Making Improv a Game, with Jeffrey Agrell

Today on the show we have the pleasure of interviewing one of our favourite people in the world of music education, Jeffrey Agrell. He has pioneered a game-based approach to learning improvisation and written 9 books on the topic, including “Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians” which by itself features over 500 games you can use to learn to improvise in an easy and enjoyable way.

Jeffrey was a professional French horn player, to the level of becoming a college professor in horn at the University of Iowa in 2000 – before realising that his heart just wasn’t in it for years and decades of repeating the same classical music repertoire and performances. That led to his exploring and developing ways for classical music players to begin improvising, not by switching their attention to jazz, but in ways that were fully compatible with their classical music perspective but set them free of the sheet music.

When we interviewed Jeffrey for back in 2016, we called the post “Game Your Way To Impressive Improvising” – because we wanted to make the point that a game-based approach to learning to improvise is not just a frivolous way to have fun but a highly effective way to learn to improvise. Improvising is not a distraction or diversion from becoming a great musician, but in fact could be a critical and generally-missing part of it.

Jeffrey is a master of metaphors and analogies and this conversation is packed with taxi drivers, fish on bicycles, talking babies, brontosaurus anatomy, 10,000 eggs and more. He paints vivid pictures of the limitations and problems with traditional classical music training and what learning to improvise can look like.

He shares:

  • A simple idea and range of examples of how you can transform practicing scales into something enjoyable, creative, and ultimately even more effective for improving your technique.
  • Exactly how much theory knowledge, instrument technique and aural skills are required to improvise music.
  • How and why to learn improv with a musical friend, even if neither of you have any knowledge or experience of improvisation before starting.

Whatever your relationship with improvising, whether non-existent or highly developed, you’re going to discover some fresh inspiration and guidance in this episode for how to more fully express the musician you have inside through the art of improvisation.

Watch the episode:

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Jeffrey: Hi, this is Jeffrey Agrell, I’m the author of Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians and you’re watching Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show, Jeffrey. Thank you for joining us today.

Jeffrey: Great to be here, thank you.

Christopher: I was saying to you before we hit record that I consider your interview on our web site one of the best pieces of material we have on improvisation and I often think of you in the context of learning improv for a couple of reasons. The first is that you approach it not from a jazz perspective but specifically from a classical perspective, something that I think a lot of people imagine is the antithesis of improvisation. You also specialize in improvisational games which to me is maybe the epitome of what learning improv should feel like and how we should approach it. You’re always at the back of my mind and I regret that we have not had you on the show much sooner, so I’m delighted to have you with us today and I’ve love to dive into all of this and unpack it with you.

Christopher: Before we do, though, I know only kind of a nutshell summary bio of where you’ve come from yourself as a musician. I wonder if we could go all the way back to the beginning and talk about how you learned music yourself.

Jeffrey: Well, the very first thing I did was sing a solo in a children’s operetta when I was in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade I started playing horn in band. In the ninth grade, I was messing around at a party on a guitar and then I said, “I’ve got to have one of these,” so I started on that. I started the two channels, the two, I don’t know, rivers of music in my life that have flowed along in parallel ever since. One is the classical horn world and the other one is the, I don’t know what you call it, folk do-it-yourself one which was, I’ve done many things, mostly guitar. Guitar, banjo, little mandolin, I had a little time with a fiddle, Autoharp, dulcimer, all that stuff. Later on, even while I was playing in the orchestra I was learning jazz guitar and bluegrass and all that.

Jeffrey: Like I said, it was these two parallel rivers that really didn’t mix because I learned classical the way everybody else does, everything is written down. In the other one, nothing is written down, although I did play classical guitar for a while and that was written down of course. I had these two worlds that didn’t mix until very late and I would love to help people start mixing them many decades earlier than I did.

Christopher: Gotcha. It’s fascinating and I think in my experience, there aren’t many people who study classical music to the level you have and on an instrument like French horn who keep that second river flowing, as it were. You described fairly early on dabbling on guitar and really finding an affinity for that side of music making too. Was there anything in your family or education or maybe your personality that meant you kind of juggled the two in a way that not many classical musicians do?

Jeffrey: Well, most people play piano. Fewer play guitar. I also had, in a way I did a lot of things that were kind of just waiting for this to happen. It just took a long time. I also did improvisational theater when I was in college, just fell into that in some ways. They were just separate. There was no roadmap for doing anything any different that way. The guitar didn’t seem to mix with anything unless you were playing in a pit orchestra and sitting next to the classical musicians and classical was very well defined. You didn’t do anything except what someone else had prepared for you. That was it. Everything was, and still is almost everywhere, all defined, the way we do it. The way I got out of, should I mention how I got out of that?

Christopher: Please do. I was about to ask.

Jeffrey: Boredom. You worked very hard on classical because it’s a tough business, a tough business to get into and you have to show up and do things the same, be very consistent every day over and over. You’re only good as your last performance and the performance is ranked on how perfectly did you play, how perfectly did you follow orders? The score and the conductor, did you do exactly what they said? We do not want to hear your ideas, we want to hear their ideas and can you recreate them?

