In our improv class everyone has to be ready to improvise on their main instrument, percussion (small percussion, body percussion, mouth noises, found objects, etc.), voice (sung or spoken), and piano. How can you improvise on something that is not your main instrument? Easy: as long as you can make any kind sound on anything, you simply create using rhythms. You can always go to AMAPFALAP (As Much As Possible From As Little As Possible). One pitch is enough.
Classical musicians who are beginners at this kind of improvisation often have a hard time because their upbringing has been highly pitch-centric. They feel that if they don’t use lots and lots of pitches that they can’t improvise, or that they can’t match the idea they have in their heads about what someone of their age/level should be able to do. Pitch-centricity kills; they are quickly embarrassed (not being perfect, not being instantly expert in a skill they have never practiced – go figure) and are quick to quit. So we do a lot of rhythm at the beginning of the semester. Pitch centricity, written notation centricity has left classical musicians with a very weak sense of pulse and rhythm. So we address that right away. A couple weeks is not enough, of course, but it’s a start. The main thing we try to accomplish is to introduce them to the idea of using rhythms to create music and not worry about pitch yet. It helps cure the paralysis easily induced by the Pitch Perfect Syndrome. So we do rhythms plus one pitch. Then two. Then three. Then more. Easy does it.
Back to another question that arises from everyone having to be ready to switch from different instruments. Everyone else has to switch to piano at some point. What about the pianist?
What we did the other day in class was to make the pianist, Matt, play duets with the other players. Except that he had to play their instruments (well, he had to make a sound on the other instrument). And they had to accompany him on piano. He was a good sport and the results were a lot of fun. Everyone had to abandon pitch centricity and make lemonade out of the lemon limitations on technique by focussing on rhythm. Matt’s instruments (all new to him): bassoon, tuba, flute, and horn. The most difficult for him was flute, but he made interesting rhythms with air sounds anyway, and after a while, he started making an actual flute sound. Hmmm. Food for thought: what if we did more of this with actual beginners on instruments?