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Nightmare on Elm Street...

Friday the 13th…




Nothing instills more terror in a vocalist than the dreaded “i” word…Want your group to run screaming for the hills, leaving a hole in the nearest wall that matches their exact body, ask them to improvise. Why? Why is vocal improvisation such a scary concept? Well…

 -Vocal improvisation is perceived as a jazz idiom, and unless you are specifically a jazz major, improvisation is not a skill that will be addressed in classes or individual lessons.

-Improvisation takes years of practice and discipline to master, much like sight singing, composing, or technique. But unlike the latter, improvisation is not a skill that many music teachers possess, and it is difficult to teach a skill they don’t already know.

 -Vocalists, unlike instrumentalists, have no buttons to push to make sound. If a piano player wants a C, they simply press the right button. If a vocalist wants a C, they have to produce the correct wavelength, and in the correct octave.

 -There are not many role models to imitate. Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby McFerrin, and Lambert Hendricks and Ross are masters of their craft, and what they do is perceived as “impossible to imitate.”

 -Improvisation is a skill that is best developed individually. Most students are unable or unwilling to improvise in front of others, let alone sing something they already know as a solo.

 I argue that the number one reason that high school and college vocalists cannot sight read is consistency. Choral directors have every intention of teaching the material, but lack the know-how to keep the process going and how to evolve the students who are progressing.

 The same holds true for improvisation. Most likely, the word has been introduced in the majority of choral programs in the country, but the utter lack of participation and the possible failure scares them away from mentioning it again.

 I intend to change these stigmas, however scary it may seem. And no…I’m not wearing a jigsaw mask.

 How? By introducing ways to improvise in a group, and as part of the daily warm-up. This way, improvisation becomes a tradition, an exercise. Just a little bit each day helps build a program. Doing too much at once is scary. Below are some games that encourage improvisation in a safe, group setting, saving the willing student from possible humiliation.

1) Circle songs: I have previously defined a circle song. See link below:


But perhaps I was too enthusiastic. Instead of beginning with tone, which implies harmony, which implies a possible chance to be “wrong,” start with rhythm. In fact, don’t even sing. Use hand claps and foot stomps. As the leader, begin a repetitive 1-2 bar phrase using only body percussion. Students (group members) should join you by adding a complimentary 1-2 bar phrase with body percussion. This allows the shyer student to just clap on beat, and the staggered entrances coupled with the freedom of entering at your own pace, will generate participation…which is all you really want in the beginning stage.

2) The drone game. “How to begin solo improvisation”

 Start by asking the choir to sing a D in octaves. Begin demonstrating improvisation by singing over the drone. It doesn’t matter what you sing. Since there is only one note in the background and no tonality, anything you sing will fit. The philosophy behind this game is that once students see how anything they sing will fit within the harmony, they will be less afraid to try it. Take care not to force any students to sing solo. Many students are terrified of singing solo, let alone singing in an art form very few understand.

 Here are some ways to help ease students into improvisation:

            1.  Over the drone D, sing a pattern that a student can repeat. Do this several times until the student is comfortable singing, then ask him/her to make up a pattern that you will repeat. This gives the student confidence    because to him/her, he/she is singing a duet and not singing alone.

            2.  Let two students sing together. Even if they are incredibly out of key with each other, do not stop them. Remember, this game is not about pitch, rhythm, or technique. It is about gaining the courage to improvise.

           3.  Go with the flow. Once during this game, a student chose to sing a familiar television theme song instead of improvising. Anything that comes out of these students’ mouths should be encouraged.

           4.  One student suggested that she would be less nervous if everyone in the circle sang something in turn. I tried her method and more students opened up and improvised than if I had went around the room and chosen volunteers.

I hope this sparks some interest in improvisation. More games to come.

Marc Silverberg

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