Rehearsing with Improvisation

My goal is to include some type of improvisation in each and every ensemble rehearsal, either as a warm-up in the beginning, or for skill-building throughout the rehearsals. Sometimes at the beginning of a rehearsal period, I find it helpful to plan one or two thematic rehearsals, where the ensemble focuses on one skill: for example, intonation, or rhythm, and approach that skill through different exercises and composed works.

Before starting to work with improvisation, it is important to have a supportive, trusting community, especially if the ensemble is made up of adult musicians. Adults have well-ingrained identities that they bring with them to the ensemble rehearsal, and they first need to feel safe in the environment before they can fully participate in these types of exercises. Some of the exercises I use to help build trust in a new ensemble are drawn from the theatrical improvisation culture. I have found them to be a good way to ‘break the ice’ and help to build social connections.

The idea behind these exercises is that the returning flutists can draw on whatever musical knowledge they already have when performing these explorations. Each returning flutist should be able to enter the exercise from their own personal level, and participate as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. The structure that exists in each exercise is there for support, rather than for limitation. I have found that in the beginning, adult musicians need strong limits to feel safe. As you continue, you can pull all the walls down!

Once the returning flutists feel comfortable enough with the ensemble, they should be able to explore their instrument, and become more aware of how they play during the improvisational explorations. Improvisation itself encourages reflection simply because the participants must be continuously aware of what is going on around them and how they interact with the other sounds during the exercises. The director can help develop this skill further using guided questions. These guided questions used during the reflective part of these improvisational exercises model the self-reflection that the returning flutists can take back to their own personal practice. 

Here are a few examples of exercises you can use to build trust, work on intonation, or add movement and awareness and free improvisation into rehearsals.

Getting to know each other: Name, City, Color 

This is a silly exercise to get people to work together, and get used to making mistakes together.

Have the ensemble stand in a circle facing each other. If you use this exercise with a new ensemble, you may want to first ask everyone to say their name. I usually start this exercise myself as director in the center of the circle, but anyone can start, holding a ball or other soft object. I like to start, so that I can also set the tone, and make sure the ensemble understands that in this exercise ‘mistakes’ are not only expected – they will be celebrated.

Say the name of another member of the ensemble in the circle, and dramatically present them with the object (the more exaggerated the drama, the better!). These two members change places, with the person who was in the center of the circle going to stand where the person who’s name they called was standing. The new member in the center then repeats the process, calling out another name,.

When everyone has been to the center of the circle at least twice, move on to the next section.

Now, ask everyone in the circle, in the order they are standing in,  to call out a city. It is important for everyone to remember the order they are said (it’s usually enough at the start for everyone to remember the city just before and just after their own). Go through the city names a couple times, to insure everyone remembers the order.

Combine the two: Have the ensemble yell out the name of their city at the correct time, in order. At the same time, someone will be in the center of the circle, calling out the name of one of the ensemble members.

As names are called, everyone will be changing positions within the circle. However, the order of cities remains the same. Ensemble members need to listen for both their name, and the city before their own, to know when to call out.

You can continue to add elements to make it more confusing: At some point, have everyone stop, (hopefully in a different order than they were above) and say a color, again, in they order they are now standing. Again, ask everyone to remember the order of colors (that will be different than the order of cities). Continue as before, this time everyone has three elements to be aware of.

Warming up minds and bodies: A-B-A

This is a walking exercise, a simple way to add movement to a rehearsal – but with a twist. You could even start the exercise by just having the ensemble walk around the room, and asking them to be aware of the sound of their feet, or ask them to use different parts of their body to pull them – for example: feel as though your right elbow is pulling you, or your left knee, your forehead, etc.

In this exercise, the ensemble will be creating a simple musical form with their motion. Explain before the exercise begins that you will ask the ensemble to walk around the room, slowly becoming aware of each other. As they do become aware, and feel a natural pull towards each other, have them come together in a tight formation (section ‘B’), until again, they naturally feel the need to move apart (second section ‘A’).

