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.

From there, we went on some drone games (one student improvises on a scale over a drone that everyone else provides). And early on, I tried Glacier Music, since we have a perfectly boomy space for it. I wondered whether they’d find it slightly boring, but everyone loved it. They seemed excited for their turn and to find something new that the other students hadn’t done yet. They also loved the three person hocketing clapping game you outlined. When they got good at it we put it on instruments. And we also did a few music machines, which are always fun. I also tried some walking-counting-clapping games, but they were never as successful. Somehow I couldn’t quite bring to it the fun Dalcroize energy I’ve experienced myself before.

The students loved “You crack me up” and “Singing Shakespeare.” Both ended up being very freeing for them. For Shakespeare, The first day, I had three short (famous) excerpts for them and they begged for an encore so I printed a page of three others a few days later.

But we spent a lot of time on AMAPFALAP, and I even waited a few days to introduce it, since it is so vitally important in composing in general. I gave short, short examples of a few notes, a rhythm, a chord, or even a gesture inside the piano. When things got off track, I would take a turn myself and try something new and try to redirect things. If the students didn’t end their improvisation naturally, I would usually say is “Okay, find a way to end it!” The students made a lot of progress, too; by the end of the camp, I had one student giving a short, short motif for the next student.

If the final concert wasn’t already so long (and impressive on its own) I would have included a few improvisations as demonstrations for the families and to validate for the students the value of improvisation and play in general. Interestingly, for these young composers, the connection was not yet strong between improv hour and the compositions they were working on later in the day. But I like to think that all the improv and play planted good seeds about creativity for some of their future work, and perhaps they were already in a creative space when it was finally time to sit down and work individually.

I particularly liked the one-two punch of physical warmups right before improvisation. Melissa Alexander, who teaches the simultaneously-running piano camp, led off the day with a stellar set of movement, stretching, and alignment exercises. She also liked to do a brain gym warmup like a rhythmic canon sent around the circle. (tap, tap, clap clap, snap, snap; each student starting two beats after their neighbor). The students were incredibly open to these exercises at this time of day. I was relieved — theirs is an age where play can become awkward, and when it’s not as cool to be silly, but they all went for it. We had a good group of students who embraced them, and my composers were ready to go into improv hour with an opened mind.

So all this is to say that I found your book extremely useful and I’m incredibly glad I found it. The games are perfectly adaptable to any situation, age, or mood and they helped to define the entire character of the two-week camp. During the school year now, I’ve been using it almost every day with my piano students and in my private composition lessons as well.

Thanks, Jeff!

Matt Van Brink

Head of songwriting & composition

Concordia Conservatory of Music & Art, Bronxville NY