Jeffrey: Early on, that’s very exciting to play in a orchestra and do all that stuff but the problem is it’s always the same. After a while it comes around again, the repertoire comes around again and you, “Okay, that was really fun the first time.” It was really fun, the first 70 performances of that, but gradually it is, for me anyway, it was less interesting because it was predictable. It was also stressful. Predictable gives you boring, stressful means you can’t do it any other way and you can’t miss anything. You do it 5,000 times right, you don’t get to miss it on 5,001. It was a toxic mix of stressful and boring most of the time. I mean there were wonderful times with certain conductors, certain pieces of course, but after doing that for many years and then starting university teaching, I had to start doing something dangerous.

Jeffrey: I started thinking. Because you don’t have to think, you just have to follow orders when you’re doing only classical all the time. Well, I didn’t only do that because you, that part of the day that you may have a morning rehearsal and an evening performance but you have the afternoon free. If you’re already playing six or seven hours a day, you’re probably not going to practice much so you have time to do whatever you want. I spent that time working on guitar, doing composing, I composed a lot, writing, I like to write, and developing that side of it. When I started teaching at the University of Iowa 20 years ago, I had to deal with this very terrible attitude of mine, which was bored. I didn’t even like to play the horn anymore. I mean really. You can’t do that as a teacher, so what are you going to do?

Jeffrey: What I did was to, “All right, what if I combine these two things that I have done all my life? How do you do that?” How do you combine this thing which is all this and the other thing which is none of that? Later, I gave those names. The classical side I called the literate side which is you only deal with notated things, things that are written down, things that are by somebody else, and the aural/creative side which is where you don’t use notation or very seldom you write down. You do things different every time, exact opposite of classical music. What I tell them in my classes, I said, “When you’re improvising creative music, you try to do it differently every time.” No matter how wonderful and creative and beautiful and amazing that last improv was, don’t ever do it again. Do something new. In classical, it’s exactly the opposite. You do it one way and then you do that the same way every time.

Jeffrey: I didn’t really know what to do but I just started experimenting. I had a wonderful collaborator who was a student, he was a jazz pianist, and he for some strange reason agreed to work with me. We experimented and we tried things but not jazz. I mean I was a jazz guitarist but that wasn’t me on the horn. I didn’t want to, there are some amazing jazz horn players but I’m not one of them and I didn’t really want to try to fit into that repertoire and that technique and things. I wanted to use what I already had.

Jeffrey: We tried this, we tried that. He was a composer, I was a composer, so we came up with ways to do it. I felt like a guy with a machete in a jungle, just trying to slash away and carve a path somehow. If there were paths out there, I couldn’t see them. I had to invent something that I could live with and enjoy and do something with. Then I was very lucky because I got to give a course because they needed somebody to jump in and give an improv course. It was the intro jazz course so I made it half jazz and half not jazz. That didn’t really work because people who wanted to do the jazz part, this was not enough jazz, and people who didn’t want to do the jazz part, way too much jazz. It was solved the following year when we split that into two sections. I was the non jazz, somebody else did the jazz one.

Jeffrey: That student became my TA. He went to grad school and got his master’s in jazz piano. The first five years of that course of what the discoveries were became the first volume of my book, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. It was a scary time. I was terrified to start. I had to. I only did it because I had, people don’t like change. I didn’t like change. You change only if you’re forced to, if you have to and I had to. I just, I was that much more curious and bored than I was terrified. I was still terrified because what is the worst thing you can do in classical music? Make a mistake. Don’t miss the note, oh, especially with horn players. Don’t make a mistake. That’s all we’re obsessed with and that is one of the things that keeps us from trying anything, this terror of making a mistake.

Jeffrey: When you’re doing creative music, you go, “Oh boy, something I didn’t expect, wonderful! Now I’m going to discover something new I could have never planned for,” and so it’s a happy occasion. You turn that into something brand new, something interesting. It’s a completely different mindset. I discovered pretty early on the barrier to anyone making their own music has nothing to do with your technique. It doesn’t matter, the level of your playing. We are deceived in that because we think improv is jazz and jazz, you need years of hard study absolutely because we don’t want to play a wrong note. Although in jazz they say you’re never more than a half step from a good note.

Jeffrey: Even jazz players work with that but classical players, it’s like sticking your finger in an electric socket if you make any kind of mistake. You hate it and you don’t want to do it so you’re not going to play something new that you don’t see written down. That’s just too terrifying to even contemplate. That is the biggest hurdle to get over, how do I start? How do I get beyond the terror I feel for not playing what the note somebody told me so I can feel safe?”

Christopher: I have such admiration for you hacking away at that jungle, as it were. Here at Musicality we often talk about how learning an instrument often just means instrument technique and repertoire and reading the notes on the page and being pigeonholed whatever the genre. Often that’s what learning music seems to boil down to for people. It takes, as you say, confidence or courage rather to depart from that and try something creative where all of your lessons to date have told you that mistakes are bad and you shouldn’t play a wrong note. It does take courage to explore a different option and I think that goes doubly in your case where you weren’t just coming away from instrument technique, you were coming away from a very high level career in classical music, a university post no less and breaking new ground when it comes to what improv can be. Obviously we now all enjoy the fruits of that through your books.

Christopher: You’ve raised that major barrier, that fear of mistakes. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but from my perspective, the fact that you specialize not in improvisational methods or the theory of improv but in improv games is a big part of the solution to that. Would you agree?

