Semester Course in Improvisation for Classical Musicians

The first time I gave a semester course in improvisation for classical (traditionally trained) musicians (8? 9? years ago), it was half jazz oriented, half nonjazz. The experiment didn’t really work: it was too much jazz for those who didn’t want to work on jazz, and not enough jazz for those who did. The next year the problem was solved: separate courses for both.

The content of this semester course has varied every year as I learn from the last course and get new ideas for the next one. Probably one-third to half the course is new/different every year. Teaching improv to classical players in college is still very new and methods and procedures for it are still experimental and have not (yet?!) ossified as the old 19th-century oriented music curriculum in place most everywhere has, and alleluia for that.

There are, nevertheless, some procedures and principles that remain the same in teaching a course in this kind of improvisation, and I’d like to share some of those with you so that you don’t have to completely re-invent the wheel when you give your improv course (and be sure to get back to me with stuff that worked for you that I missed).

Size Matters.  The ideal size for a class is probably 8 to 12, although 4 to 8 can work just fine. Groups larger than 12 or maybe 16 become problematic; it’s easier for both improviser and teacher if the groups are small, but you want to keep everyone as active as possible. The ideal size for an improvising group is two – then each player gets to solo about half the time and solo half the time. The larger the group [of novice improvisers], the less each person gets to play, and the more difficult it is to shape the outcome with so many “deciders.” Advanced groups can be larger because the players have (theoretically) learned to be silent and/or spontaneously break into smaller groups much of the time. It’s different with beginners. I spend the first week trying to get everyone to play and the rest of the semester trying to get them to shut up. They quickly learn that improv is both fun and easy and want to play all the time. Disciplined not-playing is tough and takes time.

At the beginning it’s good to do whole-group improv to get everyone playing and not feel singled out or self-conscious, and, to that end, Soundpainting (more later on this) is ideal: you (the conductor) make a general suggestion (e.g. long tone) on what to play and the player makes the specific choice. Players can learn up to, say, 20 gestures in two hours or so. We spend a lot of time with SP in the beginning and use some to begin most classes throughout the semester.

The other possibility is to break the class (assuming it’s larger than 4) into smaller units: duos, trios, quartets, sextets, octets and alternate small group pieces with pieces for the whole group. If you have multiple rooms available, you could send smaller groups to different rooms to work on their own. Otherwise, you could have the small groups play one at a time with the rest of the group being audience.

•Debriefing. After every piece, have a time for comments. The first thing to ask afterward is “What just happened?” Players usually have to learn how to listen – in a new way. It is often astonishing how little they can remember of a piece they just played, but acute perceptive listening and remembering what was played are essential to effective improvisation and can be developed with practice. Answering “What Happened” is without judgment (it’s not particularly useful to say that one liked the piece or not); it is simply a listing of who did what when. If players have to reconstruct what was played every time, they get used to listening and remembering more. After that, the question is “What could we have done better? What opportunities could we have taken advantage of? What didn’t we do? What elements were weak? Was there a balance of unity (things are the same, predictable) and variety (things are different, unpredictable)? Usual elements that need improvement are:

Unity/Variety balance. Unity = predictable; Variety = unpredictable. Ideal is 50/50.

Texture or density. Usually everyone plays too much. Almost all players need to build in more periods of silence in order to let other timbres and densities come through, as well as to listen intently to what the piece needs.

Rhythm. The regularity of the pulse is often too flexible; players joining an established beat pay too little attention to it. Most classical musicians have only a vague sense of where the pulse is, especially while they are soloing. Also, us classical types are obsessed with pitches – more is better! We somehow feel that we need to lay down a blizzard of notes to be good improvisers. Uh uh. An easy way to make a satisfying improvisation is to use few pitches but interesting rhythms.

Too many ideas. Too many ideas sounds like a conversation about every entry in a dictionary. Talk about one thing for a while; develop it, elaborate on it.

Contrast. Sometimes groups establish a very interesting beginning of a piece (rhythm, motif) and then seem powerless to play anything else. At some point (before an audience would become restless at the predictability), the group needs to go on to a sharply contrasting section.

Timbre. Another form of contrast is timbre. Players often need to be reminded to use their considerable timbral resources to provide interest and variety, especially extended techniques.

Form. Groups need to remember what they did first so they can return to it. ABA is a simple form, but very satisfying for the audience.

Take notes. You (the instructor) should make notes on pieces as they are played – who, what, when. Even sketchy notes help supply details on what happened, which helps discussions (they don’t call it short term memory for nothing). Those not performing at the time should do the same.

•Recording. Record everything if you can, both in class and in concert. Digital flash recorders make this very easy these days. Play back recordings of the more interesting stuff for discussion, and play back all of any concerts the next day. You can also give recordings to the students via email or CDs. The aural feedback from recordings is a great learning experience and essential to the process.

•Percussion. Two thoughts: 1) You can add percussion to almost any piece. For instance, although most of the games in the Big Book don’t specify it, you can still add some kind of percussion to the piece: 1, 2, 3, 4, even more players depending on what they play. This is a great way to keep more players active, have everyone work on their rhythmic sense and ability, and to make the piece more interesting. The larger the number of players, the more subtle the percussion can and should be. You don’t need, for instance, 5 cowbells, but you can put a whole room full of people to work percussioning if they simply make a “shhhhhhh” sound or rub their hands together. 2) Start building up a collection of small percussion instruments that you can bring to improv classes and/or have students do the same. Shakers, maracas, claves, tambourines, etc are good. Hand drums are a plus (bongos, dombek, bongos), as are tongue (or slit) drums. I have about 4 duffle bags full of this kind of stuff. You can, however, also or instead of that use “found” percussion – stuff from home (kitchen, garage, office) that can make some kind of noise. And, simplest and cheapest, are vocal sounds/mouth noises and body percussion (clap, slap, tap, rap, snap). Mix and match! Do a lot of work on rhythms at the beginning of the term. Start learning basic hand drum skills (see the Big Book p. 77-78). Encourage them to turn the world into a percussion instrument and rap and tap all day long. If you have never done any percussion, learn right along with them. Western musical culture has long suppressed the power of rhythm, but you don’t have to. Learn to speak rhythm, feel it in your whole body, not just your right foot. Dance the music. Rhythm is Earth Mother of music. Get some deep in your musical soul, not just pasted on. Join a drum circle or start one. Rhythm is suspect in classical music because it feels good in the body; it is Dionysian, not Apollonian. We need both. Discover boogie and feel better fast!

Sorry, my rhythm rant kind of got away from me. But you get the idea.

There are more thoughts on the semester course, but this post is long enough for now. More later. Stay tuned…