Monday, March 11, 2013


Improvisation is not only one of the nine national standards of music education, but I believe it could be the next evolutionary step in contemporary a cappella music.
Similar to musical skills such as sight-reading, dictation, sight-singing, and technical playing, improvisation is a skill that must be nurtured and practiced regularly. For too long, we choral teachers have attempted to improvise with our students on rare occasion, only to be met with failure, fear, or ignorance.
I suggest examining these ten steps to encourage group and solo improvisation.
1) Jump Right In!
In recent blog posts, I’ve outlined some improvisation games that can be played with absolutely no prior improvisation knowledge or practice. You can find them here:
To demonstrate just how much fun improvisation can be, it is encouraged that you start with these simple games in order to motivate your students to learn more about improvisation.
2) Tear down the walls
Why are we afraid to improvise? To overcome the fear, we must understand the basis of the fear.
- Improvisation is much more difficult for a singer, since we do not have “buttons to push.” If a piano player wants a “C,” he or she pushes the button for a “C.” If a vocalist wants a “C,” he or she must know the key beforehand and find the “C” as it is relative to the tonic note.
- Improvisation is primarily thought of as a “jazz only” idiom. Singers believe that unless they intend to sing jazz music, they do not need to learn the skill of improvisation.
- Most colleges, music festivals, and organizations do not require improvisation to be an “essential musical skill” needed for entry.
3) Encourage groups of all sizes to improvise
Large Group Improvisation games
1. Call and Response
a. Begin a repetitive chord progression on the piano or with a circle song.
b. Choose one student to be the “leader.” He or she sings a short improvised riff over the chord progression and the ensemble immediately repeats it.
2. Sound Wall
a. Teach the entire ensemble a short, melodic phrase. Sing it several times until they are comfortable with it.
b. Ask each student to sing the melodic phrase, but at any speed or rhythm. They cannot deviate from the notes or the order of the phrase. They can only speed up or slow down the time. This will create a giant “wall of sound.”
4) Eliminate the fear of doing it alone
“Leave me alone, I’m improvising!” game.
1. Everyone stands up and finds an individual space in the room.
2. The teacher plays a recording of a song with a repetitive chord progression.
3. While moving around the room slowly, students begin freely improvising over the recording as quietly as possible. This gives each student the chance to explore long form improvisation without the fear of being embarrassed.
5) Figure out when to incorporate improvisation during your rehearsal.
You wouldn’t spend an entire lesson on sight-reading, so why spend an entire lesson on improvisation? Play one game a day, every day, as part of your warm-up exercises. A cappella groups who tend not to warm-up their voices (which is bad…) should try and play two improvisation games per rehearsal.
6) Develop an improvisation pay-off.
Why are you improvising? Just for the sake of improvising? That’s not enough motivation to get your group to do it every day. Try these goals:
1. Program a song in your concert repertoire that includes an improvisation solo
2. Do a live improvisation on stage or ask the audience to participate in a circle song
3. Train your group for a RIFF-OFF!!!
7) Relate improvisation to the national standards of music
A. Standard 1- Singing alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
1. Vary the genres of improvisation. Try a pop progression, a jazz progression, a classical progression, a blues progression, etc.
B. Standard 3- Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
1. Teach your students a familiar melody and have each one change it slightly, either tonally or rhythmically.
C. Standard 4- Composing and arranging music with specified guidelines
1. Develop an improvisation that frames the base for a composition assignment.
D. Standard 5- Reading and notating music
1. Use improvisation to draw connections between chord progressions in popular music.
E. Standard 6- Listening to, analyzing, and describing music
1. Listen to recordings of popular vocal improvisers and follow along with the chord progressions. Discuss any motives developed or recognizable patterns.
F. Standard 7- Evaluating music and music performances
1. Compare and contrast improvisations from different vocalists on the same tune or chord progression.
G. Standard 8- Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts
1. Interpret abstract symbols as sound effects
2. Develop a story through sounds
3. Improvise lyrics or lines of poetry
10) Develop the solo improviser
Several books have been written that provide aspiring improvisers with exercises designed to improve “hearing and singing” the chord changes.
Bob Stoloff- Scat!
Bob Stoloff- Vocal Improvisation
Michele Weir- Vocal Improvisation
I will be holding improvisation workshops at the ACDA National Convention in Dallas this weekend and BOSS in April. Let’s improvise together!
Marc Silverberg
Follow the Quest for the A cappella Major

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