My Improvisation for Classical Musicians class had its second concert of improvised chamber music last night and it was a big success and a lot of fun. The program was put together with help of the audience in suggestions for some pieces as well as taking part (at times: fingersnaps, crinkling paper, cell phone ring tones, jingling keys). Being in the audience at a concert like this is different from any other (besides the fact that the audience contributes sounds as well) – like a sports game, no one knows what is going to happen, how the pieces are going to come out, not the audience, not the players, not me. And that makes it all very exciting be a part of.
1. Sequential Solos. Matt started alone on stage, improvising a piano solo. The other players came on stage at intervals of 60 to 90 seconds: Sarah – bassoon, Drew – horn, Madeline – flute, Devin – tuba. The audience contributed some background sounds now and then at my signal. At the end of the solos I signaled for all to play. 01 Sequential Solos
2. Music for an imaginary holiday #1 (audience suggestion): Slime Day. Performed by Drew and Devin, with the Sarah and Madeline on percussion, with piano allowed only extended techniques. 02 Slime Day
3. Music for an imaginary holiday #2 (audience suggestion): Spandex Appreciation Day. Performed by flute and basson, with the Drew and Devin on percussion and piano on piano. 03 Spandex Appreciation Day
4. Adjective/Noun – audience suggestion: “The Splendiferous Hedgehog” 04 Splendiferous Hedgehog
5. Deconstruction of a familiar tune: audience suggestion: “Happy Birthday“. 05 Happy Birthday Deconstructed
6. Shapeline – two “volunteers”, Megan and Lauren acted as moving scores using this Soundpainting gesture. Players interpreted their movements in music. 06 Shapeline – Megan & Lauren
7. Finale – long piece. I got to join in in this one on assorted percussion. 07 Finale
You never know what is going to happen in concert that are invented on the spot. There is the chance for disaster, or worse, boring moments. On the other hand, there is also the chance for fabulous discoveries, serendipity in sound, sizzling synchronicity, amazing atmospheres. This concert was a great success by any measure. We will have to have our usual post-concert listening/debriefing session in class where we have the chance to pick up ideas and pointers for next time.
What makes the difference more than anything is listening. Improvisers (classical or otherwise) listen like composers, the same way chefs taste a new dish: we listen in depth for how it is put together. Melody (hear the intervals if possibly, make a note of the shape if not). Harmony. (One chord? Major? Minor? Other? Two chords? Chord progression? Atonal?). Rhythm (Steady beat? No steady beat? Meter? Style?). Should we play in the foreground and come up with a strong idea to develop? Should we play accompaniment and support a strong idea? What kind of accompaniment?). Form. (A? AB? ABA? Is it time to play something contrasting [B]?). Should I be silent? Should I use an extended technique? Should I switch to percussion? Or voice?
If you’re really listening, you are affected by what is going on – just like a conversation. Except in music, you can have many people “speaking’ at once. If they are really listening, it will very likely work. There is no guarantee – or even likelihood – that it will work every piece every time (if it does, you’re not taking enough chances). But even the ‘wrinkles’ are fun – and a necessary part of the fun. We avoid “mistakes” so assiduously in classical training that we also give up both the fun of the unexpected as well as the chances to learn something new and maybe wonderful.
My current class is small, but they really listen and make great choices most of the time. Working with them is a joy every day. I throw restrictions at them (“games”) and they come up with really amazing stuff. Even when the instruction is something outlandish as we did recently: remove part of your instrument and improvise with what’s left. They jump in and come up with something remarkable. It has taken time to get over their fear of missing notes (Eek! I might make a mistake!) – the fear that all of us go through at first before we find out that improv is fun, easy, and as natural as speaking.
The really amazing thing (not to me any more) is that classical musicians, if empowered with a bit of training and practice can create terrific music – any instrument, any level. Our system of music education is one-sided – it lives only in the noncreative, literate side of music, omitting the aural side, the creative side. All those voices kept still. Imagine. Imagine if everyone had a voice in music, just as they do in speaking.
Have listen to the concert (I just added audio today) here. I’d be interested to hear your impressions of this spontaneous music.
And just imagine the music that could flower and bloom and enrich the world if all musicians were released to speak and think in music like this class (this is only their second concert). If you haven’t had a chance to hear your own voice, it’s never to late to find out. Do it with someone if you can. Like conversation, improv is a social thing and is best done with friends.