Improv Games of the Day: Forever Young!

Nobody makes it alone. We all need teachers, mentors, friends, and community to help us through life. We also need a lot of hard work, passion, and some luck to make it, but all that won’t be enough without a little help from our friends, to coin a phrase.

Case in point: I have always worked hard, been passionate in my pursuits, and had more than my share of luck along the way, but more than any of that I have been blessed with knowing some remarkable, talented, and generous people along the way. I have known a number of them; among the most recent have been pianist/composer Evan Mazunik (without whom I never would have gotten anywhere in my improv interests; we’ve done 2 CDs, many concerts and workshops, and my improv class led to two improv books (with three more soon to be published) – I owe Evan a truly Rushmore-sized debt of gratitude, and Charles Rochester Young, award-winning composer, conductor, saxophonist, and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I had several very creative horn grad students who hailed from UWSP, and when I asked how they got so creative, they just kept repeating one name over and over. So I called him up and we hit it off immediately. I went to meet him at the next opportunity, and as I remember it, we talked for about three days without stopping. I hadn’t written the book yet, but I bounced the ideas for it off him continuously until the manuscript was ready, and then he gave it a thorough reading and made many suggestions for improvement.

Mt. Rushmore

(Photo credit: Paul and Christa)

Charles Young has won many awards for his work as an educator and composer, but the part of him that interested me the most was his belief that all music students should have experience with composition and improvisation. Since he is head of the Theory/Composition Dept., he put his money where his mouthpiece is and made it a requirement that all students take his Musicianship course, which is about 2/3s composition and 1/3 improvisation. Once or twice a year he sends me CDs of the recorded compositions that these students produce. These are “ordinary” music students, very few of them composition majors, very few of whom ever composed or improvised before. But the music that they create is both beautiful and amazing. Just think of all the voices of music students and musicians everywhere – all silent. Except for the rare few who are lucky enough to have mentors like Charles Young. (as far as I know, UWSP is one of only two schools in the country that require all music students to take an improvisation course – the other is at the University of Northern Florida with Gary Smart (see earlier posts about Prof. Smart)).

What I would like to do in CY’s honor today is to pass on a few of his improv games. Enjoy!

Basketball Piece

Materials needed: music paper, pen or pencil, trash can

4+ players. Class forms a circle with chairs around the trash can. Compose as much as possible for 2 minutes. No stopping, no erasing, no crossing out. When the time is up, crumple up the paper and toss in the trash can. Repeat. Repeat again. Do it all with a smile on your face.

Variation: Crumple and toss after each page. Do 3, 4, or 5 pages.

Quantity is King

4+ players. Write as many notes as you can in 1 minute. No stopping, no erasing, no crossing out allowed. Repeat in various keys and scale types.

Write Something You Can Sing 

1 player. You have 1 minute. Write a melody that you can easily sight sing. Now you have 30 seconds: write words to the melody. Theme: things you see or do on a farm (or any other topic of your choice). The words do not have to rhyme or make sense together.

Variation Game 

4 players. Compose 8 bars (1 or 2 systems). Pass the paper to the composer to the right to you and take the paper of the composer to the left of you. Write a variation of the first 8 bars. Continue for six variations.

Dare to Be Bad 

1 player. Write as badly as you can for 2 minutes. Break as many rules as possible. No stopping, keep the pen (preferred) or pencil going at all times. Take the result home and frame it.

Duet for One 

1 player. Piano is highly suggested for this one (but it also works for guitar, strings, mallet percussion, etc.) – improvise on the piano and sing exactly the same line in unison. Experiment with leaps, syncopations, repetition of motifs, and other challenges.

Go Wild aka Extreme Improv

2-4 players. Choose an affect. Be extreme – high/low, slow/fast, soft/loud. Nothing halfway! Don’t dip your toe in the water – cannonball! Don’t be hungry – be starving! Don’t light a match – use a flamethrower! Exaggerate to get your point across, to be absolutely clear about what you intend.

Trading Fours 

2 players. It is a common procedure in jazz to trade off improvisation every four (or two or eight) bars. With some kind of rhythmic accompaniment, trade fours with a partner. Keep the rhythmic flow going without any gaps or glitches. Variation: trade 2s or 8s.

Also: click here for links to his inspiring articles on improv and composition.