The Percussive Arts Society COVID-19 Task Force recently published a document titled Managing COVID-19 Protocols in Administering Percussion Performance Curriculum, which includes the following recommendation for creative music making within percussion ensembles this fall:
“In these challenging times, many educators have been rethinking the traditional repertoire for the percussion ensemble…In addition to selecting chamber percussion repertoire, educators may want to consider adding new opportunities for free-style improvisation to their curriculum. In free improvisation sessions, students learn to make on-the-spot musical decisions and perform spontaneous gestures, which turns the music into a conversation between the performers…Developing this kind of skill set is essential to training the 21st century musician.”
There are myriad benefits to be gained from participating in free improvisation sessions—for students, educators, and audience members. But if you have never participated in free improvisation sessions, much less led a session, you may be asking: What exactly is free improvisation? How does it work? What are the benefits for my students? How do we get started?
This article serves as a quick-start guide and introduces a specific and accessible style of free improvisation, the many benefits of the experience, guidelines for leading a free improvisation session, and a collection of effective ideas to get percussion ensembles making creative music as quickly as possible.
Many percussionists are familiar with the ground-breaking percussion group Nexus, but most do not know that their first concerts in the 1970s were made up of two 45-minute sets of free improvisation, often featuring non-Western instruments and found instruments from their personal collections.
According to Nexus member Bill Cahn, the players would simply go on stage and play whatever they liked, but, perhaps because of their classical backgrounds, the improvisations often (but not always) followed a loose ABA pattern—an opening free section that presented sounds and ideas, an energetic middle section with a pulse or groove (that appeared and disappeared on its own) in which ideas were developed, and a closing free section that wound down and ended whenever the players decided to stop.
This Nexus method of free improvisation is just one of many, but it is an accessible and enjoyable entry point for new improvisers, as well as being significant within the history of the modern percussion ensemble.
Discussions regarding the benefits of free improvisation typically begin with the profound aesthetic, artistic, musical, intellectual, and personal benefits (and rightly so), but presently, perhaps the best justification for percussion ensembles to try free improvisation this fall is its flexibility.
For the foreseeable future, percussion ensemble directors and students will be expected to adapt to constantly changing health guidelines and unexpected personnel changes, including the possibility of students becoming quarantined, potentially for weeks at a time. This state of unpredictability makes programming a percussion ensemble concert with one-on-a-part chamber works a risky venture because no one can know for certain which players will be able to attend which rehearsals or even be present at the concert.
The inherent flexibility of free improvisation makes it a terrific option for percussion ensembles this fall because it can be done well regardless of the number of players involved, levels of musical experience, access to instruments, and number of rehearsals before a performance.
The primary goal of free improvisation is to deepen the experience of music making and create meaningful improvised, spontaneous, free-form music that is capable of engaging the attention of both the performers and listeners. Additionally, the following are some of the many benefits of free improvisation, which may be included in percussion ensemble syllabi as learning outcomes and used to justify its study to administrators.
- Improved listening skills that transfer to making music in other contexts (especially symphonic music and composed chamber music).
- Increased focus upon and awareness of musical sounds (made by one’s self and other ensemble members).
- Improved sense of making appropriate musical responses in collaboration with other musicians.
- Deeper knowledge of one’s instruments and its sound-making capabilities.
- Increased personal confidence in musical expression, risk taking, and creating musical ideas.
- Decreased personal fear of being judged and of the misconceptions surrounding improvisation.
- Increased ability to not judge others and be accepting of the sounds produced by others (there are no “wrong” sounds).
- Increased inclusive participation by students regardless of their musical experience (expression is the focus, not reading musical notation or technical ability).
- Improved and deepened musical friendships as participants share a mutual willingness to go beyond the musical restrictions we have been taught.
- Renewed connection with the excitement we first felt about music early on in our lives (both as educators and students).