Jeffrey: Improv games is packaging the subject so that it is easily, it helps people start. You could do just fine without the book if you wanted to. Now I hope everybody buys the book but you don’t need it to start. You don’t need anything to start except a new attitude, that you feel you have permission to try something. That, I think the biggest problem and I think my biggest area, I have nine books now on the improv games and everything. What I’m more focused on these days is being a, I don’t know, rabble rouser a little bit in the entire focus of musical curricula, especially instrumental curricula. I think there’s so many either inefficient or downright toxic traditions that we’re used to. They’re just no good or they don’t do what they should. They just are there because they’re easy to do. Did we ever talk about why the typewriter keyboard is the way it is?

Christopher: No.

Jeffrey: Because that has a direct parallel to the way we study music. The reason that the QWERTY, Q-W-E-R-T-Y, is laid out that way is to be purposefully bad. Because it was designed for typewriters, I don’t know if anyone still remembers what they, you can find them in museums, because you press down a key and then a little key goes forward and it hits a ribbon which puts the imprint of a letter on there. Now on the early typewriters and even the later ones, if you type too fast you will jam the keys. The inventors thought, “How could we make this really bad so that we slow them down? Because it takes time to then fix that if you jam the keys. You have to stop, so let’s make this as awful as possible so we can slow them down.”

Jeffrey: Of course today, there’s a much better system called the Dvorak system in which the most used keys are in the home row under the strongest fingers so you don’t have to move. Almost no one does that because we’re all raised in the way that we have been. It’s tradition. We don’t think about it. Electronic keyboards make it a lot easier but nevertheless it’s an extremely inefficient way to do things that we have done. There are many things in not just music but in lots of traditions that are built into the curriculum and the way of teaching that everybody knows. I learned, you learned, everybody learned, but we don’t question because in classical music, one of the toxic paradigms is you only take orders. You don’t have permission or it’s never mentioned to you that you can try things and explore and discover and maybe there’s something different.

Jeffrey: That is maybe the number one awful part of this kind of music study, is that we’re just really good parrots. We are excellent re-creators and repeaters. Boy, are we good at that. Man, we get so good at that, but we have a creative art without creativity in general. English majors write essays and poems. Art students, can you imagine if art was only copying over the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces, that’s all you do? That’s what we do in music. No, they paint pictures, they paint their own pictures, they do sculpting, dance, do choreographed dances but they also improv dance, a thing called contact improv. I have worked with dancers in that way.

Jeffrey: The most fun concert I ever did in my life was improvised. Five improvised players and a stage full of dancers and we were watching the other one, listening to the other one and improvising from what we saw and they heard. That was just amazing.

Jeffrey: Anyway, theater people, they learn plays but they all learn improv. When we come to music, nobody does anything except recreate and boy, we’re good at that. That’s all we do. We’ve left out half of being a complete musician. We’ve left out this aural creative side. I had the two sides but not together on my one instrument. If you want more examples of the really, let’s say, toxic is maybe too strong but less efficient? A QWERTY keyboard is still a keyboard but it’s just not very efficient.

Jeffrey: One of them is aural skills, which everybody takes in school. We do it only on singing and piano. Great, wonderful. What about our instrument? That’s the most important thing. I should be learning that on my horn. I shouldn’t be spending all this time at the expense of doing it on the horn. There’s many ways. In the book of course I have a, well there’s two books now, volume one, volume two. I have many, many, many examples of how you can do aural games on the instrument, any instrument, horn of course is mine. That’s another one.

Jeffrey: Another one, one of my favorite pet peeves, I don’t know if you need to let me keep going here. I apologize.

Christopher: Let’s do one more and then move on.

Jeffrey: All right. One more is scales. The revered way of doing scales is to play octave scales. Octave scale, keep going up, keep going up. Don’t we feel good about ourselves? We can just play these long scales and we’re just so wonderful, but tell me a piece, at least for horn, tell me a piece for horn that has a three octave scale in it. There aren’t any. Tell me a piece that has a two octave scale in it. There aren’t any there either. There are some that have a one direction, one octave scale. Not many but there are some, okay.

Jeffrey: You are a veterinarian and you’re studying brontosaurs anatomy and then you’re going to go out and work on dogs and cats? Why aren’t you doing something that you’re going to do later? Why are we doing these really useless things? It’s great, it’s wonderful to memorize a page of the dictionary. Oh, isn’t that great, you can remember that. What are you going to use that for? Well, aren’t you wonderful, you can do that. Very easy to grade you, having you spit back those words that you’ve memorized. Sorry, I’m getting snarky again.

Jeffrey: We’re practicing very hard, years and years, have to play it in proficiencies, something that tells you almost nothing about your technique and zero about your musicality. What could we do to make that different? That would be another topic. I won’t answer the question unless you beg me to. Sorry, I go on too long. I know, I’m sorry.

Christopher: Not at all. One thing I love about you is you are not just standing on a soapbox complaining as some people do.

Jeffrey: I am doing that, but I agree.

Christopher: You’re not just doing that by any means. You are far more constructive and positive in how you actually go about exacting change in this area. I want to talk a lot more about your games in particular, but before we move on to that I’d like to just underscore something that was underlying some of what you talked about there, which is the status quo in terms of focusing purely on technique and adopting the doctrines and methodologies of the past just on faith that they must be good because they’ve been around so long.

