Notes on Improv Class: Valentines Day ’13

The 3-2 clave rhythm, common in salsa music, i...

A couple more notes on our activities in this semesters improv class (Improvisation for Classical Musicians)…

We started out with a lot of rhythm. Classical musicians focus mostly on pitches; rhythm is a stepchild as far as the quantity and quality that we focus on it. So we learn basic percussion/rhythm skills: tapping (either body percussion or small percussion or drums) duple, triple, and mixed accent groups, plus some basic rhythms: Long Short Short (LSS), SSL, SLS, taking rhythm solos.

The first composition is a Bricolage piece: each person brings something from home that makes some kind of noise. Each person in turn selects four players and teaches them each a different ostinato rhythm. Then all play together. The conductor/composer indicates a soloist (one at a time), who then plays anything they want. After everyone has had a turn, all return to their ostinatos. The piece ends with a sharp unison “hit.”

Improv Games Book CoverOne thing I did fairly early this time is adding form to rhythm compositions. One day I assigned everyone to a trio; each trio then had about a minute to plan a rhythm piece. There was one stipulation: the form had to be ABA: do something. Do something different. Then return to the first something. We discussed the various ways to make a contrast between the sections (tempo, key, dynamics, articulation, chord progression, timbre, density (of notes), and so on). They did a good job; I will remember in the future to bring form into improvisation earlier than I have been doing it.

The past couple times we have gotten into Soundpainting, learning the basic gestures. Today they “composed” a SP piece by making a list of a dozen or so gestures that they know.

Today is Valentine’s Day, but we didn’t make any pieces specifically for this day. But almost: we are moving from focus on rhythm to focus on melody. We talked about what elements might go into making a good melody. In music school we play a lot of other people’s melodies, but they never ask us what we think makes a good melody or to be able to make up our own melodies. I’ll pass along findings after the next class.

We did a technique exercise today: using the Circle of 5ths (descending: C F Bb Eb Ab Db F# B E A D G – each key is the dominant of the following key) to acquiring (approximately equal) familiarity/facility in all keys. We went around it in unison on our instruments (without writing down the succession) like this:

1. 4 quarter notes

2. 3 quarter notes

3. 2 quarter notes

4. 1 quarter note (you get through it very fast this way)

5. Scale steps 1 and 2 (played 1212)

6. Repeat, change articulation ad lib.

7. Repeat, change rhythm back and forth ad lib.

8. Play 3 notes: scale steps 1 2 3, played in 8th notes 1 2 3 2 (repeat for 4 beats)

9. Ditto, played 1 2 3 with rhythm quarter quarter half

10. Play major triad 1 3 5 3 (slurred)

11. Play major triad, ascending only  – 1 3 5

We often repeated each of these to acquire a bit more familiarity.

Assignment for next time: be able to play Mary had a Little Lamb in all 24 major and minor keys. And then mess around (technical term) in each key.

If you have a class on improv, I would love to hear about what you do and what order you do it.

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