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.
We took a break from sticking and did some games. We did the Group Counting Game and then the Conversation Game. They did very well in the former, and probably did the best rendition of the latter I have ever seen in over a decade since I started this course. It was an amazing demonstration of listening and reacting. These folks are thinking in music from the get-go, something other groups take weeks or months to develop. This is going to be a very fun semester working (i.e. playing) with them! We have a couple concerts planned, as well as a special concert (repeated 3X) with a DMA dance student – for her final dissertation dance (or whatever they call it in the dance department), she will improvise a solo dance with us improvising music. She will shape her dance according to what we play and we (I get to play too) will improvise according to what we see her do – a fascinating feedback loop of inspiration.
Back to the class. We finished up with two more improvised compositions: 1) Mouth noises only. and 2) A piece created by the four sitting at a long table, using it as a group percussion instrument. No planning, just play and listen and develop the piece as you go. Try for a balance of unity and variety. What different timbres can you find? Bring back strong (or distinctive) ideas. Develop ideas. Imitate/echo ideas.
They did an excellent job on both – really amazing for this early in the semester. After every piece we do in class, we discuss what happened, to develop memory, to learn from what we did, and to get ideas for the next time. We do not judge, ever. This is a class in imagination, not perfection. We try to stay away from ‘liked it’ or ‘didn’t like it.’ We start with What Happened? Sometimes it’s hard to remember what you just did! But it is important – you need to remember what you did in the first part of the piece so you can bring it back or develop it later. ABA is a useful form, but you have to remember what you did in the first A after you play B. So we share our memories of what happened when in what order. We always talk about what we didn’t do, not so much because we should have done something different, but to see what we might do another time; it is part of stretching our vocabulary and skill set. Examples: it was all one dynamic (the common cold of improvisation) – remember to get out of the middle and introduce some extremes sometimes. Too many ideas – you don’t need many – establish some clear ones and then recycle/reuse them. Successful pieces have loops of ideas – they keep coming back.
Other topics come up, e.g. How do you end a piece? What happens if you hear an ending and stop playing but one or more keep going (A.: stop playing. Let them finish the piece if they hear something different. Don’t jump back in or you may create the dreaded Piece That Wouldn’t Die. I’ve seen those. In concert. It’s not pretty).
End of class: they handed in their notes on the first 50 pages of Free Play, the mother of all improvisation books by Stephen Nachmanovitch (if you don’t know this book, run, don’t walk to get a copy and read it. And buy copies for your friends).
This is a great group. I can’t wait the next class.