Notes on Improv Class: Valentines Day ’13

The 3-2 clave rhythm, common in salsa music, i...

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.”

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New Semester: Improvisation for Classical Musicians

English: Frozen trees on New Year's eve, Kapot...

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.

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Last class! : <

Masters of Chant Chapter II

I didn’t even realize it until it was over this morning: it was our last classical improv class of the semester. Sigh. Great group this semester, good ears, lots of satisfying choices. Some fear, still, of “mistakes” (it’s hard to set aside all that classical training for an hour when you’ve been doing it so long), but great imaginations.

What did we do on the last day?

Before I came to school this morning I had been rummaging around some old notebooks and found some scribbled notes on various masterclasses and was typing them into more organized files in the computer. One of them was an improv masterclass given by jazz French hornist Marshall Sealy. He said that everyone should be able to play a plaintive chant-like piece in a minor key on their instrument. So we started with that.

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Improv games that we’ve been playing in class lately

Mosaic dels gladiadors (detall): músics tocant...

(Photo credit: Sebastià Giralt)

Accompaniment Interval (described in a recent post in this blog). We had some interesting combinations: #1: piano: minor 3rd + tuba: tritone. The bassoon soloed over this. #2: Tuba: minor 3rd. Bassoon: Perfect 5th. Flute solo. #3: Bassoon: Whole step. Flute: Perfect 4th. Horn solo. #4: Flute: major 3rd. Horn Perfect 4th. Trumpet solo.

Atonal/Beautiful. The idea was to be as atonal as possible while making the music as beautiful as possible. Beauty + Beast. It makes an interesting discussion to figure out what can we do to make something sound beautiful (in spite of beastly pitch sequences)?

This idea worked well when we added styles:

Atonal March

Carribean rhythms

Atonal Fanfare

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Tips for Your Improv Class

Since teaching this type of classical improvisation is relatively new, instructors of a semester course have the simultaneous advantage and disadvantage of few precedents or established teaching procedures to go by. On one hand they are free to structure the class however they see fit, which is not a bad attribute for a class in spontaneous performance. On the other hand, there are certain fundamentals to the process, and it’s nice not to have to reinvent all the wheels. Following are some improv class procedures that have worked well for the author that readers may use as needed.

Size Matters

Although we are completely for the idea of every student musician having to take this course, the ideal class size for learning improv is pretty small so that everyone gets to play as much as possible (if you’re in the position to require everyone to do this, you might try it the way Gary Smart does it at the U of Northern Florida – they have to take the one semester improv course before they graduate, i.e. any time during their four years). The larger the group, the less each person gets to play, and the more difficult it is to shape the outcome with so many “deciders.” The ideal size for an improvising group is two – then each player gets to solo about half the time and solo half the time. That being said, it is usually a good idea to start the semester with pieces for larger groups so that novices don’t feel self-conscious about playing. Soundpainting works well for this purpose. Keep pieces brief at first. As players gain experience (especially in not playing), groups can be larger and pieces can be longer. Basically, you have four options if you have a large group 1) use Soundpainting 2) do sequential smaller groups or 3) do large group improv games or 4) alternate among options 1, 2 & 3.

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