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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Improv Concert #2. Just Imagine…


(Photo credit: Perecca)

My Improvisation for Classical Musicians class had its second concert of improvised chamber music last night and it was a big success and a lot of fun. The program was put together with help of the audience in suggestions for some pieces as well as taking part (at times: fingersnaps, crinkling paper, cell phone ring tones, jingling keys). Being in the audience at a concert like this is different from any other (besides the fact that the audience contributes sounds as well) – like a sports game, no one knows what is going to happen, how the pieces are going to come out, not the audience, not the players, not me. And that makes it all very exciting be a part of.

The program:

1. Sequential Solos. Matt started alone on stage, improvising a piano solo. The other players came on stage at intervals of 60 to 90 seconds: Sarah – bassoon, Drew – horn, Madeline – flute, Devin – tuba. The audience contributed some background sounds now and then at my signal. At the end of the solos I signaled for all to play.  01 Sequential Solos

2. Music for an imaginary holiday #1 (audience suggestion): Slime Day. Performed by Drew and Devin, with the Sarah and Madeline on percussion, with piano allowed only extended techniques. 02 Slime Day

3. Music for an imaginary holiday #2 (audience suggestion): Spandex Appreciation Day. Performed by flute and basson, with the Drew and Devin on percussion and piano on piano. 03 Spandex Appreciation Day

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Improv Resources for Groups

For jazz improv, there are approximately seventy-seven gazillion books, articles, playalongs, and everything else out there. Visit Jamey Aebersold’s web site and start ordering – you’ll never get to the end of the offerings.

For classical improv and creative music in general, some of the jazz stuff is useful, but is usually not the best place to start. The list of useful and appropriate materials is much smaller.

English: The Simon Bolivar young symphonic band

If you are a band, choir, or orchestra director interested in trying some non jazz improvisation, the list is smaller yet. I just applied to the Midwest Band Clinic (Dec. 19-22) to give a presentation on improv for large ensembles; as part of a handout for this proposed (we’ll have to wait and see if it is eventually accepted) talk, I made a list of some resources for the band director and I’d like to share that with you now (it’s possible that it will be updated and/or extended by the time Midwest rolls around, should this proposal be accepted).

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