Thursday, November 27, 2008

Music for People

[Note: this blog is moving to, which will have more resources that are easier to find, too; I'll cross post for a while; meanwhile please adjust bookmarks and links.]

Music for People is one of the most extraordinary organizations I've ever encountered; what makes it so extraordinary is that there's a clear sense of mission. However stated, there's a shared sense of purpose among MfPers, supporting each other in self-expression and interpersonal connection through improvised music in a humanistic (i.e., supportive and nonjudgmental) environment.

I started improvising on my own, as a form of emotional release and catharsis (hmm, is that redundant?). I quickly discovered the recordings of the improvising cellist David Darling, co-founder and artistic director of Music for People, and then went to a week-long summer workshop (in 1993, I think) called "Improvising Chamber Music." I was scared to death that while I could improvise on my own, I wouldn't be able to improvise music that made any sense in an ensemble with others.

David is, in my opinion, a true genius at leading workshops that create a space for people to find themselves musically and to musically interract with others. While I'd found my own improvisational voice before I encountered David and MfP, the workshop was a revalation. It changed my life, for I saw how humanistic, self-expressive improvisation can be used for healing, growth, bringing people together, and making music in a deeply satisfying process. What I learned in that workshop, and many subsequent ones (including the MfP facilitator-training program), has had more impact on my teaching than anything else in my life. And I believe that in encouraging students to improvise and introducing them to the Music for People philosophy, summed up in a Bill of Musical Rights, is where I've made the greatest difference in the lives of the students I've worked with.

Music for People workshops, whether led by David and/or the current staff, or by independent certified facilitators (like me) who can be found throughout the U.S. (and other parts of the world) are a great place to start improvising, and expecially to get support, encouragement and inspiration.

The MfP Bill of Musical Rights:

  • Human beings need to express themselves daily in a way that invites physical and emotional release.
  • Musical self-expression is a joyful and healthy means of communication available to absolutely everyone.
  • There are as many different ways to make music as there are people.
  • The human voice is the most natural and powerful vehicle for musical self-expression. The differences in our voices add richness and depth to music.
  • Sincerely expressed emotion is at the root of meaningful musical expression.
  • Your music is more authentically expressed when your body is involved in your musical expression.
  • The European tradition of music is only one sound. All other cultures and traditions deserve equal attention.
  • Any combination of people and instruments can make music together.
  • There are no "unmusical" people, only those with no musical experience.
  • Music improvisation is a unique and positive way to build skills for life-expression.
  • In improvisation as in life, we must be responsible for the vibrations we send one another.

A great resource for improvisers, whether experienced or just starting, is the MfP handbook, Return to Child. It started out as rather short booklet, principally authored by the other cofounder of MfP, Bonnie Insull. Over the years it has been expaned and updated by the insightful and articulate Jim Oshinsky, whose passion for the work of MfP is matched only by his observational powers and ability to analyze and articulate the multiple levels of communication, group dynamics, and leadership found in MfP.

"The most impressive part of the music we play is the art of improvisation"

[Note: this blog is moving to; I'll cross post for a while; meanwhile please adjust bookmarks and links.]

Those of us trained in the traditional, improvisation-phobic classical musical culture often don't realize that improvisation played a key role in the way people made music, even much of what we now think of as classical music, through the nineteenth century. While most (but not all) of my own improvising is in non-performance situations, in which I'm improvising for a cathartic emotional release, or as a creative way of practicing and exploring, improvisation exists (and existed) as part of the performance art of many genres of classical music, particularly music before the early nineteenth-century development of the the concept of the fully-notated, independent, "great work," which gave birth to the concepts of Werktreue (being true to the work) and Texttreue (being true to the text."

"The most impressive part of the music we play is the art of improvisation," early-music guru Jordi Savall is quoted in this article. "He says improvisation is always risky, because of its very nature. "It needs to be organised to prevent chaos," he says. "It doesn't mean you do what you like. You have to follow the structure and work out which instruments will be involved before you go on stage."

That might be better put as, "it doesn't mean you do only what you like," in the sense of not being aware of a particular musical language, the language of a particular musical idiom, or not being aware of a particular structure (such as improvising variations over a simple ground bass--that's a bass line, not a ground-up string bass).

In the more stylistically free and eclectic improvisations I've performed and that I coach my DePauw students in, there are usually decisions made in advance for performed pieces: instrumentation, basic structure, use of ostinatos (repeated figures) or drones, etc. Sometimes, though, it works to just go out with two or three people and improvise "freely."

In a free (i.e., unplanned) ensemble improvisation, at least in the way I encourage, someone initiates an idea; that idea is met with a response. There's dialogue and interaction. It's not just simultaneous playing or singing in which the music makers act independently of each other. It's a conversation, a battle, an embrace, a game of ping pong. It's listening and being aware of each other and one's own ideas, "saying yes" to it all.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 1

An invitation to explore self-expressive "free" improvisation, in which, as we say in Music for People, "there are no wrong notes." (I blogged about the comedy of errors I experiened making these videos here.) These videos are cross-posted with my other blog.

Video: Self-Expressive Improv, Part 2

Priming the pump of the creative imagination by improvising just one note at a time.

Video: Self Expressive Improv Part 3

Cresting an extended improvisation (longer than one note, anyway!), listening inside yourself for the first note, then the next and the next.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians

Cross-posting with my other blog:

I see that Greg Sandow gave Jeff Agrell's book a great mention last April, calling it " a complete delight, radiating both love and deep understanding of music from every word." I wrote my own review of Jeff's wonderful book last February for Connections, the Music for People newsletter. But I neglected to post it here!

