Improv Class Experiences

This fall I’ve been teaching a class in free improv to two adult students at Lexington Music School, both experienced musicians. We’ve had a lot of fun as we practiced crafting music in the moment. One student is continuing and we’d love to make the class a larger group. If you’re curious, and somewhere northwest of Boston, MA, contact me and come and try it out!

In every lesson, I always am pointing out the necessity for not playing and listening as you’re improvising. Listen more than you play! The larger the group, the more important that is. It’s a little harder to experience that concept fully with only two players. We needed to get over the tendency to stop and be finished if the other person took a listening break. Allowing your improv partner to take an extended solo, with minimal accompaniment by you is a valuable thing to get comfortable with.

We have done lots of exercises from Jeffrey Agrell’s book “Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians”. Two exercises that I think were particularly productive were:

One-minute compositions – As a duet, make a plan with your partner, then see how you can make an interesting piece out of it. Making it short keeps you from wandering from idea to idea. Jeffrey has many suggestions for plans, and as soon as I start thinking about any of them, interesting variations and ideas of my own immediately crop up.

Call and response drills – This was intriguing to everyone as a sort-of quiz. A leader plays a measure’s worth of melody, everyone else repeats it. There’s a set tempo, and the beat keeps the drill moving forward. The leader starts simple and diatonic. The leader chooses material leading to success, not tricking the group into a mistake. After we successfully drilled on the simple rules, we added more of Jeffrey’s variations, like adding altered tones, changing key by half step or whole step, finally atonal. This was the hardest, not a surprise! Even adding altered tones and changing keys tripped us up. Also, the faster the tempo, the more you need concentration and focus. Everyone got to be the leader. That’s just as important as being able to follow.

Does anybody out there have some favorite practice drills of their own for improv and ear training?

One thought on “Improv Class Experiences

  1. I can't remember the name of it, but it's fun to try the game where the Player 1 plays middle C; P2 plays C plus any other note in C major (keep it simple at first), P3 plays those two plus one new note, and so on around the circle. If a player misses the sequence, the last player has to repeat the string. A good round is about 14 notes. The most I've see is a little over 20. Really good ears can try other kinds of scales (e.g. various minors, whole tone, even chromatic).

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