More improvisation ideas

In my last post on my new explorations into developing the improvisaiton skills and understanding of the Middle and Upper primary students, I described how I had been getting them to start and finish on particular notes, keep track of a ten-count time length, and play a series of notes in-between.

I have been wondering what the next step should be.

Two weeks ago we tried out a kind of ‘jam session’ with the Upper Primary students. I asked different students for rhythmic ideas, and asked them teach me and other students. For many, as I have found frequently in the past, they may know a rhythm or phrase to play, but they can’t repeat it consistently, nor with a sense of regularity, so it is hard to use in a group jam session.

However, in that session, one of the Sudanese girls came up with something that she was able to repeat consistently, over and over again, upon which we built up a number of other layers.

The students’ first response, when all have an instrument and they are to play together without a great deal of explicit instruction, is to play as loudly as possible, speeding up as if it is a contest or a race. They get a big buzz out of doing this, usually laughing a lot and generally acting like it is just a mad game. That week, however, after letting them do this, I asked them what was going on. What was important in this kind of music? They were to be playing the same rhythm as the Sudanese girl on the lead drum (who was a lot quieter than them). How could they make sure they stayed together?

This was a really interesting discussion. Of course they worked out that they could listen to her, but that they could also watch her, and let her be the leader. The ensemble improved enormously, immediately, and everyone began playing with greater awareness and sensitivity.

Therefore, the following week (last week) I decided to work on this skill a bit further. I brought out my trusty metronome (which I have written about in most glowing terms in the past on this blog).

Each person had an instrument – mostly drums, plus the cabasa and two xylophones. We set the metronome a-ticking. One by one they had to play straight beats, keeping in time with the metronome. The first couple of people to try were a bit unstable, but it was wonderful to hear how quickly they began to correct themselves, and how swiftly they started to keep the metronome in the corner of their eye at all times.

“Together?” I would ask the group after each person had played. They would all chorus in response, “Together!” or “Not together”. So at the same time I am setting up useful vocabulary and reinforcing it during the lesson.

Next we tried to come in one by one, still all playing straight beats, still with the metronome, and see how many people could be playing at the same time without losing pace with the metronome. After a couple of false starts, we had the whole group playing together.

Then I started to get more ambitious. I wanted them to start to add off-beats. I drew a series of verticle strokes on the board, equidistant from each other. Then, in between each line, I drew a shorter verticle line.

I asked them to position their right (or preferred) hand on the centre of the drum, in order to get a bass tone, and their left hand at the edge of the drum, with just the fingers on the skin, not the whole palm. They then started to work on playing the downbeats as bass notes, and the off-beats as higher-pitched tones.

Then we went around the circle doing this with the metronome.

Then, together, we invented a simple rhythm which had some straight on/off beats, and a moment of syncopation in its second half, and learned to play this together, designating some notes as bass notes, and others as tones.

We found two alternative ‘pitches’ or sounds, to play the same rhythm on the cabasa. On the xylophones we set two pitches. Everyone then practised this, and we began to play all together.

It was a very focused lesson, but I think will prove to have been very useful, in giving the group a strong grounding in listening to each other, thinking about what they play, and listening out for downbeats and other ‘anchoring points’ when playing in a large group.

Next I will start to look at patterns, and ways of inventing rhythmic patterns, and then putting different pitches or sounds to them. After that we will hopefully go back to the glockenspiels and see if their solos have started to develop further.

2 comments so far

  1. […] little language schools to help them). I discussed some of these issues in earlier posts here and here, so won’t repeat myself… in any case, as the term progressed, I found that the work we […]

  2. Debby on

    I happened upon your site after looking up “theories of improvisation” for research pertaining to my own MFA-IA degree (specializing in Improvisation). I am really enjoying your postings (never read blogs or sites such as yours). I can appreciate how hard you are working and love what you are doing.



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