythm. Then all play together. The conductor/composer indicates a soloist (one at a time), who then plays anything they want. After everyone has had a turn, all return to their ostinatos. The piece ends with a sharp unison “hit.”