Teaching Improvisation with Matt Van Brink

MattVanBrink2Every so often I receive an echo from improv people out there in the real world who are making it happen, changing lives, translating theory into practice, discovering new stuff, experimenting, teaching, learning. I recently got a wonderful note from one of these folks: Matt Van Brink of the Concordia Conservatory of Music & Art of Bronxville NY who passes along in detail some of his recent improv adventures. With his permission and to extend the learning of us all I reprint his letter here. Thanks, Matt!

Dear Jeff —

I just wanted to let you know how great it was to use your book during my two-week summer composition and songwriting intensive [ http://goo.gl/0CZuPC ] this past August. I had a group of twelve students, ages 10-17, some who had written compositions before, some who hadn’t, but all of whom chose to spend two weeks working on new pieces. By the end of the camp, each student had composed a short piece and presented it in what turned out to be an impressive and heartwarming concert. Two students wrote songs that they played and sang themselves and the rest composed instrumental works.

But since there are many, many hours to fill during this 9-5 Monday to Friday camp, we have a nice opportunity for play, which I strategically put at the beginning of the day. I’d like to share with you the daily schedule, since the improv component fit in at the perfect time of day for it.

Part 1, from 9:00 AM – 12:00 PM: Stretching & alignment, Improvisation & games, a short break, theory, and deep listening (whose playlists I would improvise).

Then after lunch, Part 2, from 12:00 PM – 5:00 PM: Clausura I (individual work on their pieces in the practice rooms), Kickball and running around, Canons & chorales, Clausura II or guest musicians, and a short warm-down at the end of the day.

For improv hour, I had them bring their instruments, so we had a nice motley assemblage of clarinets, guitars, singers, pianists, and a saxophone. And everyone took a turn on the Orff marimba and had a go inside the piano. The students loved almost every game that I presented to them. We started out on the first day with “what’s in a name” and it was a huge hit. We discovered a few of us had names whose syllables and stresses matched, so we even tried one’s tune with the other’s name. It was really playful and set the tone well for the improv segment for the next two weeks.

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Improv Class #3, Spring 2014

Cover of "Free Play: Improvisation in Lif...

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.

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Improv Game of the Day: The Hands Tell a Story

My photos that have a creative commons license...

2 players. Two players sit in chairs facing each other. The game: construct a piece using hand and arm gestures only. Although this game is without sound, the principles of improvisation are the same: come up with a strong idea, repeat that idea, embellish or ornament it, develop that idea in all the ways that you might develop a melodic idea.

Suggestions: Respond to what your partner is doing – steal (imitate) their ideas, integrate them with your own, be inspired by your partners ideas. Remember to be silent (i.e. motionless) sometimes. Create ostinatos (repeated gestures) as accompaniments to solos. Take a solo – be imaginative!

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Interval Improv Game – Recording by Nate Trier

Nate Trier has a blog on topics in improvisation and composition that you should definitely visit. I was just there and found that he has two recordings of improv games from my book Improv Games for One Musician (GIA, 2009, 50 p.). The first game is a duet (2:39) for sax (David Elkin-Ginnetti)  and some kind of keyboard sound (Nate); titled Atonal Interval Warm-Up, where the performers are limited to certain intervals. Here they chose M7/m7, #4, M/m2nds.

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Improv Game of the Day: Body Composing

Marlon's real-time movement composition workshop

(Photo credit: KidzConnect)

6+ players in a fairly big space. This game is makes a great warm-up for improv sessions, and is good way to introduce players to the idea of making compositional choices (something classical players don’t get to do ordinarily) – no worries about pitch mistakes, the bugaboo of novice classical improvisers.

Players move from one side of the room to the other, using any movements of arms and legs they choose; the movements are compositional choices. Make several compositions; make them very different.

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Improv Quote of the Day: Good ––> Outstanding


Improvisation (Photo credit: Dave Kleinschmidt)

[Improvisation] training will develop the skills that separate a player who is outstanding from one who is merely good. Some musicians argue that there is no real need for improvisation training in the world of today’s classical musician, since most players are not called upon to improvise in a performance setting… Then again, most musicians don’t have to sight-sing every day, but is still required in most colleges and conservatories because we know that the learning process involved in this study makes out students better musicians.

–Nicole M. Brockmann, From Sight to Sound: Improvisational Games for Classical Musicians