Jeff and Lin, Part 4
It’s ice rain outside this morning. Little pea-sized drops of ice falling, coating everything. The sound like ten thousand cricket-sized snare drums, little tap tap taps. The road is a skating rink. I really need to go to the gym. Looks like I will be trying out the Wii this morning…
On the other hand, it’s a great time to start getting caught up on all the stuff I have to tell you. One thing is my improv class. Spring semester I teach Improvisation for Classical musicians. I’ve been doing this for about a dozen years. Every year is a little different as I try new ideas, shuffle things around, adjust the activities, and so on.
I have six brave souls signed up this spring: clarinet, piano, bassoon, trumpet, and 2 string basses (first ever in this class). Several double on other instruments. In this class versatility is part of the course. Everyone plays 1) their instrument 2) piano 3) percussion (small perc., body, found) 4) mouth/vocal sound/text, sometimes several in the same piece.
Today is the next-to-last class in my Creativity in Music class. CiM is for non(music)majors and it’s about where music comes from, that is, improvisation and composition. There are two lectures a week on some aspect of composition and one workshop session in smaller groups (about 14 or so) where we improvise. Improvisation takes place with what we have – the only instrument available is the upright piano – which is 1) body percussion 2) mouth noises 3) vocal sounds 4) room percussion (table, desktops, wastebasket [as a drum]) 5) found percussion (stuff brought from home that makes noise: pots & pans, ibuprofen bottle half filled with dry rice, any number of things). It’s plenty to come up with something. The last half of the semester they are assigned to quartets (“bands”), which they name themselves. Typically, I have a band come up to the front and give them from 8 to 15 seconds to plan the next piece, which has certain restrictions (“Clapping only.” “Feet only.” “Mouth noises and vocal sounds.” “Everyone on piano, but only 2 notes each.”). They put something together quickly and then perform it – a mixture of improv and composition (i.e. planning). Pieces are generally about a minute long or so. Then we discuss what just happened. This is harder that it sounds, apparently, but they are getting better at it. Instant aural analysis. Today is something on a larger scale, and outside the classroom.
I spend two weeks every summer on the faculty of the Kendall Betts Horn Camp in the wilds (sort of) of New Hampshire. It is wall to wall, dawn to beyond dusk horn: masterclasses, lessons, ensembles, presentations, concerts, and – at the end – ice cream and fireworks. The best of all this is
simply being around 50 or so passionate horn players of every stripe, novice to pro, young and old, from all corners of the country and sometimes the globe. It’s so much fun to talk horn and do horn ’round the clock for two intense weeks. This summer was perhaps the best ever (of course, it seems like that every summer). Although I wrote the book on it (Improv Games for Classical Musicians), my usual daily teaching life back home consists of solos, etudes, and orchestral excerpts. At KBHC I get to stretch out (3 hours every morning! Beats the heck out of the Procrustean 50 minute segments that school days are chopped up into) into topics of technique and musicianship, as well as to have some fun with improv. For faculty performance night, I usually try to come up with something unusual (i.e. improv-esque). This time I did three short improvisations with a little help from my friends.
I have a great idea whose time is overdue: making YouTube videos of improv games from my book. It’s high time to put my money where my mouthpiece is and start making and posting video examples of the games so that if you’re new to classical improv, you can have some idea what’s possible (of course you can buy my CDs as well for that ; > ). I hope to enlist some of my current and past improv students to help out, but what would really be peachy would be to have you, dear reader, join in.
I don’t think it will ever happen that we get a video for every single game, but what would be great would be to have a video from as many categories as possible; also have multiple videos of the some of the more basic and/or more popular games – what I mean is having several versions of the same game to show how different they can be. Or have the same group (or person) do the same game several times, showing the diversity possible. In classical music, the challenge is to do it exactly the same every time. In creative/improvised music, the challenge is to do it differently every time. Just had a brilliant improvisation? Great! Don’t do it again – next time do something completely different.
At this point I have no idea how to upload a video to YouTube, but it can’t be that hard. I will have to learn as I go. At the moment I am in the throes of preparation for fall. I have one sort-of new class, Creativity in Music, about where music comes from i.e. improvisation and composition for nonmajors (50 count em 50) and one freshman seminar: Weird Music. I taught CiM last year for the first time – it was a lot of work to put together (there is no textbook for something like this the way there is for your typical music appreciation course), but terrific fun and very enriching. And of course, planning horn studio activities for the year (some of those may show up in my other blog).
But the future is internet. And video. Time to join this century and learn how to do it. And thereby make access to the vast fun and benefits of improvisation easier for those out there who would like to jump in but don’t exactly know what they’re getting into.
If you’re doing some improv, consider doing the same: videoing it, posting it on YouTube, and sending me the link so I can post it here.
And while we’re at it, how about photos? If you have some fascinating pix of yourselves deep in improv, send one/some or a link.
This is getting back (or to) the one of the original main purposes of this blog – to become a center for sharing what we’ve (improvising classical musicians) done, what we know, what we think. Hopes and dreams.
Put the idea on a back burner. Heck, how about a front burner. And send ‘em in!
One great thing about horn camp is that you have time to do all sorts of things that you seldom get the chance to shoehorn in the narrow time slots available to you back at school. I luxuriated in the three hours we had at KBHC (Kendall Betts Horn Camp) every morning to get deep into various topics (my favorite topic this summer was constructing a thread to organize all of horn technique in a progressive way, using video games as one model…). Also fun were the “Open Studios” that were special times when the faculty member could visit other topics and participants could switch from their regular routines to sample the various offerings. My open studios were on Classical Improv, and attendance was the greatest ever. We had a lot of fun working on horn technique and musicality in the context of classical improvisation. I was delighted to work with some wonderfully talented folks, especially high schooler Nikki La Bonte, who, in spite of being a novice at this, instantly seemed to acquire a very experienced ear, which is often a great challenge to classical players – they have to listen in a very different way than they are used to, and quickly understand what they hear and respond. Kudos, Nikki! I also had the pleasure of jamming with Ian Mayton (college sophomore from the U of NC-Greensborough, a student of my friend and colleague Abigail Pack), who was a terrific jamming partner as we made stuff up for about an hour (I also enlisted him to join me in an improvisation on stage that very night. He didn’t hesitate and did great).
While the language [of improvised speech] itself may lack the precision of an edited reply, the value lies in its freshness and authenticity. We all know what a canned lecture sounds like. Real speech (improvised speech) will always be more interesting, attention-getting, and persuasive than its scripted sister.
– Patricia Ryan Madson, Improv Wisdom