GUIDELINES, NOT RULES
As its name suggests, there are no rules for performing free improvisation; however, Nexus member Bob Becker suggests the following guidelines for leaders and participants to create an effective and enjoyable music making experience.
- Leaders should keep the number of players in a group limited to small group (ideally six or less), the total number of instruments relatively small, and each improvisation to around eight minutes (more or less, as they end when they end).
- Leaders should encourage the participants to do their best to relax (as they are often uncomfortable at first), be willing to free themselves from printed music, and not force the music in any set direction (instead, to go where the music leads).
- Participants should listen deeply to the sounds around them (colors, rhythms, expressions, moods, etc.) and strive to be fully aware of the sounds as they occur.
- Participants may play whatever they want on any instrument at any time (there are no mistakes), but instead of “going crazy,” the absence of a plan should be seen as a responsibility to listen carefully and create meaningful, interesting musical moments.
- Participants should listen to each other and to themselves as deeply as possible, but there is no penalty for breaking this rule. Becker suggests that sometimes incredibly interesting music can occur when individuals or small groups are “doing their own thing” at the same time, often with remarkable results.
- Participants have essentially three options: play with what you hear, play against what you hear, or do not play at all (silence is acceptable). In other words, participants may play something that blends with or complements something they hear, or they can intentionally play something that goes against and does not mesh with what they hear, or they can choose not to play, listen carefully, and add to the musical conversation when they have something to say.
PLAY, RECORD, LISTEN, REFLECT
Following the Nexus method, there are four components to every free improvisation session: play, record, listen, and reflect.
RECORD: As the participants improvise, the performance should be recorded on a device (e.g., phone, video camera, laptop with audio editing software, etc.) that can be immediately played back on speakers for all to hear. Be sure to keep a copy of each recording with the date and performers’ names for future reference, which is helpful if you intend to share recordings with participants later on (e.g., via email, a weblink to an online storage drive, or posted on a learning management system). Recording performances is important because participants will perform differently when they know that “the tape is rolling” and their creations will be listened to and discussed by their colleagues.
LISTEN: After the performance is completed, lead everyone in listening to the playback of the recorded improvisation. This step is extremely important for the participants because they are often amazed to hear their own improvisations and how interesting the music is that they have created, as well as how proud they find themselves afterward. In fact, participants accustomed to using printed music are often surprised to hear the coherence of their improvisations, even if they felt uncomfortable during the performance. Additionally, both performers and listeners will often hear moments in the playback that they were unaware of during the live performance.
REFLECT: Following the playback, ask each participant and listener, one by one, to share their observations about what they heard and initiate a group discussion. Help participants analyze what occurred and to do so in a non-judgmental manner by asking questions about ensemble, instrumentation, timbres, dynamics, silence, etc., or by asking some of the following discussion questions.
- What stood out as you were listening? What did you like the most? What was the most interesting part?
- What did you hear in the playback that you did not hear during the performance?
- Was the same performer always leading throughout?
- What were the main musical ideas?
- How were the musical ideas developed?
- What did you think about when you were improvising/listening?
- Were there any moments of “consonance” or “synchronicity,” when communication among the players peaked?
FREE IMPROV: DAY ONE
An effective format for the first free improvisation session with a percussion ensemble is to start by giving a brief introduction that summarizes the above information regarding the Nexus method, the benefits and guidelines, and the play-record-listen-reflect procedure.
Then, begin with a demonstration improvisation session performed by you and a few musically mature percussion students (or faculty colleagues, if needed). Keep the demonstration group small (just two to four players), use only keyboard instruments positioned close together so that the players can make eye contact, and keep the session to around five minutes or so. (Though one of the most exciting components of free improvisation is not knowing what will happen, it is a good idea to meet with the demonstration group prior to the first session to practice improvising together so that the performers are informed and the demonstration is effective.)
