Improv Class in Nova Scotia

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIt’s been a busy summer – 5 weeks away from home. Two weeks at horn camp in New Hampshire and almost three weeks in Nova Scotia. It’s nice to be home, but I enjoyed my time greatly both places. I’ve talked about it here before, but I want to briefly talk about my time teaching at Acadia University in Wolfville, NS.

The wondrous and amazing Ardith Haley, with music ed rock star Dale Lonis were the instigators of this unique course at Acadia. It’s a 2-year masters of music education program that is done mostly through distance learning, with 2 – two week residency sessions (each July) over the two year period of the course. The participants are are all seasoned music teachers, ranging in age (guessing) from late 20’s to late 50’s; they teach all kinds of music – classroom music, band, orchestra, elementary to high school. They are almost all Canadian, mostly from the eastern end of the country, but a few from the middle and west.

My course for this cohort of 15 consisted of 3 hours a day doing nonjazz improvisation. Teaching this group was not like teaching the students back home at the University of Iowa. These folks are professionals – they do music and teach music for a living. They have great attitudes and they learn fast. Thus, it was a supreme treat for me to work with people like this. The only tricky part is the part that they share with anyone doing improv for the first time – they are very apprehensive about it (I was, too) at first.

The problem is invariably the same thing that kept me from trying this kind of improv on the horn years earlier: the definition of improvisation. The usual accepted definition is: Improvisation = Jazz = Bebop = 220 BPM = Never going to happen. Jazz is wonderful (I play jazz guitar and love it – but jazz horn is not me), but it is not for everyone or every instrument. So we learn a new definition, or perhaps a bunch of them. Improvisation = I get to pick the note. Improvisation is just like conversation: you take something you know very well (the language) and rearrange it so that it expresses something you want to say. You pick words that you know and can easily pronounce and say it in a comfortable, familiar way. You don’t usually make up any words. You just use what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, what you know. Music is exactly the same. Pick notes (and speed of note change) that are comfortable for you. If you feel unsure or overwhelmed, pick one note and sit on it until you feel like it’s time for another note. Then go to that.

It takes a little time, but they all got over the traditional fear that is built into the right note/wrong note system that we all grew up in. We all were taught that Good Music comes from a distant expert (the composer) and that from You, No Music comes. Our job was to be perfect renditioners of the music of the Experts. We were the Reciters. The consumers, not producers, of music. Mistakes were to be avoided at all costs. It was easy to get one’s ego tangled up with how well or fast or perfectly one played. Focus was mostly on the product (play all right notes), not so much on the process.

Improv is about process. The same way language takes everything you know at the moment (knowledge of language, vocabulary, psychology, history, personal experiences, and on and on) and comes up with a spoken sentence, improv takes everything you know about the instrument, music theory, music history, and composition and comes up with a string of notes. You get an idea, you try to find that idea on your instrument. If you get an unexpected result (classical speak: mistake), you go with it, adapt to it, use it to discover something new.

What has always happened in my improv class at school is that I spend the first week imparting this new definition to the students, getting them to play without anxiety. Then I spend the rest of the semester trying to get them to shut up, sort of. Once they find out that 1) they didn’t die 2) it’s easy 3) it’s fun 4) how come everyone doesn’t do this 5) how come lessons didn’t include this from the very beginning – they want to play all the time. And since music generally includes rests (Silence – the 13th note), they learn to listen and be silent sometimes.

They find out that improvisation of this kind is about listening, not lots of notes, or strings of “perfect” notes. Just like a conversation.

This cohort was a joy to work with because they got over their fears very quickly and learned very quickly. And they started making wonderful music very quickly.

We started class usually with some kind of warm-up activity that usually did not use instruments, just some kind of movement. In the first part of the course we also had discussions of readings in the book Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch – the mother of all books on improvisation.

We spent a fair amount of time learning Soundpainting, the gestural language that organizes spontaneous composition in groups (invented by Walter Thompson 40 years ago now!). This would be important for them when they return to their groups at school. Improvisation is very straightforward with small numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4. But very challenging in large groups; how do you keep from having everyone playing at the same time and creating huge thick “soup” of sound? There are a number of ways; Soundpainting is one of the best. And since it uses a conductor, it also serves as a handy bridge for traditionally trained musicians to transition from notes-only playing to making all their own decisions about what to play. In SP, the conductor asks for something general (Long Tone) and the player supplies the specific. Although there are 1200 gestures in the complete SP language, you don’t need anywhere near that many to make a piece. Any group (including beginners) can learn 20 gestures in an hour. If you know 30-40, you can give a concert. You could give a concert in the evening if you had two good rehearsals during the day. SP is a great arrow for a band director to have in his/her quiver. Even if they never use it in concert, it’s a great change of pace, a great waker-upper when the band’s attention begins to flag after a long rehearsal. (“Scan. With. Standing-Up. Scan. With. Laughter”).