Christopher: I think part of what keeps a lot of people trapped in that and stops us from questioning it is this idea that that is the route to best results. Okay, maybe we could dabble in that more creative stuff or maybe play with some improv, and I think in particular people listening and hearing us talk about games may already be thinking, “That just sounds like a waste of time or a pastime. I want to get good on my instrument.” I think what was underlying a lot of what you just said was we’re not talking about a distraction from accomplishing and achieving and becoming a great musician. Actually, a lot of this stuff could and should be central to becoming a great musician.

Jeffrey: Oh boy, what a good question. Oh my goodness. Which one is the better taxi driver, the one who drives up and down Main Street only or the one who takes a little more time and investigates all the side streets this way and that way and other ways? The way we learn, we learn basically very few ways, very few paths to study, say, technique and we do them over and over long after we need to, long after it serves any purpose except to, that’s all we know. We think we’re done because that is the paradigm. Here’s your scale, one, two, three octaves, go up and down, that’s all you will do for the rest of your life.

Jeffrey: Now what improv is, one useful definition is that it is making your own decisions about what to do next. Here’s the funny thing. The ironic thing is that everyone does this all day long. It’s called conversation and it’s easy and it’s very useful, it expresses what you want, you don’t break into a sweat, you don’t worry about missing a word or something. You’re not paralyzed by, “Did I speak perfectly?” It gets that part of the job done. Imagine a world where you could only speak and memorize sentences that the great orators had said? Oh, isn’t, well how nice for you, but you can’t get anything done or it’s in a much more limited way.

Jeffrey: There’s another saying in education that is if you want your students to get smarter, you want their IQ to go up, let them make some decisions. They don’t make any decisions in the traditional classical way. They only follow orders, they only do what their teacher tells them. Now that’s not to say students should learn what their teacher’s teaching, but there has to be the side where they make their own decisions. That I can easily see and I’ve heard it before and that was, one, that it was taking a big risk when I used the word “games” in the title. You think because music is serious, “We don’t play games, we’re serious. We only do what’s serious, no fun, things we have to endure,” sorry, I’m doing it again, “to get through,” but in fact the best way to learn something is to make it playful like children.

Jeffrey: If they had to be serious about the way they learn to speak and the way they learn to interact with people and they’re growing up, they would never get any of it done. If you make it a game, suddenly it is fun, fun is motivating, I know we’re not supposed to have fun. Fun is motivating. If it’s motivating, you do more of it. If you do more of it, you get better at it. If you’re not worried about mistakes so much, like babies don’t worry about if they said, “Goo goo ga ga,” instead of chrysanthemum, they learn pretty fast. You don’t criticize them. You applaud their efforts. You cheer when they say, “Ma ma.” One of the toxic things about classical study is that we have defined the reason to do music and the way to do music, and you should feel bad if you do it any other way, is to get virtuoso, is to play many notes very well and perfectly.

Jeffrey: That means lots of study and that makes amateurs say, “Oh, why do I even bother?” Actually this happened to me once. One of my projects, it was years ago but one of my grad students took the devil’s advocate and I said, “We’re going to compose a piece. Everyone’s going to learn to get their feet wet in composition.” He said, “Why should I compose? I’m not Beethoven. Nothing I write will be as good as what the great masters have done. Why should I bother?”

Jeffrey: I mumbled something that I’m embarrassed about now. I don’t think I did very well but later it occurred to me that that was the perfection trap. What it does is it prevents you from doing anything. The reason you do it is, A, because it’s interesting and fun and it’s personally enriching. Beethoven’s not composing anymore, he’s only decomposing. I’m sorry about that one. Engaging in the arts is for everyone. The virtuoso perfection trap is going to discourage a lot of people from trying it. The reason you do sports is not because, well you don’t say, “I’m not going to do any sports because there are better people than me.” There’s better people, I don’t care who you are, there’s better people than you in anything. Sports, cooking, anything you can think of, there’s better people so that is not the reason that you don’t do it. You do it because it’s interesting, it’s fun, it’s personally enriching. It’s healthy, mind and body. We can’t let that part of it stop us.

Jeffrey: Now you’re, you’re part of, the frivolous nature of the game nature, I just was trying to make the point that playful behavior, actually you’ll learn much faster. I just read something the other day that if you do something in a routine way, it takes 800 repetitions to learn it. If you do it in a playful way, it only takes like 40 repetitions. It’s a much stronger, faster way actually, doing it in a playful manner than doing it in a serious manner.

Jeffrey: The thing is that we, like the taxi driver, and this is something that everybody could use, is the easiest way to become a creative musician, assuming you are in the old model of, “You don’t do anything,” is to take anything you’re doing right now and change one thing. If you’re playing octave scales, you don’t have to change everything and turn it into a virtuoso cadenza. Just change one thing. Start today.

Jeffrey: How about playing it a little louder, that’s a change, than you usually do? Play it a little faster, a little slower, a little softer. How about not making all the notes the same length? Why do we do everything in four four? Put on a metronome, see if you can play between the beats. We play everything in octaves, pick a different length. Try every length. See how different it feels if you play only six notes or four notes or you’re playing a pattern of notes that doesn’t match the metronome click. It’s clicking four and you play a three over that, play tuplets, play in a different meter. There’s a million ways that you can, just do a little bit, just do one thing that’s just a little bit harder and watch what happens.

