Last week was very busy; I gave lectures, presentations, and led improv games at the Arizona State University (John Ericson was the perfect host), then came back home (after a lot of airline delays) to segue into a tour with the Iowa Brass Quintet in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois (no improv there, unless you count the little jazz cadenza I got to do in our Porgy and Bess medley). Then came a three-day residency at the University of North Dakota (which still has huge piles of snow…) where I did in equal measure brass and improv workshops and presentations. Great people there, great attitudes – lots of new BFFs. Many thanks to my wonderful UND host, Kayla Nelson.
I got to do two improv concerts. The first one was partly based around something new to me. Dr. Mike Witgraaf had me play into a microphone; then he processed the sound with a software program (KYMA) and effected further changes using two hand-held Wii (the game) controllers via Bluetooth. The result was played through speakers, which mixed with my live sound. You can listen to the results here
1 http://youtu.be/k4F-ELZD4Yo 4:05
2 http://youtu.be/NwRogbxIbyM 4:07
3 http://youtu.be/lFBQV7wQXsI 5:59
4 http://youtu.be/sRMazAfJVeM 4:53
The second concert was also a lot of fun. I started off with a Daily Arkady (just start playing and see what happens). Then came an improv trio – me, Jim Popejoy on vibes, and a student djembe player (her name escapes me now to my great embarrassment, but she played wonderfully). We just did the classical improv thing – start playing, listen to each other, adjust/adapt to have a balance of unity and variety (the predictable and the unpredictable). Man, that was fun. We finished up with a Soundpainting. The ensemble had just learned about 30 or so SP gestures earlier in the day, but they did terrific on such short notice.
In the third improv (regular readers of this blog know that I mean classical improv, not jazz improv, not theatrical improv, and that by classical improv I don’t mean improvising as they did in the Classical Era, I mean improvising with your own voice as a classical musician) class, we did a review of the last session – using sticks (on cardboard, on padded chairs, on notebooks, etc.) to acquire basic skills in control – steady pulse, adding accents (duple, triple, clave), dynamics, basic rhythms, free mix-and-match, density (from lots of notes to lots of rests), imitate (what you hear others play), add multiple timbres (hit something different to get a different color). It is a lot of variables when you add them all up when we get to the free play sessions, but they did well. We stressed that the most important part of this is listening. It’s great to add variety to your free sticking, but listen to the group: imitate the ideas of others and stick (pun intended) to the beat; if you hear the group getting ragged, simplify, go back to the steady 8th notes without an accent. Listen to yourself; continually adjust, adapt, and (re)calibrate. It’s easy to feel like you are riding an effortless, continuous stream of notes, but we need to stay alert to what is happening every second and make micro-adjustments. Paying attention is important. Don’t let the brain turn dull as soon as it perceives a pattern (e.g. regular sticking) and fall asleep.
Although we haven’t officially gotten into it yet, I added some Soundpainting (see www.soundpainting.com) gestures that seemed appropriate: the Density Fader, Volume Fader, Finish Your Idea, Exit.
I’ve been giving a semester course in non jazz/classical improv for past dozen years. My first improv book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians was published by GIA in 2008 (354 p.); it was based on my experiences in the first five years of the course. Since then, GIA has published 4 more. I have amassed more games in an unpublished Vol. 2 of the big book; I hope to convince the publisher some day to publish all those as well.
In the meantime, the course goes on. This week was the start of school. The course is Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10:30 to 11:45. I prefer this set-up – two longer sessions – than 50 min. 3X a week. 50 minutes is just not long enough – you just get going and it’s time to stop.
I do the course a bit different every year. I want to try new things, so a third to a fourth of the course is different every year. The first day of the course (last Tuesday) is just me talking – telling them all about this kind of improvisation and what we will be doing during the semester. After that, most of every hour is spent improvising.
I’m trying something new: sticks. I always start with about two weeks of Rhythm Only, to work up some percussion/rhythm chops and combat the pitch-centricity that tradiationally-trained players bring with them. We start by building up some basic rhythm skills through body percussion – tap, rap, slap your lap. This time I had everyone bring drumsticks. I thought that we should develop some basic sticking skills (along with hand drum skills) to add an extra dimension to our percussion work.
Following is a brief description of what we did in class today:
New discovery (for me): the Sirius [string] Quartet. From their web site:
“Born and bred in the downtown scene of New York City, the Sirius Quartet blends the precision of classical music with the energy of a rock band. The four conservatory-trained musicians are also highly skilled improvisers. Whether playing acoustically or with electronic effects they push beyond the conventional sonic vocabulary associated with string instruments. From Lincoln Center and the Köln Triennale to the Knitting Factory and CBGB’s the Sirius makes itself at home in a wide range of venues and musical styles.
For over a decade the SIRIUS QUARTET has championed innovative music. Expanding beyond the classical repertoire, these four strong improvisers and composers have enjoyed performing works influenced by rock, jazz, and other popular styles. Through this interest in popular music the Sirius has developed a repertoire of electronic music for strings. These pieces are more than simply a louder, amplified quartet; these pieces hope to widen the sonic palate of the string quartet through processing.”
Here’s a video of a performance:
A recent article on the site of the Imperial College of London declares “Brain study suggests classical musicians should improvise.”
Amen to that fair prayer.
There is an accompanying video (6:03) – you should read the article and watch the video.
In case you don’t have time, here’s the gist: Researchers at the Imperial College and the Guildhall School of Music wired up 3 musicians and 2 audiences members to record brain response.
The players played a classical piece twice; once playing the ink, once improvising on it.
Result, in a nutshell: the brains of everyone were more engaged during the improvised performances than during the non improvised performances.
The article concludes with a sentence I really like:
[to help classical music deal with declining audiences] “By incorporating improvisation into classical musical concerts, musicians will create a unique event that will be both engaging and captivating.”
I think I will put that in needlepoint…
PS: There will be more details on the study in the Music Performance Research journal soon.
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):