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.