Jeffrey: The first thing I notice is they wake up and become more alert. “Wow, that was a little harder! I had to pay attention.” When I do things I’ve done 10,000 times, “Oh, aren’t I wonderful doing this again,” I am asleep, I’m not even paying attention. I’m getting worse. When you add one little, little tweak, one little different thing, it gets interesting again. It’s like the first day is like being in love a little bit and a way to even enhance that more is to do it with somebody else. Here’s another part of the paradigm that is not very good and that’s our paradigm for practice is alone, like a monk in a cell, a lighthouse keeper, only by yourself. You can do almost everything with somebody else and it doesn’t even have to be your same instrument.

Jeffrey: Now it really gets interesting because now you do the most important part of improvisation, which has nothing to do with technique. It’s just listening, like your conversation. A good conversation is someone listening to what’s going on, responding and then carrying the conversation a little farther. What you do, you listen to your partner, you listen to yourself. What just happened? Can I, should I repeat that? Should I twist it a little bit? Have we been doing this a long time, now let’s do something different? How can I support that? Should I be in the foreground, the background? Should I make it a little louder? Should I respond? Should we have a little conversation back and forth? He says something, I say something?

Jeffrey: There are so many ways that we are kept entirely innocent of in classical playing, it doesn’t happen unless somebody else says it, that when you start doing this you find out, A, it’s easy, B, it’s fun, C, why the hell haven’t we been doing this since the first day we started on our instruments?

Christopher: Amazing. That’s a wonderful illustration, I think, of the possibilities and the payoff. Before we dive into games, because I like that you clarified that the games are a way of framing this overall attitude, this approach, this concept of what improv can be, it’s not that games are the be all and end all. It’s that they capture the playfulness and they give people an easy way in. Before we talk specifically about the games, I wonder if you could share that philosophy in a nutshell or your own definition of what improv can be that makes it accessible in that way?

Jeffrey: Well, if we want a definition that maybe helps the people who are trying to make the transition, and it is a procedure, it’s a technique to work on both your technique and your musicality at the same time. We separate the two, that’s another problem with classical music is everything is separated. History, theory, composition, your instrumental technique. What have I left out? All of the things are studied separately and you can play all your pieces and not know anything about the harmony or the composer or anything else, just get the notes right.

Jeffrey: What improvisation does as really a very, a much more useful technique in studying anything you’re working on, is it brings everything together. It integrates all of those things. You need everything, theory, you need all the theory you can get to understand what you’re doing. You cannot play anything unless you understand what you’re doing and you know what you’re doing. You don’t just make blind noises in the air, you make a conscious intention, a decision about what to play and it doesn’t matter what that is. It can be one note.

Jeffrey: That’s the problem, classical musicians try to do too many notes at first and then the choke and they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re playing just like they do scales, they have no intention when they play the scales except following orders. When you have to make decisions, now you have to think and you have to respond and you have to listen and that’s all new at first, although they do it every day when they converse. You do exactly that when you talk to somebody. It’s hardest to start but once you start and restrict yourself to things that are easy, one note is fine, then it becomes easier to choose the next note and then suddenly you can go on from there.

Jeffrey: What the games do is they provide little sandboxes to play in and not choke on too much, trying to do too much too soon. People don’t expect when they first study Mandarin to be auctioneers in Mandarin the first week. Unfortunately, classical players pretty much expect that of themselves when they start playing. They think, “I should be exactly at the same level when I start doing this new thing I’ve never done before.” That chokes them off because they’re using the wrong standard. They’re trying to see how good the fish is on the bicycle. They’re trying to say, “Well, the standard is lots of notes and very fast and all perfect,” because they’re using the standard of classical music, but nobody told them what to play so they choke. They don’t know what to talk about because they don’t know how to listen.

Jeffrey: What the games do is any creative artist’s best friend, which is restrictions. Limitations. Like Stravinsky said, he said, “If you give me any note in the universe, I can’t write anything, but if you give me five notes, restrict me to five notes, I can write a symphony, no problem.” That’s exactly what this is. We very often, one of the games when we start in our class with the brave people that actually dare to take my improv class, we do only rhythm for the first couple weeks because there’s no pitches to worry about. You can’t play any wrong notes which usually means wrong pitches. We do lots of rhythm which is notoriously the weakest point of any classical musician’s training, is rhythm because we get it around the edges and we’re mainly concerned with, “Get the note, don’t miss the note,” so all pitch. I wrote a 447 page book on horn technique. There is zero about rhythm in that. It’s all about how do you get the note, so guilty as charged.

Jeffrey: They say, “Well, I need lots of notes to make something interesting.” No you don’t. Drummers every day make up amazing things with just one sound, with one note pitch. A proto pitch is then timbre change. If you hit the side of the drum, that’s kind of like changing notes in a way.

Jeffrey: We start off and then we play a game invented by Walter Mathieu in his wonderful book The Listening Book. It’s called AMAPFALAP, as much as possible from as little as possible, you have one note, go wild. What can you do with that one note? Can you just change the rhythms, change dynamics, change what you can change but now you don’t have to worry about pitches, which is the big bugaboo. “How can I play a lot of pitches,” because the old fish bicycle thing.

