New Semester: Improvisation for Classical Musicians

English: Frozen trees on New Year's eve, Kapot...

It’s ice rain outside this morning. Little pea-sized drops of ice falling, coating everything. The sound like ten thousand cricket-sized snare drums, little tap tap taps. The road is a skating rink. I really need to go to the gym. Looks like I will be trying out the Wii this morning…

On the other hand, it’s a great time to start getting caught up on all the stuff I have to tell you. One thing is my improv class. Spring semester I teach Improvisation for Classical musicians. I’ve been doing this for about a dozen years. Every year is a little different as I try new ideas, shuffle things around, adjust the activities, and so on.

I have six brave souls signed up this spring: clarinet, piano, bassoon, trumpet, and 2 string basses (first ever in this class). Several double on other instruments. In this class versatility is part of the course. Everyone plays 1) their instrument 2) piano 3) percussion (small perc., body, found) 4) mouth/vocal sound/text, sometimes several in the same piece.

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News: Improv Class at Adelphi U

Return to ChildNews from the world of improv: James Oshinsky (who has contributed to Improv Course Materials – see above) is offering an Improvisation Ensemble class, covering solo and group improvisation. It will be similar to Music for People improv workshops.

James Oshinsky is the author of Return to Child: Music for People’s Guide to Improvising Music and Authentic Group Leadership, which you should run, not walk, to order a copy.


Creative Places: UW-SP


Someone – maybe someone who studied at Hogwarts – should make a magic map that shows where the most creative chunks of geography are, as far as musical creativity is concerned. We all know where the big schools and big cities are, but they are not always the most creative places. I’m listening to an audiobook at the moment about business, and the chapter I’m on is about innovation. The author points out how much innovation comes out of small, upstart companies (the author calls them ‘tyros’ – another word for ‘beginners’) that are full of energy, short on hierarchy and rules, and are free to simply ‘go for it’. Try, risk, fail, try again, go way outside the box, work tirelessly with imagination. What often happens, however, is that these companies, after they achieve success, then start adding layers of hierarchy and rules and management and start playing it safe and lose their innovative edge to – you guessed it – a new generation of upstarts. Microsoft -one example out of many – took off like a skyrocket early on, but after it got big – very big – and hired phalanxes of R&D people, experienced years of being unable to create anything that could be called innovative or cutting edge. They’re not alone, they’re just one example.

I don’t know if educational institutions follow the same trajectories as businesses seem to, but to get back to my original point about mapping the creative hotspots, the biggest schools aren’t always the greatest hot spots of creativity. Some times there are amazing things going on in smaller and/or lesser known places.

I got to visit one last month.

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IEM: Teaching Improvisation in Spain

Map of the Canary Islands.

Canary Islands

I just received a very happy surprise: a note from Daniel Roca of the Conservatorio Superior de Música de Canarias. Daniel is on the faculty of the Institute for Music Education (IEM: Instituto de Educacion Musical), which has “been developing a methodological system of teaching music in any level… based on improvisation (and its partners analysis and aural skills). Read Daniel’s summary page of IEM in English here. They publish educational materials through their publisher Enclave Creativa Ediciones. Since I only received the note a few minutes ago, I am still learning about Daniel and IEM, but it sounds like we think alike on a lot of issues. Daniel (I glean from the web) teaches composition, is a founding member of #(928), an improvising ensemble, has several published booked, and has won prizes in composition. I look forward to a long and rewarding exchange of ideas with him. Going to the IEM site, let me quote (i.e. copy/paste):

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Summer fun: Musical Esperanto

A French Omnitonic horn.

I spend two weeks every summer on the faculty of the Kendall Betts Horn Camp in the wilds (sort of) of New Hampshire. It is wall to wall, dawn to beyond dusk horn: masterclasses, lessons, ensembles, presentations, concerts, and – at the end – ice cream and fireworks. The best of all this is

Horn with three Perinet valves

simply being around 50 or so passionate horn players of every stripe, novice to pro, young and old, from all corners of the country and sometimes the globe. It’s so much fun to talk horn and do horn ’round the clock for two intense weeks. This summer was perhaps the best ever (of course, it seems like that every summer). Although I wrote the book on it (Improv Games for Classical Musicians), my usual daily teaching life back home consists of solos, etudes, and orchestral excerpts. At KBHC I get to stretch out (3 hours every morning! Beats the heck out of the Procrustean 50 minute segments that school days are chopped up into) into topics of technique and musicianship, as well as to have some fun with improv. For faculty performance night, I usually try to come up with something unusual (i.e. improv-esque). This time I did three short improvisations with a little help from my friends.

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Denmark’s Intuitive Music Conference

Anne Hvides Gaard is a town museum in Svendbor...

Anne Hvides Gaard is a town museum in Svendborg, Denmark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen will once again be hosting Denmark’s Intuitive Music Conference.

It will be August 2-5 in Svendborg, Denmark. Maximum number of participants is 30, so scurry to sign up! Fee: 150 Euro, including food and primitive (sic) lodging. Application deadline: July 15.

For the program, click here.

Past conferences have drawn improvisers from Denmark, Germany, Belgium, England, Holland, France, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Argentina, Russia, USA, Canada, Israel, Australia, and Japan.

Questions? Ask Carl here.

More info here.

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Big Apple Sojourn: Interview with Evan and Gil (#1)

One of the great things about classical improv is that you are not dependent on a composer to write something for your particular group. Notation-only players are forced into instrumentations which may or may not line up with whom they would actually like to play with. When you are a music creator, you can play with anyone else who can “speak music” at any level and any instrument.

Duende is an unusual trio: horn, cello, and piano, made up of me, Gil Selinger, and Evan Mazunik. We made a terrific CD (“Mosaic“) some years back (available from www.msrcd.com) where we took medieval and Renaissance music and used it as source material for improvisation. It came about thusly: Evan and I had been working together as a duo for about four years at the University of Iowa, giving improv workshops, concerts, and we made a CD (“Repercussions” – available from www.cdbaby.com). Then Evan left school and moved to New York, where he met improvising cellist Gil Selinger. Evan and I had already worked up some of this early music repertoire during a creative residency we spent at The Centrum (in Port Townsend, WA, on the grounds where they filmed “Officer and a Gentleman” with Richard Gere and Debra Winger). Gil brought some ideas and we had the material for “Mosaic.”

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Improv in Florida, Part 2

African Grey Parrot - Psittacus erithacus - macro

Florida improv adventures, continued. I’m at the University of Northern Florida as a guest of pianist/composer Gary Smart, Gary is a piano wizard (who can switch from stride to avant garde without missing a beat) and composer who has won a slew of awards, who met Henry Mancini and Leonard Bernstein and others as a young composer and prize winner, who has lived in Alaska, Japan, Germany, Wyoming, and Florida, who has an African Grey Parrot named Doc (who gladly sits on his shoulder for hours and who has his own distinct words for “Time to feed the parrot!” and “Bored!” and who loves to rips No. 2 pencils to bits with his beak), and, who has one of the two classes in classical (nonjazz) improv in the US that every music student must take before graduation (the other is taught by Charles Young at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point) (I have had one for 11 years, but it’s an elective and not required).

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