Improv Course Begins, Spring 2014

Percussion mallets held with Matched Grip

Percussion mallets held with Matched Grip (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been giving a semester course in non jazz/classical improv for past dozen years. My first improv book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians was published by GIA in 2008 (354 p.); it was based on my experiences in the first five years of the course. Since then, GIA has published 4 more. I have amassed more games in an unpublished Vol. 2 of the big book; I hope to convince the publisher some day to publish all those as well.

In the meantime, the course goes on. This week was the start of school. The course is Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 11:45. I prefer this set-up – two longer sessions – than 50 min. 3X a week. 50 minutes is just not long enough – you just get going and it’s time to stop.

I do the course a bit different every year. I want to try new things, so a third to a fourth of the course is different every year. The first day of the course (last Tuesday) is just me talking – telling them all about this kind of improvisation and what we will be doing during the semester. After that, most of every hour is spent improvising.

I’m trying something new: sticks. I always start with about two weeks of Rhythm Only, to work up some percussion/rhythm chops and combat the pitch-centricity that tradiationally-trained players bring with them. We start by building up some basic rhythm skills through body percussion – tap, rap, slap your lap. This time I had everyone bring drumsticks. I thought that we should develop some basic sticking skills (along with hand drum skills) to add an extra dimension to our percussion work.

Following is a brief description of what we did in class today:

How to hold the sticks. Matched grip. Thumb on the flag. Flexible wrist.

Strike the pad alternating sticks: RLRL. Moderate tempo. Focus on being very consistent and precise. Feel the underlying pulse/beat/groove in your whole body, not just your right foot or (worse) in your head. Listen, feel; use the feedback to continually monitor each hit and keep it steady.

Add: dynamics. Alternate 4 loud hits with 4 soft hits. (as with every direction in these descriptions, do the instruction for a while – a minute or two or more – not just once and quit or move on).

Now: 2 and 2

Now: loud on R and soft on L

Loud on L and soft on R

4/4: RLRL – sharp accent on beat one. If you are left-handed, start with LRLR – we usually start sticking patterns with the dominant hand and then repeat with the nondominant hand, i.e. (for right-handed) first RLRL and then LRLR.

Continue to pay close attention to keep a very precise beat – tap tap tap tap.

Do this for a good while, first RLRL and then LRLR

Now: 3/4: RLR LRL  Accent the downbeat of each 3/4 measure. Make the accented notes loud and the unaccented notes soft.

Do this for a good while. Gradually get comfortable/familiar with this switch-off of accents.

Now: Alternate at will between 3/4 and 4/4. In class we also had two people playing 4/4 against two playing 3/4.


Next: Try other meters:



Clave 4/4: RLR RLR RL also LRL LRL LR

Now: repeat everything so far but at a faster tempo, still staying very precise about note placement in the beat.

Next: Repeat everything, but find a second timbre so that you have the option of alternating sounds/colors. Try using the 2nd timbre (some other material – we used small percussion instruments, but also chairs, chair legs, chair back, the floor, a music stand, whatever you have handy) for the accented notes. Then, as you try all the meters again, alternate timbres at will. Can you get comfortable putting either timbre anywhere?

Now: add dynamics. Switch off playing loud and soft at wil

As a group, we all did this together. We shared the same common pulse, sticking pattern (strict alternation), and continuous beats, but we were independent in choosing meters (patterns of accents), timbres, and dynamics. Then we added one more level: imitation.

We are doing two things at once most of the time when we improvise in this class: we are creating our own music as we go, but we are also having a ‘musical conversation’ with others, and as in a real conversation, you have to listen to the other person(s) and adapt your part to fit with theirs, so that there is variety between each part, but unity in the common beat and in the way players imitate what they hear others doing. If someone has a strong idea (which are usually very simple), imitate it, preferably immediately. We aim to be so good at this that when a strong idea appears in someone’s playing, it is immediately bounced around the room from player to player. Also remember that if you create a strong idea, you should imitate/echo yourself. Don’t just play it once; play it many times; although after a few times you can start adding variations to it.

So far we have done only straight alternation in sticking, all note values equal. Now we are going to still alternate, but we are going to add rhythms.

Play this now: bum tiddy bum tiddy bum (8th – two 16ths, etc.). Slow-Quick-Quick (SQQ).

Everyone plays together, exploring everything they have done so far, but adding this new rhythm to the mix.

Do this for a good while.

Now add one more rhythm: instead of slow – quick quick, change it to Quick Quick Slow (16th 16th 8th).

A good while…

A new one: now you may play four (or more) 16ths in a row, instead of just two. Quick Quick Quick Quick. Everyone play together, use everything we have done so far. A good while. Get comfortable with all these choices.

Now: a game. Pick a number between 2 and 13. Get the steady default alternating sticking beat going. Count the numbers to yourself, one number per stick hit. Every time you get to 1, play an accent. This makes an interesting combination in a group because usually everyone has picked a different number. When you are comfortable with this sticking pattern, pick a new number and start over. Get comfortable with both higher and lower numbers. Variation: repeat, but use your 2nd timbre on 1 instead of just an accent.


Repeat the game with this variation: instead of an accent on 1, leave 1 silent.

Repeat the game again, this time alternate regularly or irregularly at will between playing an accent on 1 (with either timbre) and being silent on 1. Do some of both. Remember to keep listening to everyone, i.e. the sound of the whole group.

New: Syncopation. Short-Long-Long-Long-Short (e.g. a measure of syncopated 4/4).

Throw in some notes that are between the beats.

Now: free play. Everyone plays together as before, but uses at will all the material learned so far.

A very good while on this. Listen, steal/imitate/echo a lot. Get familiar with all this percussion vocabulary/moves.

Final game: Instead of the steady beats all the time, get sparse. Rest much more than you play. If you play a number of notes at a time, rest that much longer. Work on being able to NOT play for longer periods of time. The tricky part is to keep the beat very strictly when  you are NOT playing. The beat continues precisely whether you are playing or not playing. If you are adding, say, one 8th note on a weak beat, take great care that it very precisely placed. Resist the temptation to play too much (which you will very likely do anyway) – experience what it is like to have the supreme discipline to play very little. Remember to continue to experiment with timbres, dynamics, rhythms, meters, syncopation, and especially imitation.

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