Jeffrey: What the games do is they supply limitations in various ways so that it’s much easier to make a choice. If you have 10,000 eggs, which ones are you going to pick? That’s a tough choice but if you have three eggs, pick two, okay, a lot easier to make the choice. That’s what the games do. They are divided up into categories somewhat arbitrarily but it’s melody games, rhythms games, harmony games, depiction games, about 30-some categories. In the second book I added a new one, movement games because movement games are still making choices about what to do and it’s a great way to warm up. It’s a great way, a great transition for classical musicians into making decisions about what to do. Just start with something you can do very well, very easy. Move. Move your arms, move your legs, and then you say, “Well, this is not hard. Okay, got that.”

Jeffrey: There’s also spoken games. Everybody knows how to speak pretty much, so we use some of those, make decisions on what to say next. “You have 30 seconds to talk about bananas, go.” Easy, easy. Just doesn’t matter what you say, say something. We ease into it a little bit. Another thing that I also do in my classes, I do with my art students as well, is we do sound painting. They can go to, look on YouTube, look for videos, just do a search for sound painting, which is a gestural system of improvisation invented by New Yorker Walter Thompson 40 some years ago. It like whole group, long tone, play, and then you could say volume up, volume down, pitch up, pitch down. There are many, many ways to do that and it’s a very easy transition for a classical player because the conductor asks for something general and then the player just picks something specific. Play a long note, which note? You choose. All right, not too difficult.

Jeffrey: We use that. We give actually, my art students, we give two concerts at the end of the semester. The first concert is entirely improvised and it has sound painting in it, it has all these games. Then the second concert is their repertoire piece they’ve worked on all semester. Doing an improv concert sounds terrifying but once you’ve started and see how easy it is, you can’t wait to get up there and show everybody what you can do and how you can make up stuff on the spot. My students have stopped asking me even for permission, they just put it in their recitals. They do it themselves. They add their own improv. They drive the other people in band, two minutes before band they’ll start making up a horn quartet on the spot and everybody goes, “What? How do you do that?” They just smile and look superior. They have so much fun doing it. I just love that. It’s far enough long that they do this without a qualm.

Christopher: That was wonderful. I should clarify for the sake of our audio only listeners that when Jeffrey was talking about the sound painting there, there were specific hand gestures and movements that he was using to conduct the players. Am I right in understanding one person is acting as conductor with those gestures and the player or players are responding?

Jeffrey: Yes, exactly. You’re making these predefined gestures, although if you want to you can make up your own. There’s 1,500 gestures in the language but you don’t need more than, I can teach somebody 20 in an hour. We can learn 30-some in, if we have two rehearsals. I’ve done improv in other schools for instance where I come in and we have two rehearsals and then they do it in concert that evening because gesture is everyone’s native language. Everyone understands body language, facial expression, so gesture you learn immediately. You can learn many gestures. You only have to make a choice on what you do specifically for a general gesture.

Jeffrey: I just got back from, every other year I teach a improv course in Nova Scotia at Acadia University for masters students, a very special creative music masters program. I’m just the last, I’m the very tail end of it. I’m giving this capstone course three hours a day and doing improv and so everybody learns to be a sound painting conductor. Now there have been a hundred of these students, mostly Canadians, and now they’re all over Canada using sound painting, using all of these improv games in their daily life. It’s really interesting to hear from them. You get your band, you’re working on a contest piece and at the end of the hour they’re kind of flagging and suddenly you make the, “Everybody play,” gesture in sound painting and boy do they wake up. “Now what’s going to happen?” Then you do something and you can use your instrument, you can use your voice, it could be only certain people.

Jeffrey: As soon as you’re doing creative music, people wake up because they don’t know what’s coming. Because that’s one of the problems with classical music, you know what’s coming. You have worked on it, you better know what’s coming, although we need to be good sight readers as well. The point is not that one is better than the other or anything else but what we need is both of them. As I say, don’t let school get in the way of your education. It’s up to you not to wait for school to right all wrongs and do everything it should be doing. It does what is easy to do, not necessarily what’s any good and that is the aural creative side of music. That’s what interests me, to add that to all the stuff we do anyway, we have to do as part of the thing. We’re all in that system but we can add the other one.

Jeffrey: Now just one more thing and I’ll stop. You do hear people, especially band directors who I totally admire, unbelievable job they have to do. They say, “I don’t have any time for this creative crap, I’ve got way too much to do. I’ve got to do this and that and organize the Normandy invasion every day. It’s just amazing. I don’t have time for this.” Well, you don’t have time not to do it because when you start doing creative activities, what happens is your students, the ownership of the music, now it’s their music. Now they are learning how to create their own music that they want to do. It’s very motivating, very fun. Now that’s a short step to composition. If you know how to improvise, all you do is write it down and polish it and you have a composition.

Jeffrey: Pretty soon, your students are doing stuff that you could use in concerts. They’re doing little arrangements, doing compositions. You could add 10 seconds of sound painting in the middle of a piece. What’s also fun is in a piece where, I’ve done this with even sixth graders, in the middle of a regular concert you can turn around and you sound paint the audience, who having watched you a little bit has figured out some of the simple ones. They can do a long note and just hum a thing and they love it. Suddenly they’re paying attention. They’re not just checking their iPhone. Now they’re part of the act and it transforms the audience’s experience as well.

