Monthly Archives: September 2008

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians

I see that Greg Sandow gave Jeff Agrell’s book a great mention last April, calling it ” a complete delight, radiating both love and deep understanding of music from every word.” I wrote my own review of Jeff’s wonderful book last February for Connections, the Music for People newsletter. But I neglected to post it here!

Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else by Jeffrey Agrell
Chicago: GIA Publications (2008). ISBN 978-1-57999-682-6

Jeff Agrell is one of the few classical music professors in the country who actively improvises, who passionately advocates for improvisation, who encourages and nurtures the improvisational spirit in his students, and who has succeeded at the often challenging task obtaining institutional support for a non-jazz improvisation course. After 25 years in a professional orchestra, Agrell became the French horn professor at the University of Iowa, and like many other classical musicians at midlife, was ready for a creative change. Having improvised and composed on the guitar since his teenage years, he finally began improvising on the horn. Most of us reading this article had a similar experience and found ourselves drawn to David Darling and Music for People. As he explains in the Preface to his recently released Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians: 500+ Non-jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else, published by GIA, Agrell found his musical guide and collaborator right at home, in the pianist Evan Mazunik, then a junior piano major at Iowa. For both it seems to have been a “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” with the ironic twist of their formal roles in the university. The two began improving together, and that work blossomed into concerts, recordings, and workshops, and the “Introduction to Improvisation” course Agrell offers regularly at Iowa (Mazunik now lives in New York).

Anyone who has been to a Music for People workshop would find Agrell’s teaching studio in Iowa surprisingly familiar, as I did one Saturday afternoon last November; it’s cluttered with the djembes and assorted small percussion instruments so rarely found in the offices of classical French horn professors yet so common in the MfP world. I sat down with him, two of his colleagues, a student or two, and the saxophonist George Wolfe from Ball State University, and we began improvising. “One of the great joys of being an improviser,” as Agrell quotes cellist Matthew Barley, “is that I can play with practically any musician in the world. It is like being fluent in dozens of languages.” And that was our experience; it was the magic of free improvisation as the University of Iowa School of Music’s 2007 Contemporary Improvisation Festival (at which I was one of the guest performer/clinicians) began.

Although the National Association of Schools of Music, which grants accreditation to college-level music programs, mandates that all music students have experience in improvisation, most institutions pay lip service to the requirement without truly embracing it. Classical music professors, unless they specialize in early music, tend to ignore improv, seeing it as something irrelevant to their mission, and many jazz professors look askance at improvisation which isn’t jazz. So it’s often a lonely mission for people like Agrell, who really gets the value of improvisation for music students, who truly grasps how the process of creating music ties everything together.

I’ve met many former classical musicians who got burned out and turned to improvising as an alternative, healing mode of making music. How many of us in the MfP culture have said at one time or another that we are “in recovery” from our classical training? We find ourselves improvising instead of playing classical music, and it’s a wonderful, liberating, and healing new era of life. It’s release! It’s an explosion of self-expression and creativity and connection with other people. Classical music, for some of us, becomes a former lover with whom we were once intensely but toxically involved, and from whom we’ve had to move on. Our new, passionate love, improvisation has taken its place, but enough hurt remains that it’s hard to “still be friends” with classical music.

Maybe this is one of the reasons why it’s rare to find people who regularly perform on a high professional level as both classical and eclectic (i.e., non-jazz) improvisers. Jeff Agrell has managed to integrate the two into his musical and teaching life. He clearly understands the central role improvisation played in what we now call classical music until the late 19th century, and he sees that improvisation can and should be part of the central, core experience of classical musicians.

All this is articulated extremely well in Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. At 354 pages, including several indexes, the book is both a manifesto making the case for improvisation in the training of classical musicians, and an wide-ranging encyclopedia of starting points for improvisation. He makes an excellent distinction between the notation-based, “literate” approach of the traditional classical musician and the “aural” approach of the improviser working without notation. “The two approaches—literate and aural—are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. They balance each other, develop musicianship skills, and promote health and sanity. To achieve the comprehensive musicianship so vital to a contemporary musician, both approaches need to be cultivated to the highest level possible.”

Agrell uses the term “games,” he explains, because of fear of mistakes which blocks the creativity of so many classical music students. I’ve had a copy for several weeks now; as I plan the sessions for the improvisation ensemble at DePauw University, where I teach, I find it a valuable resource, although I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. Agrell’s suggestions for structuring a college-level improvisation course are excellent, and will be of great value to colleagues at other institutions. And there are so many ideas for structuring improvisations! Warm-Up Games, Rhythm Games, Accent Games, Dynamics Games, Melody Games, Form Games, Harmony Games, etc., etc. The list of chapters goes on and on. What did they call the old Sears catalog? The “wish book?” It’s like that, an improviser’s wish book, except you don’t have to spend money (once you’ve bought the book), just creativity. There are so many games included that I find myself overwhelmed if I try to read too much in one sitting; it’s an encyclopedic desk reference that I’ll be working through for months to come.

Many of the game descriptions are brief, and I find it sometimes takes me a while to work out in my imagination what he’s suggesting. Clearly Agrell has worked to include as many games as possible, so brevity has been a priority. And he’s obviously avoided overly defining, and thus limiting, what are meant to be improvisations. So be warned: using this book requires the reader’s patience, thought and imagination. But the rewards are many.

