Cedarville Improv Residency Notes

Evan and I spent three days at Cedarville University in Ohio last week doing a creative residency. I thought I will share some thoughts, ideas, and impressions of our time there in this space.

Tuesday

We arrived almost at the same time at the Dayton airport (Evan coming from LaGuardia and me from the Eastern Iowa Airport) Tuesday evening  and were greeted by our host, Charlie Pagnard (pah-nard), trumpet professor at CU and principal trumpet in the Dayton S.O. Charlie was the soul of helpfulness and good cheer throughout our stay, the perfect host. He set us up in our quarters, a charming inn, and awarded us a van to use during our stay. We got a quick tour of the music building and then launched into a rehearsal for our recital two days hence. The bulk of the concert is improvised on the spot, but some of the pieces have composed parts, e.g. composed “A” section – free improv for a “B” section, with a return to A at the end and/or a coda section.

We didn’t have to rehearse the first piece, Distant Serenade. The directions are: Evan starts on the piano, onstage. Then I come in from offstage. At some point I come onstage. Continue. Find an ending. That’s it.

English: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, view from ...

The next piece took more practice. It was a new piece that I had just finished; as a matter of fact was not yet finished: Mountain Triptych, about the famous Swiss mountains near Grindelwald: the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau, or as named in the piece (switching Eiger and Jungfrau around), Maiden, Monk, and Ogre. We tried stuff and ended up tweaking a good bit of the melody of Maiden. Monk didn’t change much. For Ogre, I had no melody yet, just the accompaniment, so we had to figure that out  in rehearsal. We also had to rehearse one other new tune of mine, “Murky,” but not too much (it was pretty straightforward [blues] and didn’t need much; also, we didn’t want to peak too soon  ;  >   ).

We reviewed pieces from our earlier repertoire: Evan’s Only in Winter, my Two Winters, and O Euchari (which is on our CD Duende), a reinterpretation of some chant by the incomparable Hildegarde von Bingen. We didn’t have to rehearse spontaneous pieces: Adjective + Noun and Book Divertimento (where each movement is chosen by an audience member stabbing a finger at a random word in a book). Our concert closer was our Americana Suite, a blenderized melange of tunes and tune fragments from Down By the Riverside, Amazing Grace, and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.

Wednesday

As per our request, they scheduled us wall to wall during our time there. We worked with the Women’s Choir first, where Evan did some Soundpainting and I led variations on a vocal improv game. We repeated this format with the Concert Chorale. It was wonderful to work with both groups; there were some wonderful, unusual sounds and sound combinations that arose in these sessions. In these and all our sessions we had nothing but positive experiences working with this students – all of them bright, talented, and great sports, willing to try all manner of requests that we had for them – making up your own music alone or in groups is a new experience for almost every traditionally trained musician (except for those who play jazz). Many are trepidatious at first, but this soon turns changes to delight when they find out that improv is both fun and easy. But there are usually some who are too frightened to try it, or try it for long; their tolerance for tiptoeing outside of the box is not high enough – they might make a mistake! It can be scary at first, but if they can just stick with it a bit and get past the first experiences, they discover that they didn’t die (even serious injury is rare) and that the process is progressively more fun and less scary. [in all the workshops I’ve done, there was only one player who I completely failed with. She was a very good clarinet player, but she was so frightened that she would not put the instrument in her mouth and make a sound. I assured her that a whole note of her choice would be a perfectly fine choice, but she just couldn’t do it. Her fear was too great – what had classical training done to this poor young woman? Fortunately, she was the only one I or we have encountered whose instrument absolutely would not function if not in the presence of ink].

Then we met with the Symphonic Band. I talked about ways to explore creating your own spontaneous music alone, in duets, in trios or quartets. Evan followed with an introduction to Soundpainting. SP is a great way to deal with large numbers as well as giving classical players a first exposure to making your own choices creating music.

We then split up. I went to the Jubilate Band (choir + band) while Evan worked with the jazz band. More great experiences working with these wonderful students.

That evening we rehearsed for a while and then met for an hour with about a dozen interested students who would perform an improv concert (Soundpainting with Evan) on Friday night. It was quite impressive how many SP gestures they learned in fairly short order, which was a good thing, since we had exactly one more one hour rehearsal on Friday for a student improv concert Friday evening with a group that two rehearsal hours before had never improvised. As the saying goes, knowing that you are going to be executed in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully. That sounds dark; it was a joy from start to finish.

Converted by me into SVG, original image obtai...