Jeffrey: There is not enough time not to add creativity and make everybody’s lives richer, better and want to do what you want to do music.

Christopher: Tremendous. That sounds so much fun but I’m conscious that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid. I’m definitely a convert on this. If I know our audience, there are probably a few thoughts in their head right now and one is, “Working with someone? That sounds scary. Could I really do it with a buddy if neither of us really know what we’re doing?” The second is, “That sounds great but I don’t really have the aural skills. I don’t have the ear to know what to do improvisationally.” The third is probably just, “Tell us some more improv games because it does sound a little bit fun.”

Jeffrey: The barrier, as I said, has nothing to do with anyone’s level or instrument. The barrier is entirely mental. It’s in our attitudes and the way we’ve been trained. We’ve been trained to think a certain way. The paradigm of classical music is what, or of the educational system and classical music is what you do, you as a student, what you do has no value except as far as you are able to parrot what you’re supposed to parrot and repeat back perfectly. We are very reluctant to try anything because we might make a mistake. We’re back to that again. The reason we don’t try is because the dreaded mistake.

Jeffrey: Now I have to say in all the years I’ve been doing this, many, many workshops and lessons and everything, I’ve only had one complete failure. That was, I was doing a workshop for some clarinets and doing all the usual things. It was going great but there was one person. She was a grad student, a wonderful player and I couldn’t get her to put the clarinet in her mouth to play. I said, “Pick any note, the easiest note, the most comfortable note you want to and just play that. You choose.” She wouldn’t do it. She was so terrified of doing anything that somebody didn’t dictate every aspect that she couldn’t even take a breath and play any note of her choice.

Jeffrey: Every other one person, the hardest part is starting and getting past your education. I say, “Just forget everything you’ve done.” That’s why we play a lot of these warm up games like the movement and the speaking and AMAPFALAP. Just get started. Now if you want to start and you have a buddy who you, first you have to get past the barrier and just say, “Can we dare to do this? Are we brave enough to start?”

Jeffrey: I would say a great way to start is do glacier music, I call it. That is just play long notes, assuming you have an instrument that plays long notes or do a tremolo if it doesn’t. Pick any note, pick your easiest note, pick your most comfortable note and play that as long as you, till you run out of breath or whatever, and then listen. Then listen to the, because the biggest thing is listening. It doesn’t have anything to do with your technique. It has to do with listening and responding. You listen to what’s going on. Listen to what they’re playing and what you’re playing. Stop any time you want, take a breath. It’s okay if you’re both silent or are the only ones playing, that’s fine, and listen some more.

Jeffrey: Listen to the, oh, now when you take a breath, when you start over, take a new note. If you want. You can go do the same note. At some point, you’ll say, “Okay, I’m a little not quite so terrified of this thing, making a decision on what to play, so I’ll pick another note.” Pick a note right next to it, pick your second most comfortable note. All right? Now you’re settling in a little bit. “Okay, I got this, but I’m getting a little bored. What if I make it swell a little bit?” Okay, so add some swells. What if you squeeze your lips or your mouthpiece or whatever and you make it wiggle a little bit. Oh, that’s fun.

Jeffrey: You have my permission to have fun, all right? Everybody has my, if you need permission, you got it. You have my permission, you have Christopher’s permission, go ahead and try something. If you need to, lock the doors, don’t let anybody hear you. I know you’re terrified of someone judging you by your new effort. Everyone is allowed to learn. Try it and then see what, oh, now he’s doing that and I’m doing that. Okay, now let’s try something.

Jeffrey: Let’s do a new game, it’s only long notes but you both take a breath and you pick a note independently. Then as soon as you play, see if you can both find the same note as quickly as possible. Just move around diatonically, pick a scale so you know what you’re in if you want. C major, that’s fine. Okay, he picked a note, you picked a note and unless you were lucky enough to pick the same note, you’re on different notes. Now find each other. Hide and go seek. Oh man, how quick can you do that? Do it slurred, do it tongued, try the other one soft, you loud, switch. Let’s do it. Now let’s do the same thing only let’s do it with short notes, really short notes. Okay, what was his note, what was your note? Okay, come together, see if you can find the same note.

Jeffrey: Okay, let’s do another game. Let’s do, pick your note but let’s play the fastest notes you can play on that one. That was great. That sounded amazing. Now let’s do one where you pick, just make it sound random like marbles falling down a wooden staircase where he’s random and you’re random. Okay, good. Now let’s do that game again and this time every once in a while, hold one of the notes longer whenever you want. Good, all right. That was interesting. Now let’s do this. Now this time let’s change the game and if you both are long at the same time, you have to hold it until you run out of breath or eight seconds, whichever comes first.

Jeffrey: You can see. You can go on and on like that. There are two rules to improvisation and it has nothing to do with virtuosity. The first rule is pick something. You’re on the note committee, pick something that is comfortable and safe and easy for you. Oh, just find the easiest thing you can do. Stay safe, stay secure, keep your blood pressure down. Gradually you will overcome that terrible disease known as perfectionism and worrying about being judged and all the things that are stopping you from having a voice in music, which everybody has and school has never told you that you have your own voice the same way you have a conversational voice. Okay, that’s rule one, pick something safe, comfortable.