Without a working knowledge of classical music terminology, much of the book might be hard to follow. But for classical musicians interested in improvisation, especially those of us who lead workshops and teach courses, it’s an excellent, welcome new reference, which makes an excellent compliment to classics like Return to Child, The Listening Book, and Free Play.

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Zoë Keating on how she does it

The fabulous looping cellist Zoë Keating explains it all.

Well, not in as much detail as those of us who also do cello looping might like, but it’s a great WNYC Radiolab podcast, with lots of music. Zoë does looped cello compositions; my own looping is mostly improvised or quasi-improvised. (Of course she also improvises, and the podcast ends with an imprvisation.)

I love her stuff.

And she makes some insightful comments in the podcast on how much more comfortable she feels playing her own music than the compositions of others. That resonates with me. I’m hopelessly addicted to playing classical music, though, and since much of my job is teaching it, I have to keep doing things like playing the Arpeggione Sonata and driving myself nuts. There are times, though, when I’d like to leave the classical stress behind. Yet the joy of performing classical music, when it goes well, is–what’s the word?–oh, right, addictive.

Back to Zoë. Here are the tech details from the bio page on her site:

The cello is amplified with an AKG C411 contact condenser mic. I run it through a few looping/sampling devices: two Electrix Repeaters, Ableton Live and a plugin called SooperLooper. I control the sampling and various other audio parameters with my feet, using a midi foot controller.

I bought ProTools SE this summer, with some faculty devlopment money that had to be spent before July 1. The package, which I have yet to open (due to being obsessed with all those shifts in the Arpeggione sonata, which I’m performing again Monday), is supposed to include a stripped-down, “lite” version of Ableton, about which I hear only great things. I’m going to need a foot controller, I know, to start really exploring it. But I’ll start thinking about such post-classical things Tuesday, post-Arpeggione.

(photo by Jeffrey Rusch, from Keating’s site.)

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Worlds of Warcraft, for College Credit

What triggered the need to blog this morning was a blog post titled My Cello Feels Neglected . . . , in which Justin G. (aka “zoomicroom”), a student at Vanderbilt University, comments that, “It’s very difficult to find a good balance between playing LOTRO and practicing the cello. Still working on that.” My sympathies to Justin–it’s hard to find a good balance between practicing the cello and other responsibilities, even when they include teaching the cello (hence my previous, slightly self-pitying post).

But what the heck is LORTO?

So I kept looking through his post, which had nothing else to say about the cello (what are his prioirites, anyway?) and then started exploring the blog on which he posted.

It turns out Justin is writing on a class blog for one of Vanderbilt’s first-year writing seminars, ENG 115F Worlds of Warcraft, perhaps not the first class at an elite university to focus on a popular video game, but certainly the first I’ve come across.

(If you’re wondering how I came across Justin’s comment on a blog I wouldn’t usually read, here’s the answer. I have Google alerts set up for “cello” and “cellist,” among others, and get a daily email with each new mention of those words anywhere Google finds them on the web.)

The course not only incorporates blog technology but also an ITunesU podcast. (There’s a direct link to the course’s podcast in the blog’s sidebar.) The students aren’t just playing games and listening to Itunes; they’re reading books, making connections between the virtual gaming world and actual literature as well as gaming theory, and doing a lot of writing. I’ll leave it to others to debate whether a first-year writing seminar which requires significant amount online gaming is a sign of the end times, or an innovative way to teach critical-thinking and writing skills by capitalizing on a passion shared by many new college students (and evidently some of their teachers, one of whom is the Chair of English at Vandy). (I’d be interested to see if Margaret Soltan, an English professor herself, at University Diaries has any thoughts.)

I imagine my avid-gamer son, while happy to be a sophomore at Grinnell, would have seriously looked at Vanderbilt had he known about this course.

I’m still not sure what LORTO is. That’s OK, I don’t really need to know, and I’m sure my son, to whom I’ll email a link to this post, will tell me anyway.

And may Justin G. make the time to practice his cello. It’s a struggle, but it’s worth it, dude.

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Blogging in bed

When school starts up (classes started here on August 27), life suddenly feels overwhelming, at least for a while. The mental energy to blog evaporates. Or at least it did for me.

There’s tremendous emotional energy that goes into starting a new course, establishing teaching relationships with new cello students, and reestablishing relationships with returning students. And there’s the really time consuming, and often frustrating, task of working out lesson times for cello students (time that most also work for their accompanists) and finding times for several chamber music groups to have coachings.

You think it’s all set and then someone stops by and says, “Did I sign up for Fridays at 1:00? I don’t know why I did that! I have a class then.” And then the whole intricate system, or portions of it, may collapse and have to be redone.

But now it’s all done. Or so I think. And the urge to blog is slowly returning. It’s enhanced today by whatever it is I’m coming down with–a scratchy throat and now a cough–which I’m using as an excuse to spend most of the morning in bed. Between last night and this morning, I’ve skimmed through the last four days of the New York Times (actual hard copy editions!) as well as last Sunday’s. I’ve browsed the web, watched YouTube clips and others I won’t mention, and right now I’m sick of reading and watching and feel lke writing.

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