After the demonstration performance, if time permits, listen to the playback as a group and ask some of the discussion questions above so that students know the kinds of questions that will be asked following each performance, which will inform and guide their own improvisations later on. If time does not permit, mention that during future sessions, the performance will be recorded, and the group will listen the recorded playback together, and be sure to ask some of the reflection questions.
Next, do as many free improvisation sessions as time allows, preferably using groups of no more than five or six players using keyboard instruments, but do your best to allow everyone to participate at least once during this first session, which may necessitate larger groups. Plan for at least 15 to 20 minutes for each free improvisation session, which includes the performance, playback, and discussion. A 50-minute session can include the introduction, demonstration session, and two sessions, while a 90-minute session could include up to four or five sessions.
After the initial session and perhaps a few more introductory sessions, students will become more comfortable with improvising freely. Their performances will likely become increasingly creative, experimental, and imaginative, and their discussions more thoughtful and insightful, even profound.
Once a level of understanding and comfort is achieved using keyboard instruments only, use the following list of options and parameters for future free improvisation sessions or create your own or allow the students to determine parameters.
- Keyboard and accessory.
- Keyboard and drum.
- Keyboard, accessory, and drum.
- Metal, wood, and skin.
- Keyboard, metal, wood, and skin.
- Non-pitched instruments.
- Accessories or hand percussion.
- Hand drums.
- Found sounds within the rehearsal space.
- Found sounds brought in from outside the rehearsal space.
- Recyclable materials.
- Body percussion.
- Assign instruments students are comfortable playing.
- Assign instruments students are uncomfortable playing.
- Students choose their own instruments.
- Non-traditional sounds from traditional instruments (do not disrespect or damage the instruments).
- Non-traditional implements on traditional instruments (do not disrespect or damage the instruments).
- Players may move around the room and play on each other’s instruments.
- Determine a title for the performance after listening to the playback.
- Determine a title or inspiration for the performance before it begins by asking for numbers, colors, animals, places, natural objects, manmade objects, celebrity names, pop song titles, famous composers, important social issues, etc.
If you decide to expand the learning outcomes of your percussion ensemble this fall “by adding a component of free improvisation,” as the Percussive Arts Society suggests, there are many ways that you can quickly and easily implement these activities.
A session of free improvisation can be performed during percussion ensemble rehearsals at existing instruments as a warm-up, an ensemble listening exercise, or as a way to refocus attention during rehearsals.
One or more free improvisation sessions can be included on a percussion ensemble program (whether intentionally or added at the last moment), and these may be stand-alone performances or serve as prelude introductions to other works on the program using the same instruments.
Presenting an entire concert featuring free improvisation can be a novel, exciting, and effective experience for students, as well as audience members if they are engaged in the creation of the music and participate in an open dialogue with the musicians.
If it is not introduced during the semester, the class meetings at the end of a semester following a percussion ensemble concert can be a terrific time for students to experience free improvisation for the first time.
For more information on how to get started, contact Dr. Ryan Lewis LewisR@obu.edu and Dr. Julie Licata Julie.Licata@oneonta.edu.
- Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. New York: Da Capo, 1993.
- Cahn, William. Creative Music Making: Four Simple Steps to Cultivating the Inner Musician. New York, Routledge, 2005.
- Hall, Tom. Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide. Boston: Bee Boy Press, 2009.
- Higgins, Lee and Campbell, Patricia Shehan. Free to be Musical: Group Improvisation in Music. Published in partnership with MENC, 2010.
- Snell, James. “Integrating Improvisation into Your Curriculum.” Percussive Notes, Vol. 42, No. 2, April 2004: 38-43.
Dr. Ryan C. Lewis is Associate Professor of Percussion at Ouachita Baptist University where he teaches Percussion and Music History courses and directs the Percussion Ensemble, Marching Band Drum Line, and Steel Drum Ensembles. Lewis holds degrees from the University of South Carolina, Florida State University, and Furman University. He is a past President of the Arkansas PAS Chapter and currently performs with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and the chamber groups Trio di Risata and Duo Matre.