Category Archives: Jeff Agrell

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation.”

Turns out I’m not the only classical instrumentalist with a penchant for improvising who loves Frank Sinatra.  Jeff Agrell has a great post about his experience playing in an orchestra backing up Sinatra-embodier Steve Lippia.  Jeff adds a brilliant description of techniques jazz singers use that classical players hardly ever do, and, asking himself why jazz singers do what they do, offers wise insight into what makes effective performances so effective:

1) Variety. The success of every composition depends on the proper balance of unity (what you can predict) and variety (what you can’t). Too much unity and the listener is bored. Too much variety and the listener is frustrated. A 50/50 balance is just right, where the listener can guess what’s coming next about half the time.

[big snip]

2) Expression. None of the tracks were unaccompanied. All vocal lines have a band supporting them, contrasting with them, providing solid beat (predictable) plus phrase end fills, occasional bridge choruses, and rhythmic punctuation along the way (variety) against which the vocal lines can create their magic.

(Read the whole post–it’s worth it.)

This balance of steadiness and freedom, of predictability and surprise, about which Jeff writes so clearly, is one of the essentials in a great free improvisation. Which is why, I suppose, I love improvised melodies over drones or ostinatos (repeated patterns), which provide a solid platform to be creative over.

I’m reminded of when years ago I played in a small orchestra backing up Smokey Robinson.  Smokey toured with his own rhythm section and added local strings, as I recall. (Maybe winds, too.  I’m not sure.  But bless him for hiring those of us he hired!)

We locals had a rehearsal with his music director, who played a Dr. Beat metronome, set to its most clanky setting, through an amplifier.

“Ladies and gentleman, there is no interpretation,” the m.d. announced, with obviously-practiced authority, seeming somewhat grim about having to retrain yet another set of overly-lyrical musicians.

“There is no rubato.  There will be no slowing down or speeding up. You will stay exactly with the beat”   Resigned but determined, he worked to make sure we knew the charts and kept everything steady.  (OK, there may have been some ritards as songs ended, and some cued entrances and holds. But 99% of the time, we were amazingly rock-solid and did not adjust to what he was doing.)

It seemed obnoxious in the rehearsal. In the concert, I got it. We hadn’t rehearsed with Smokey.  Didn’t need to.  Because there was no interpretation on our parts.  He did his magic over the solid foundation his music director made sure we gave him.   We were steady so he could be free.

And here he is, in the most recent video on his website, in which the virtues of a steady-as-a-rock rhythm section are in abundant evidence:

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Filed under Frank Sinatra, improvisation, Interpretation, Jeff Agrell, Smokey Robinson, videos

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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Filed under improvisation, improvisation games, Jeff Agrell