Saturday, September 18, 2010

Improvisation and Form Part 2: Awareness

An individual and group awareness of what is being improvised is critical to successful group improvisation. You have to be aware of what you are playing without interfering with the flow of it. You have to simultaneously be aware of what everyone else is playing, and it's relation to you, without having it interfere with your flow.

This awareness is an ongoing understanding, a recognition of what the music is at any moment, and the only way to do this fully is to let go of any judgment, self-consciousness or preconception.  All three of these mental processes have their place in evaluating, understanding, and creating music, but they all slow down or stop the flow of creation in the moment it is happening.

Here are several improvisational exercises from Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide that will aid you in various aspects of developing awareness.

Exercise 14: Awareness 1
This exercise gives practice in simultaneous awareness of what you are playing and what else is going on around you.  You can do it with any number of players, or even solo, using awareness of environmental sounds instead of other players.  This exercise works well with long held out notes or sounds, changing slowly.

Step 1: Two players hold out a note or sound.

Step 2: Focus your attention on each sound separately, then hold both sounds in your awareness simultaneously, and with equal importance.  Hear both of the sounds, and the relationship between them.

Step 3: Observe this relationship, and your reaction to it.  Don't do anything, just watch as the sounds slightly change and subtle reactions occur.  Are you happy with the sounds?  Do you want to change them?

Step 4: If you feel the need to change, wait until the wanting to change becomes overwhelming, then allow this desire create the change.

Step 5: Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you want to end.

Step 6: Repeat Steps 1-5 with more players.  Take enough time in Step 2 to direct your awareness to each players individual sound, and to all sounds together.

Exercise 15: Hearing Relationship
A great tool for recognition and awareness is to practice hearing and naming the relationships that occur during an improvisation.

Step 1: Two people play a short duet improvisation.

Step 2: Discuss the relationship between the two players.  How would you describe it?  Did it change over the course of the duet?  If the players were not aware of their relationship have them play another duet, this time focusing awareness on what the other person is playing.  Pay particular attention to the choices made at each "ending point" (the point where one thing ends and something else begins). 

Exercise 50: Coming Together 1
This exercise is good practice in being strong, yet flexible.  In order for it to work, you must come in with your strongest idea, yet be willing to go to whatever becomes the consensus.  Don't focus on playing the same thing, focus on moving to the same place.  This can be done with a group texture as well as a group groove.

Step 1: Improvise a group groove.

Step 2: Everyone gradually gravitate to playing one thing together.

There are many improvisational exercises that can help give you tools for greater awareness when improvising.  The key to all of them is to freely and equally accept into your sphere of awareness what you are doing and what others are doing.  Allow this to create a third awareness: an awareness of the relationship between the two.  

Remembering this relationship allows the possibility of spontaneous group composition over longer forms, so next week I will talk about memory and improvisation.


  1. Wonderful! Thank you for picking out some of the exercises for this purpose.

  2. My pleasure! Let me know what you do with them, and how they work out.