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else by Jeffrey Agrell
Chicago: GIA Publications (2008). ISBN 978-1-57999-682-6

Jeff Agrell is one of the few classical music professors in the country who actively improvises, who passionately advocates for improvisation, who encourages and nurtures the improvisational spirit in his students, and who has succeeded at the often challenging task obtaining institutional support for a non-jazz improvisation course. After 25 years in a professional orchestra, Agrell became the French horn professor at the University of Iowa, and like many other classical musicians at midlife, was ready for a creative change. Having improvised and composed on the guitar since his teenage years, he finally began improvising on the horn. Most of us reading this article had a similar experience and found ourselves drawn to David Darling and Music for People. As he explains in the Preface to his recently released Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else, published by GIA, Agrell found his musical guide and collaborator right at home, in the pianist Evan Mazunik, then a junior piano major at Iowa. For both it seems to have been a “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” with the ironic twist of their formal roles in the university. The two began improving together, and that work blossomed into concerts, recordings, and workshops, and the “Introduction to Improvisation” course Agrell offers regularly at Iowa (Mazunik now lives in New York).

Anyone who has been to a Music for People workshop would find Agrell’s teaching studio in Iowa surprisingly familiar, as I did one Saturday afternoon last November; it’s cluttered with the djembes and assorted small percussion instruments so rarely found in the offices of classical French horn professors yet so common in the MfP world. I sat down with him, two of his colleagues, a student or two, and the saxophonist George Wolfe from Ball State University, and we began improvising. “One of the great joys of being an improviser,” as Agrell quotes cellist Matthew Barley, “is that I can play with practically any musician in the world. It is like being fluent in dozens of languages.” And that was our experience; it was the magic of free improvisation as the University of Iowa School of Music’s 2007 Contemporary Improvisation Festival (at which I was one of the guest performer/clinicians) began.

Although the National Association of Schools of Music, which grants accreditation to college-level music programs, mandates that all music students have experience in improvisation, most institutions pay lip service to the requirement without truly embracing it. Classical music professors, unless they specialize in early music, tend to ignore improv, seeing it as something irrelevant to their mission, and many jazz professors look askance at improvisation which isn’t jazz. So it’s often a lonely mission for people like Agrell, who really gets the value of improvisation for music students, who truly grasps how the process of creating music ties everything together.

I’ve met many former classical musicians who got burned out and turned to improvising as an alternative, healing mode of making music. How many of us in the MfP culture have said at one time or another that we are “in recovery” from our classical training? We find ourselves improvising instead of playing classical music, and it’s a wonderful, liberating, and healing new era of life. It’s release! It’s an explosion of self-expression and creativity and connection with other people. Classical music, for some of us, becomes a former lover with whom we were once intensely but toxically involved, and from whom we’ve had to move on. Our new, passionate love, improvisation has taken its place, but enough hurt remains that it’s hard to “still be friends” with classical music.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why it’s rare to find people who regularly perform on a high professional level as both classical and eclectic (i.e., non-jazz) improvisers. Jeff Agrell has managed to integrate the two into his musical and teaching life. He clearly understands the central role improvisation played in what we now call classical music until the late 19th century, and he sees that improvisation can and should be part of the central, core experience of classical musicians.

All this is articulated extremely well in Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. At 354 pages, including several indexes, the book is both a manifesto making the case for improvisation in the training of classical musicians, and an wide-ranging encyclopedia of starting points for improvisation. He makes an excellent distinction between the notation-based, “literate” approach of the traditional classical musician and the “aural” approach of the improviser working without notation. “The two approaches—literate and aural—are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. They balance each other, develop musicianship skills, and promote health and sanity. To achieve the comprehensive musicianship so vital to a contemporary musician, both approaches need to be cultivated to the highest level possible.”

Agrell uses the term “games,” he explains, because of fear of mistakes which blocks the creativity of so many classical music students. I’ve had a copy for several weeks now; as I plan the sessions for the improvisation ensemble at DePauw University, where I teach, I find it a valuable resource, although I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Agrell’s suggestions for structuring a college-level improvisation course are excellent, and will be of great value to colleagues at other institutions. And there are so many ideas for structuring improvisations! Warm-Up Games, Rhythm Games, Accent Games, Dynamics Games, Melody Games, Form Games, Harmony Games, etc., etc. The list of chapters goes on and on. What did they call the old Sears catalog? The “wish book?” It’s like that, an improviser’s wish book, except you don’t have to spend money (once you’ve bought the book), just creativity. There are so many games included that I find myself overwhelmed if I try to read too much in one sitting; it’s an encyclopedic desk reference that I’ll be working through for months to come.

Many of the game descriptions are brief, and I find it sometimes takes me a while to work out in my imagination what he’s suggesting. Clearly Agrell has worked to include as many games as possible, so brevity has been a priority. And he’s obviously avoided overly defining, and thus limiting, what are meant to be improvisations. So be warned: using this book requires the reader’s patience, thought and imagination. But the rewards are many.

Without a working knowledge of classical music terminology, much of the book might be hard to follow. But for classical musicians interested in improvisation, especially those of us who lead workshops and teach courses, it’s an excellent, welcome new reference, which makes an excellent compliment to classics like Return to Child, The Listening Book, and Free Play.