Music Improv

In the give and take of everyday conversation, no one stops to wonder how we know how to take turns and react to each other’s words and thoughts. Such simple exchanges also take place in music and rhythm. Some people fear improvisation as an intimidating concept when it is presented as a skill for only the most experienced and talented musicians in jazz or classical music. But every made-up melody, every ditty hummed in the shower or drummed on the dashboard waiting for the light to change, starts as an improvisation. Our creativity is innate. Some of us specialize in creating music and become composers – improvising our creations, then honing the structure and form. Many among us become acculturated away from direct musical experiences – we put down our instruments and lose touch with our creative sources. But there is a way to reconnect…

Why is it that that every school child comes home with his or her own artwork, but so few ever come home with their own music? Something they have made themselves and did not copy or repeat verbatim from a composer? First the teachers must learn how to facilitate improvisation experiences, so they can encourage the next generation of composers. Music from the Heart workshops for school music teachers are full participation experiences with minimal lecture. Teachers are guided from whole-group jams to small ensemble exercises. Along the way they learn the roles of soloist and accompanist, the aspects of listening that make for sensitive ensemble playing, and the wellsprings of human emotional experience that can be expressed in powerful improvised solos.

Improvisation can have a place in every General Music class. Beginning with simple rhythm activities, students learn how to be an active part of a group while playing and while listening. Through turn-taking and role-shifting games, students learn the skills that contribute to successful group improvisations – cooperation and support combined with bold self-expression and risk-taking. Tonal activities begin with voices and extend to whatever instruments are on hand.

Tight, crisp, coordinated rhythm sections listen well to each other. Improvisation activities promote higher levels of listening that make for more intensely synchronized performances. The rhythm section, comprised of skin drums, sticks, shakers, scratchers, and bells, offers a wide range of timbres and pitch ranges for a “drum song.” Rhythm is often the most accessible entry place for improvising, as the increasing popularity of drum circle activities around the world can confirm. Rhythm is the basis for children’s social games, whether we think of them as music or not. Improvisation rhythm activities have the interactive and engaging quality of games, the social exchanges of interpersonal sensitivity lessons, and the variety of sounds that satisfy experienced musicians. Group drumming facilitation skills apply to nearly every ensemble, from a classroom needing to be focused and quietly coordinated, to a chamber music performing ensemble who trade dynamics cues with a wink and a nod.

Musical fluency on a melody instrument is like “singing with your fingers.” Students learn to connect their musical ideas with their instrumental techniques, starting at their own level along the developmental skill timeline. Everyone takes part as both soloist and accompanist, learning the rudiments of support and risk. The core of the work is imitation, which comes from a combination of socially coordinated listening and gains in technique that come from wanting to make new sounds.

In order to “jam” and make music as a group, the group has to come to tacit agreements about starting and stopping, tonality and dynamics, whole group and small group showcasing, and the strategic uses of silence. The lessons are apparent in the music itself without singling anyone out for correction or blaming. No embarrassment, no shame, and all gain. Tight rhythms and coordinated melodic interactions make for exciting jams that are self-motivating. Students can also learn the rudiments of facilitating small group music experiences, so they can take away a sense of themselves as potential leaders.

For many of us, musicians or amateurs, our voices are our first and most natural instrument.  Our voices can also become over practiced and stuck in musical routines. When this happens we can lose access to our creative sources. Dr. Oshinsky draws on his experience as a musician and as a psychotherapist to reconnect people with their most natural voice.  The process is simple but profound: breathe, which involves the body in the sound making; sigh, which allows tone to develop naturally, without a heady musical intent; extend the sigh into a tone, exploring the resonances of the body; and follow the tone into a song, creating spontaneous music that bypasses intellectualized and routinized musical paths.  This process is available to individuals and small groups.

Drum circle facilitation involves guiding a group of players towards deeper and more coordinated listening and more satisfying musical interactions. The basic principles of facilitation are easy: keep it simple, be positive, connect with everyone, guide as little as possible, and trust the group to learn by interacting and listening to each other. Through whole group interaction, small group showcasing, and individual solo work, drumming allows for the presentation of the building blocks of all of music – tonal variety, dynamics of volume and tempo, contrasts of timbres and styles, the power of unison and intensity of polyrhythmic complexity. Facilitation skills have applications in school music, in performing ensembles, in conference team building, and in personal musicianship. The skills are most easily communicated in rhythm contexts, but they apply to all instruments and voices.

Jim Oshinsky has a vision – that everyone is musical, and that improvisation is the bridge that can naturally connect one human being to another. He has dedicated his life to musical labors of love – collaborating with master teachers of improvisation and documenting their inspirational work. Jim is a dynamic and sincere teacher in his own right, presenting improvised music programs that are fun, deep, and accessible to people of all ages and all levels of musical experience. He is the author of Return to Child, Music for People’s Guide to Improvising Music and Authentic Group Leadership (www.returntochild.com).

Use the “Contact” feature of this website to reach Dr. Oshinsky by email.

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