workshop

Learning to Improvise: Communicative Improvisation Workshop

Earlier this year, I was asked to run a workshop on ‘Communicative Improvisation’ for the University of Edinburgh as part of their ‘Innovative Learning Week‘.  I have led many workshops on improvisation in the past, some focussed specifically on jazz, some on pop/rock, some on free-improv or improvisation for dance, for example, but never on ‘communicative improvisation’. To be honest, I wasn’t sure of exactly what this meant or how I would approach it. Also, when I agreed to do it, the only information about the participants was that they could could be from anywhere in the whole university (not specifically for music students) and that they may not even have any previous practical musical experience.  As it turned out, the group comprised a range of people who had never played an instrument before , people who were professional musicians and everything in between.

This got me thinking about improvisation from an interesting angle – specifically, about its communicative nature.  It became obvious to me that when a group of people improvise together, ‘communication’ should be an inherent (if not fundamental) aspect of the experience (arguably, this might also be the case when a solo improviser performs).  In order to develop an improvisation that is meaningful and fulfilling, it is important for each active participant to be both productive and receptive simultaneously. There is a responsibility not only to contribute to the group interaction but to modify one’s behaviour, input and personality based on the way in which other musicians play. One has to listen, evaluate, contextualise, surmise and react constantly, all the while, considering what interjection (if any) would be ‘beneficial’ to the improvisation both in terms of the process (i.e. how it will unfold) and the product (i.e. how it will sound to an audience – imagined or otherwise). In many ways, this is not dissimilar to a conversation.

Think of a conversation taking place amongst a group of people – your participation is improvisatory and many of the same evaluative processes take place.  Nobody wants to be perceived as the person that talks continually and doesn’t let anyone else have a say!  Conversely, your participation in the conversation would be negligible if you were the person that didn’t listen to what was going on or contribute.  So, you wait your turn, agree with certain things, disagree with others.  You encourage some people to continue what they are saying or steer certain participants away from difficult topics, for example.  With this parallel in mind, I believe that by considering the improvisatory nature of many forms of communication we can encourage improvisation to be more communicative.  Also, by remaining mindful of the challenges that are presented in the group improvisation setting, we can perhaps develop our communication abilities. The aesthetic implications of this are a discussion for another day…

My role as the workshop facilitator was to try to introduce people to improvisation and to suggest strategies and approaches.  One of the activities I used in the workshop was to have the participants improvise to visual stimuli. The idea was that they would be inspired by images (silent film, in this case) and would improvise as a group to either interpret, ‘describe’ or accompany the visuals.  Again, this was in order to explore the communicative nature of improvisation and the success of this could be measured and evaluated in many ways. This is the subject of a lot of research and practice that I am involved with at the moment and something that I am very interested in philosophically, aesthetically and practically.  I will write further posts on this subject in the near future, however, in the context of this blog post, I would simply like to share some of the results with you.

Have a look at the following video which is a short compilation of some of the work produced during this workshop.  The following videos were projected onto a large screen without any audio and a group of players (some of which had never played before, some were playing alien instruments and some were professional musicians) responded in a way that they considered to be ‘appropriate’ to the visual stimuli. During the workshop we spent a great deal of time discussing the performances in relation to the visual stimuli, considering possible ways in which we could create music that would compliment the films, and (constructively) criticising each other’s performances.  The process was fascinating for me as an educator and the feedback from the group was overwhelmingly positive.  I am also very pleased with the ‘results’ (i.e. the recordings of the improvisations which have been synched to the visuals) and I urge you to watch the following short video which shows some of the highlights from the session.

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Dr Zack Moir is a Lecturer in Popular Music at Edinburgh Napier University, and the University of the Highlands and Islands. He has a strong research interest in popular music pedagogy, music in higher education, musical improvisation and popular music composition. Zack is also an active musician and composer performing in ensembles and as a soloist, internationally. Zack is one of the editors of the 'Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music Education'.

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