Leading Group Improvisation Experiences

By Kalani • May 28th, 2013

Getting Started

This article is an excerpt from the Book, The Way of Music.

The Way of Music

“What should we play?” “How do we begin?” By now, I hope that the answers to these questions will seem fairly obvious to you. If not, I suggest that you begin by simply making a sound – any sound! Remember: Improvisation does not start with a plan. It starts with an action. As a workshop and retreat leader, I encounter many students who, despite the fact that they acquire more than enough skills, don’t seem to know how to help a group of people create their own in-the-moment music. They are not conscious of their own competence! Perhaps they don’t believe that music improvisation will work if you ‘just make a sound’ and take it from there, but it really is that simple.

“All starting points are equally valid. They begin where they are, often in the middle. […] The notion that there is such a thing as a proper beginning and the search to find that ideal starting place, robs us of time.” (Madson, 2005).

Take a breath. Raise your mallet. Draw your bow. Chose an instrument and make a sound. Once a sound is made, a relationship is formed – between the sound and those who experience it. From there, the music will create itself, based on your use of all the techniques that you have practiced and mastered. Make a sound. Repeat it or do something else. Synchronize, pace, contrast, extend, divide, ground, complement, modulate, and so forth. Make it up. Once the play process begins the music is a by-product, guided by knowledge and skills, and shaped by challenge-seeking behaviors along a journey that results in a pleasing effect – a “joyful noise” as some might put it. Since most sounds have a pitch, a single note has the potential to act as a tonal center or ground. Two sounds, one that comes after the other, have the potential to outline a pulse or even a melody. Once you have a pulse, you can use all the techniques you have been practicing to help the rhythm breathe and come to life. You don’t need a plan or a formula, and certainly not a sequence or procedure of musical ‘activities’ to follow. All you need is you, your musical partners, and a musical pallet. The best way to learn the language of music is to speak it. This means spending time immersed in the culture and practice of music making.

“Notice you did not develop your speaking technique through diligent practice, at least not the type of practice you are familiar with. […] You learned to speak through a natural process. Musicians could benefit from looking at this process.” (Wooten, 2006).

So don’t ask ‘how to get home,’ like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Click your heels three times and off you go! We create the path by walking it.

What Shall We Do?

Another category of questions I sometimes field from my students is the past or hypothetical ‘problem.’ These often include scenarios involving struggles of some kind, either between the participants or between the participants and the leader. They begin with “What if…” and “What do you do if…” IF you find yourself entertaining “what if” thoughts, remember that you already have all the skills you need to solve any problem that comes your way. How is that? Quite simply, because music-making is a self-organizing and problem-solving process. You always have at least three choices. You can always continue, change, or stop what you are doing. Yes, there are challenges and according to the principles of Flow, it’s the challenges that make it satisfying. So if “This” or “That” does start to happen, all you need to do is ‘be a musician’ and the ‘problem’ will work itself out. In many ways, playing music helps teach us how to live life with an attitude of acceptance and flow that can result in lower stress levels and higher satisfaction. Situations exist in the world. Problems exist in the mind.

Music only moves forward. We sometimes have a tendency to compare the present with the past. This is not only focusing on the irrelevant, it’s unproductive and it takes you out of the present – the only place life happens. Thinking about the future can also distract us from being in the here-and-now. Rather than think about what ‘could go wrong,’ use your musical skills and techniques to move forward and shape the world the way you want it to be. If you’re in a situation that you would rather not be in, don’t worry about it, just play your way out of it. If the rhythm falls apart, use that as an opportunity to experience silence and be glad that you now have a clear path ahead. If someone is creating tension in the music, just observe the effect “Ah! That’s a lot of tension!” If someone appears to be playing in a way that is incongruent with their inner state, allow them to find their way – in their own way. This is the beauty of improvised music making – there’s no one way, just the way – The way of music.

“You can discover more about people in an hour of play than a year of conversation.” – Plato

Experience: Group Leading

Lead experiences in the following formats, eventually exploring all the techniques you are developing.

  • Instrumental Nonreferential
  • Instrumental Referential
  • Song Improvisation
  • Vocal Nonreferential Improvisation
  • Body Improvisation
  • Mixed Media Improvisations
  • Conducted Improvisations

Strategies for Success

  • Create space for others to interject and develop new ideas.
  • Listen carefully before playing.
  • Play in a way that relates to what you hear.
  • Support those who need it by matching, grounding and amplifying.
  • Balance your dynamics to allow everyone to be heard.
  • Make connections through matching, synchronizing, imitating, making spaces, and interjecting.
  • Consider your use of tension & congruence and how it affects group relationships.
  • Work within the music.
  • Use conducting and verbal cues sparingly.
  • Remain open to, and supportive of, other’s impulses, even if they don’t match your own.
  • Minimalism.

This article is an excerpt from the book and CD, The Way of Music - Creating Sound Connections in Music Therapy (Sarsen Publishing)

Purchase from: West Music, Amazon, Sarsen Publishing

Madson, P. (2005). Improv wisdom: Don’t prepare, just show up. NY. New York: Bell Tower.

Wooten, V. (2006). The music lesson: A spiritual search for growth through music. New York, NY: Berkeley.


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