We tried something new in improv class last week (well, it’s really always new, all the time): improvising without music.
“How do you do that?” you ask, and rightfully so. “And why?”
We started off like this. Two players sat in chairs and faced each other. The instructions were to create a piece using only their hands.
Why: because many of the things that we are try to achieve improvising with our instruments can be done using hand gestures. Let’s see how many we can come up with (let me know what I missed):
As an improvising musician, I am not in the music business, I am not in the creativity business; I am in the surrender business. Improvisation is acceptance, in a single breath, of both transience and eternity. We know what might happen in the next day or minutes, but we cannot know what will happen. To the extent that we feel sure of what will happen, we lock in the future and insulate ourselves against those essential surprises. Surrender means cultivating a comfortable attitude toward not-knowing, being nurtured by the mystery of moments that are dependably surprising, ever fresh.
The quotes below are taken from an article by Adam Perlmutter entitled “iMPROV for Everyone”
Improvisation …is a practice that has most often been taught only in the context of jazz in the classroom. But it has actually been part of many more musical traditions, cultures, and periods. Classical icons like Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, revered for their composed masterworks, were all expert improvisers… around the world, from Bulgaria to Mali to India, improvisation is a central element of being a musician.
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.”
Videos of the trio (flute, violin, trombone) Prima Volta (UK). See also their web site - it has more videos & info plus a blog (“I stand by the simple fact that it takes more rehearsals to prepare an all improvisation concert than any other type of performance.”)
More principles of contemporary classical improvisation:
When you hear a good idea (from yourself or from someone else) while improvising, support it or relate to it in some way – just as you would in a good conversation with someone.
Creating music is not about right note/wrong note – it’s about imagination.
Silence is a very important part of making interesting music. Don’t forget not to play.
Practice with a partner as often as possible. A partner can challenge, inspire you, give you energy and motivation, and make you want to ‘show up’ and play more.
The best way to learn (nonjazz) improvisation is to do it – play and play, preferably with experienced partners who can model and advise and guide. Next to that (or along with that), it’s nice to not have to invent all the wheels yourself and have some books on the subject help you along.
The best ones to get (ahem) of course are mine (all published by GIA) Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians, Improv Games for One Player, Improv Duets, Improvised Chamber Music. But there are plenty of other books out there that you should consider looking at if you are interested in this subject. Here are some of them, not in any particular order:
Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play
William L. Cahn, Creative Music Making