Discuss: Based on what you, the director, observe, ask these types of questions:

(If You notice the movements are stiff, ensemble doesn’t come together and move apart naturally) Did the exercise feel comfortable? Were you aware of how the other ensemble members were moving around you? Could you feel the group pulling together and moving apart before you saw it?

(If the B section is short in comparison to the two A sections) How did the B section feel? Did you get a feeling of moving together as one entity? Or squished and uncomfortable? Did you notice how the other ensemble members were moving?

Direct the returning flutists attention towards hearing, and feeling, rather than watching and reacting. Does it change the way the ensemble interacts? 

What happens if you ask the ensemble to make a crescendo with their body movements into the ‘B’ section, and a decrescendo as they move into the second ‘A’ section? Or the opposite?

Tuning Ears: Bending

Intonation is one of the biggest challenge a flute ensemble will face, so I use different types of listening exercises throughout all my rehearsals. I want to emphasize: please be sure that the flutists understand the small amount of movement that is necessary when bending tones. It would be better to first just explore bending, rather than to move quickly through this exercise if any of the flutists are using the jaw and neck to bend the notes, or feel pain when doing this exercise.

Explain and explore how easy it is to bend notes on the flute.  Be sure to clarify that bending should happen mainly with subtle movements of the lips and flute. Overuse of the neck or jaw can lead to pain. The movements involved are so subtle that it may take some time for the returning flutists to understand just what a small movement is required. In my experience, most returning flutists will try to bend by just moving the flute at first, since they have little understanding of the flexibility the lips have. Talking about the musculature of the lips and exploring flexibility without the flute may be a good way to start.

Concert ‘C’ on the staff will be the easiest for the flutists to bend, so it’s a good place to start. Have the ensemble members explore the range how low and how high they can bend their note. Encourage them to play these extremely flat or sharp notes long enough so they can hear how they sound as they interact with each other. The returning flutists should be able to hear the difference tone resulting from playing together. Encourage them to listen to how the tone moves as they bend their notes.

Once the ensemble is comfortable bending notes, have one flutist, preferably playing alto or bass flute, play one tone as a drone. You might want to stay on the ‘C’ for a while, before switching to an ‘A’, but you can try other notes as well. Have the other flutists bend the same note up and down, using both their lips and the position of the flute to raise or lower the pitch, and then find their way back to the droned note.

Continue by having the ensemble stand in a circle, and play an intentionally bent note to the flutist next to them. That flutist should try to match the pitch. They then turn to the next flutist, again playing an overly bent note. You can then have them ‘find their way home’ to a note that is closer to actual pitch, and pass that around the circle.

Freeing Interpretation: Building a Box for Improvisation

When introducing improvisation into rehearsals, especially freer improvisational exercises, it will be important in the beginning to create limits that can serve as support for beginning improvisers. Finding four ‘sides’ that build a box to hold an improvisation can help bring some structure and support into freer improvisations.

‘Sides’ can be anything: one particular key, dynamic, theme, the number of flutists playing at  once…whatever is relevant to the ensemble, and the present exercise. It can be a good idea to use sides that pertain to a specific piece the ensemble will rehearse after this exercise. Here are a few examples of 4-sided boxes to use as a basis for free improvisations :

1).Use the notes of an F pentatonic scale (F,G,A,C,D). 2). Play everything legato, no articulation. 3) Dynamic range should stay between p–mf. 4). Constant feeling of motion, no super long notes.

1) Use the notes of a one octave chromatic scale from G on the staff. 2) All notes should be strongly articulated. 3) Play as loudly as possible. 4) Most notes should be short. But if you haven’t heard a long tone being played in a while, play one, and hold it as long as possible.

1) Think of a foggy morning. 2) Start in a minor, but add other notes as necessary. 3) Limit the number of flutists playing at one time to 4 or 5. 4) The improvisation ends with the sun rising through the fog.

You can limit the improvisation even more by using only 2 or 3 sides. More than 4 will become confusing. One of the sides could be: ´these rules apply until you feel the need to break out of the box´. Even if you don’t include that rule, it should be implied that the sides are there to help the returning flutists feel safe. Once they do, they should be encouraged to ‘break out of the box’.