Let’s take a short break from the action to talk about food. Except for a couple late night raids on a local pizza joint for some salad and garlic parmesan wings, we ate most meals in the college cafeteria, which was a huge open space windowed on all sides, with enough choices to reduce one to a state of gibbering paralysis. It was hard not to pile a little of everything on the plate, which soon became a caloric ziggurat with exactly that: Italian nestled next to Mexican riding on top of the comfort food of the day, decorated by 19 kinds of salad fixings, with this plate bumping next to the soup, and, for lagniappe, a chunk or two of chicken. What a place. Breakfast any time. The dessert counter advertised Ice Creams (plural) among cakes, cookies, yogurts, sprinkle heaven, and sundry other delectables. Yikes. When I was a freshman (this was way back before Cheops had his neighborhood zoned for pyramids, before the invention of electricity, language, and time), the food was good, but selection was basically “take it or leave it.” I think I gained fifteen pounds that year. It would be thirty if I were here, and only if I exercised. Evan and I spent happy times here ignoring our diets while energetically riffing on all topics improvisational. We hadn’t see each other in a while and had a lot to catch up on. Inspirations and information was batted back and forth like ping pong. I constantly scribbled notes and filled sheets with both. Improv and food, an unbeatable combination…

Thursday

At nine a.m. we were scheduled to provide some new ideas and approaches to an aural skills class. There were some familiar friendly faces there from some of the ensembles we had worked with. We played various aural improv games, including Call & Response and Memory (each person adds a new note to a string and the next person must sing it all back and add one new note and then pass it on until memories finally fail…), but the last game was the most memorable. We divided the room up into trios and quartets and had each perform, sort of. The back-up part of the band each had two notes of the pentatonic scale to sing some kind of ostinato accompaniment; one person was the soloist – they got three notes from that scale. We finally got them all going on a big pentatonic groove and they rocked! Very fun.

We had a last but rather short rehearsal for our recital that evening. Then lunch (see above…). In the afternoon we worked with the brass choir and the orchestra in ways similar to what we had done with the choirs and band. Great fun. We had a small amount of down time and before we knew it, it was time for the recital. The program was discussed earlier, but here are a few more details: We asked for an adjective and then a noun from the audience. That piece thus acquired the title: “Administrative Pigeon”. For the Book Divertimento, I used my copy of John McPhee’s new book Silk Parachute. Our audience member stabbed the following words, which became movements I, II, II, IV:

I. Lacrosse

2. Trees

3. Arkansas

4. Rock

That was a fun piece. The name rhythm piece worked out well, but I can’t remember the name now that it was based on. Laura or Lauren something. Anyway, the concert went well – chamber music at short notice, as we say.

Friday

We met with the Church Music Adminstration class at 8:30 a.m., discussing possible uses of improvisation in worship services. Apparently there has been a continuing trend for some years that seen the transition from the old way – organ + choirs – to the new: praise band, who perform up front. The questions are still the same: what do you do if the service starts late? (A.: improvise!). What do you do if the Offertory (for example) is shorter or longer than planned (A.: improvise!). Evan shared his rich experience in this area.

In the afternoon we had a last rehearsal with the students who would be performing in the improv concert (for some, this was their first and only rehearsal). Not to worry – Evan is a master Soundpainter. The concert that evening was outstanding. The group was piano, percussion (marimba, shakers, etc.), 5 singers, 2 saxes, trumpet, horn, and violin. Here was the program:

Soundpainting #1

Singers: Body/Mouth percussion –> Voice –> Body/Mouth percussion

Soundpainting #2

Event Clock (hard to explain, but very slick, very cool)

Shapeline Chorale (with the assistance of extra student conductor/singer Hope)

Pentatonic Soundpainting [very cool]

Special surprise guest Marty Jellison. We found out that Marty could play the uke and sing a song about any topic given to him seconds before. It was irresistible. The audience thus asked him to sing a song about a sad hippopotamus in the campus lake, and, wondrous and humorous to say, he did it. Very impressive!

The concert concluded with a final Soundpainting (all three were very different from each other). I think CU is going to send us a recording of the concert at some point; perhaps we can put the recording here (don’t know how to do that yet), although SP is best when you can see it as well as hear it.

All in all, it was a splendid sojourn at Cedarville University. We had a terrific time with a lot of good-natured and talented students, and were treated royally by Charlie Pagnard and other faculty and staff. We hope they invite us back in four years when all new students will be there. We also hope that our student performing group take our entreaties and advice seriously and form a regularly performing improv ensemble. They did so well so quickly that it would be a shame for them not to continue the magic.

Besides that grand time we had working with the students, the experience was especially great for me to get together with Evan and make that special music again. I learned a lot, as always, especially the possibility of the integration of both Soundpainting and Conduction gestures. We use SP almost daily in my semester improv class, and I have already started using a couple signs that are very efficient in creating certain things, e.g. the Conduction Repeat sign (make a U with the thumb and fingers), signal enter with the other hand instead of SP’s minimalism. The other gesture that worked as an effective short cut was Sustained Note (palm level, pointed outwards) with the other hand indicated when to enter, which was quicker to execute than SP’s Long Tone/Enter. I’ll still use SP for most everything, but these signs are too good not to use.

There you have it – a quick and dirty recounting of our three days at Cedarville U. Missing are the many details of our interactions and experiences, but it’s hard to do that in prose, especially in a Q&D format/medium like a blog. But we hope it’s still interesting to read about the adventure.

Questions?