New Semester: Improvisation for Classical Musicians

English: Frozen trees on New Year's eve, Kapot...

It’s ice rain outside this morning. Little pea-sized drops of ice falling, coating everything. The sound like ten thousand cricket-sized snare drums, little tap tap taps. The road is a skating rink. I really need to go to the gym. Looks like I will be trying out the Wii this morning…

On the other hand, it’s a great time to start getting caught up on all the stuff I have to tell you. One thing is my improv class. Spring semester I teach Improvisation for Classical musicians. I’ve been doing this for about a dozen years. Every year is a little different as I try new ideas, shuffle things around, adjust the activities, and so on.

I have six brave souls signed up this spring: clarinet, piano, bassoon, trumpet, and 2 string basses (first ever in this class). Several double on other instruments. In this class versatility is part of the course. Everyone plays 1) their instrument 2) piano 3) percussion (small perc., body, found) 4) mouth/vocal sound/text, sometimes several in the same piece.


(Photo credit: Boleigh)

I have started the semester for years with two things: rhythm and Soundpainting. Rhythm, because 1) it’s fun 2) you can start being creative without worrying about pitches (we classical sorts are very hung up on conflating lots of pitches and interesting improv, but you can make some very interesting improvisations using very few pitches [even no pitches] if you can invest it with rhythmic pizzazz).

But we did it a little different this year. The first class was just about all talk – me telling them about what we’re doing this semester. Session #2 was all rhythm. Last year we did some rhythm, some Soundpainting. I decided to concentrate on rhythm this year for the whole period (75 min.), so I passed out various drums (djembe, dombek, bongos, etc.). We were one short, so one person had to play a music stand (turned horizontal). We traded off at semi-regular intervals to have experiences on the different kinds of percussion.

We start off working on a steady beat – RLRL. Establishing and maintaining a really steady, consistent pulse is not a gimme. It takes focus, concentration, and continual small adjustments to avoid ‘beat drift’ in the group and – the common cold of novice percussionists in groups – speeding up.

What was nice here was that we could keep the beat going but add new skills along the way. Accents every 4 beats. 2 beats. 3 beats. No accent. Add silences (but keep the beat!). Add a rhythm (bum tiddy bum tiddy bum). Take a solo. Pick someone across from you and play only when they play. Play really loud! Really soft! Mix it up. Keep the beat! Don’t speed up. Switch instruments!

We kept it up the whole time. We did one thing different the last few minutes – we gathered around a grand piano and turned it into a very large percussion instrument – an interesting way to explore timbres, rhythm, and group interaction.

I forgot to introduce the clave beat (3 + 3 + 2), but we can do that next time. I think we’ll start with more group percussion. Then go to AMAPFALAP on their instruments. And then finish with a first taste of Soundpainting.

I’ll keep you posted. Let me know if you have any comments or questions – they always inspire the discussion.

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