Friday, August 25, 2006

Using improv in teaching

Now the new school year has started, and I'm using improvisation in my teaching. I'm teaching cello, of course, and also one section of the DePauw School of Music's first-year seminar for music majors. It's an unusual class, in that the students rotate among five faculty members over the course of the semester. We have four sections of the class, with 12-13 students in each. Each class has a "main" teacher, with whom they spend the first two and last four weeks of the semester. In between, they have two-week sessions with other faculty. The topics include writing about music, the impact of recording technology on music, Dalcroze Eurythmics, music technology training, and (with me) improvisation and a bit of African drumming/singing.

My main section, the one in which the students and I have six weeks together, is subtitled "Creativity, Non-Western Music, and the Furutre of Classical Music." It's been greatly influenced by Greg Sandow's course at Julliard, "Breaking Barriers: Performing Classical Music in an Age of Pop," as well as my prior work with improvisation and my much more limited experience with some forms of African music.

Today was the third session of the class. The first two were spent on organizational issues, discussing readings, and problem-solving as the students learned to use the interface for our class blog.

Finally today we got to making music together: no computers allowed (all the students at my university are required to have a laptop, and we had been deep into them the first two sessions). We used Remo djembe-style drums today. Twelve students and me, sitting in a circle. We started with improvisational drumming and did some call-and response drum exercises and rhythm games.

What came to be the lesson of the day was to notice how when some of the students would have a solo, their awareness would shrink into themselves and they'd no longer be feeling or playing with the pulse of the group. So it became a great window for discussing the importance of feeling a collective pulse when making music with other people.

My gosh. Imagine being a college freshman, third day of school, first time playing a djembe, and all of a sudden you have to lead a four-best call and response, or play a four-beat solo. No matter how fun and safe an atmosphere I create, it's a wonder more of the kids didn't freak out.

So we created a game in which we made sure to feel the pulse in our bodies, and went around the circle, each person playing just the four beats (thump, thump, thump, thump). The object simply to feel the pulse together and keep it going. And then we started to vary the rhythm just a touch, the focus still on feeling the pulse.

It's an example of using improvisation, in this case with hand drums, to work on a fundamental musical skill--feeling a musical pulse in your own body, and feeling a collective musical pulse while making music with others.


Later this morning, a cello lesson. I decided to start this student on a piece that has in it a passage based on an e minor/minor arpeggio (i.e., a minor triad with a minor seventh above the root). I taught her just the arpeggio (e, g, b, and d) through several octaves. Then I played an accompaniment pattern on my cello while she improvised using the arpeggio. We switched roles, and I then asked her to improvise using the same notes but with repeated notes (which are used in the piece). We had a good time with it. And it was a good way, I think, to get ready to play that passage and to incorporate some fun and creativity into it.

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