After three class periods (9 hours), we had our first concert of improvised chamber music. I made a long list of possible “pieces” for this concert, but tweaked it substantially just before the concert (and a bit during it). And we didn’t get through it all. We stopped after a bit over an hour, which is long enough for most concerts.

Here’s what we did:

We started with a Soundpainting piece. Me conducting.

Bricolage “composition” by a student (Aileen)

AB A piece. A = mouth noises. B = body percussion

Adjective + Noun depiction

Gesture only piece (4 players sitting in chairs. At the halfway mark, they add to add a noise with each gesture)

Bricolage piece #2 – another student (we didn’t get through all of them in class, so we included 3 of them in the concert)

Voices only [generally I would tell the performers that they had, oh, 8 seconds to plan the piece – talk it over – and then begin. Sometimes no time at all, just start].

Drum sticks – make a piece using them using anything in the room as their percussion instrument

Clapping piece. 6 players, clapping only.

Laughing and Crying only piece (with solos), plus percussion.

I think as the last piece there might have been a long, “free” (figure out the rules as you go – there are always rules) piece, but my notes are kind of a mess. We only did about half the piece on my sheet (plus some added ones scribbled in), and in a totally different order. In any case, although I was somewhat apprehensive at giving a concert so soon, they came through with flying colors and did a terrific job. Very imaginative! They made a lot of great choices, and it was an entertaining concert (which could have been titled “Whose Music Is It, Anyway?”).

The second improv concert (which I will not detail here) was on the last day of the course, and it was even better. It was a tour de force in many respects. They conducted their own Soundpainting this time, and contributed their own games for part of it. The last piece was a kind of final exam: it was a piece by the whole group with zero planning time. Just start and make a coherent composition in real time. It was amazing. They displayed remarkable discipline (staying silent so that different timbres and textures came to light, not just a mass of sound) as well as interesting compositional choices on the way. Near the end, the piece evolved into a rollicking romp, something almost like Gospel or Dixieland. It was very exciting and earned thunderous applause. After the room quieted, I asked them – seriously – “All right. Tell me the truth. Did you plan and rehearse that?” They howled at that, in a good way. No – no way – it was all made up as it happened. It might have been the best large group piece I’ve heard. I’ve heard and been part of some wonderful improv, but never with a group this large. It is a huge challenge to make a piece of spontaneous music with a group of that size. They did it. And they killed it, knocked it out of the park. That will remain a permanent wonderful memory for me.

One more thing. The participants had to write two papers. Project #1 was “Improv and Me”, detailing their previous experiences (if any) with improvisation before they took my course. Project #2 was to be completed after the course was over; they had to give 4 lessons in improvisation to someone who had never done any improv before and then write about it – their plans, what happened in the lessons, reflections on what happens, and concluding with a statement from their student. I want paste (anonymously) part of one of these statements from one of the papers:

“The only regret that I have is not having this kind if teaching and guidance when I was in school.  If I had, the trumpet wouldn’t have been put down for 30 years.  This is exactly the kind of approach and teaching all grades of students, regardless of age, should have because it makes music seem more personal and feels like it is something you could “own” as an expressive outlet.  Music for me is no longer just playing the notes in front of me, it is a starting point for really connecting with the love of music I can look forward to.”


Anyway, I’m back. It was a great time. Now it’s time to be home again and get going on planning school stuff for this fall and for the year. Besides having more horn students than ever (14), I have my Creativity in Music class (about: where music comes from: improvisation and composition – a GenEd course for non music majors) and my freshman seminar “Weird Music”.

Fall will involve lots of work on my magnum opus, a book on horn technique.

If you know my book Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians (GIA, 2008, 354 p.), you might be interested in this last piece of gossip: I just finished the manuscript on a Volume II – another big book like the first one. This one has 642 new improv games; the manuscript is 325 pages (although a printed version will have a different count). I just sent it in to GIA. Cross your fingers and hope that they will approve it for publication. If you visit this space now and then, you will be the first to know if they do accept it, because I will splash the news immediately across a new post. I may also print the list of chapters, or even the list of games. This book is leaner in explanatory material because the first book has all that; this just has some summaries. There is also a reduced number of appendix materials, although the bibliography section of articles, books, groups, organizations, dissertations, etc etc is longer than before. In any case, I’ll let you know what happens whenever it happens. Cross those fingers for me.