Jeffrey: Rule two for later is ignore or break rule one as often as possible. Go wild, try any thing and just see what happens. Nobody going to die. Wow, you might discover something really amazing but you got to get through one where you’re not worried so much about your ego. We involve our ego in everything because it’s about perfection. Nobody’s perfect so you’re going to lose that one right away. Now it’s just about being interesting and listening. “Okay, that happened. What might we do next? Hm, that was interesting.”

Jeffrey: The first thing we do after in my class always, after we do an improv we say, we don’t say, “Was that bad or good?” We don’t say, “Do we like it or not like it?” We say, “Hm, what just happened,” and we try to develop a memory for what happens because like in a conversation, you need to remember what you’ve talked about and not make up a new topic on every sentence. You talk about a subject. You try to remember, “What did I do? How do we start? Then what happened? Where did it go?”

Christopher: Wonderful. That did exactly what I hoped it would, which was paint a really vivid picture for people, I think, of how easy and fun this can be as well as giving them some very specific suggestions they can go away and try immediately. I know that for those who are feeling captivated by this and eager to go and put this into action, they’re going to quickly want more examples, more instruction, and obviously the spirit of this is to get away from someone telling you exactly what to do but at the same time your books are an incredible treasure trove of ideas to play around with. I’d love if you could talk a little bit about those books and what they have in store for people.

Jeffrey: What the books do is, like any book or method, what would hopes is it saves you time. You could rediscover all the stuff I did on your own. I’m sure you could, but I can save you a lot of time because, especially in the first volume, it says it’s a lot of how to. How do you make a melody? I don’t know about you but nobody ever told me to make a melody in school, you may just copy somebody else’s melody or play it like somebody else. How do you make a melody? It’s interesting. We play 10,000 of them and we have no idea how to do it. Try that. Try a student, ask a student, “How do you play a melody?” Or, “What are some principles on how to make a melody?” “Well, I don’t know. No one ever asked me.”

Jeffrey: Then how about, “How do you be an accompaniment? We have to think about you’re not always the soloist, how do you accompany people?” What about, there are some pointers for working on technique in this way. How about motivic development? As usually, you start very simple and then you build step by step, goo goo ga ga, ma ma, horsey, ducky. You build on that, but it’s fun and interesting every step of the way partly because it’s social. Improv is social, you do it by yourself and you can and should but you’ll still working with your metronome, your rhythm source. Very soon, preferably from the very beginning with your enlightened teacher, is you play duets and you can then expand that into chamber music and so on.

Jeffrey: What the book has, it has explanatory material and how to do things and then it has many, many, many, many different kind of games. Some are for one person. Some two, three, four, five, as many as you can fit in the room games. They’re all mixed together. There’s, I don’t know, a hundred melody games, I don’t remember. Then the different categories. They’re arranged, it drives some people crazy because it’s not in alphabetical order. It’s in the order that I kind of thought was the most important. I think it starts with rhythm, which I think is the most, best way to start. Don’t worry about pitch.

Jeffrey: The harder one, which basically we just start on on the end of my course, is harmony because harmony is about right note, wrong note. There’s a way to do that and be much simpler, not worry about pitch, missing notes so much. Harmony is a more complex topic that we wait on a little bit, on that one.

Jeffrey: Then there’s many kinds of notes like depictions where you don’t have to worry about notes at all and you get to use extended techniques. Extended techniques are a real pain in the butt in classical music. They’re hard to notate, hard to reproduce what you think that little squiggle’s supposed to mean and it’s just annoying basically. There’s lot of them that are just impossible or the composers have gotten a little drunk on writing extended techniques and really come up with a lot of nonsense. If you choose them, it’s amazing because you can choose the ones that work for you that are easy, you don’t have to notate them and you can use those in the depiction games. The typical one is adjective noun. Now in the back of the book, there’s a, I call the improv generator. There’s a huge list of adjectives, nouns and then musical styles and you can put those together at random. The philosophical gorilla, for instance. Start playing. What does that sound like? Who knows? You figure it out as you go. You can use that and you can use extended techniques there. You can do whatever you want.

Jeffrey: There’s a lot of resource material in the back. There’s all the books I collected. Books, articles, magazine articles, web sites, dissertations, a ton of stuff. There’s even more in the second book. The second book, which is even longer, came out in 2016, has 642 games I think but less explanatory material because I will have assumed you have volume one, and even more resources in the back, things that have been collected in the eight years since. Lots of, if you want to do further study you can use that. There’s really material enough for a lifetime. Then the other books are broken down into smaller areas. One for piano teachers, one for vocal teachers. I did those with a collaborator. There’s one for duets, one for one person. Those are thinner so you can carry in a case.

Jeffrey: These are a little annoyingly big, the volume one and volume two. The good thing is they have a lot of material. The bad thing is that they have a lot of material. They’re heavy to lug around, maybe healthy to lug around. Anyway, it’s like in the old days, the complete Whole Earth Catalog. It’s as everything you can imagine to get started and refer to but it should be considered, everything in there should only be considered a beginning. Everyone should say, “You have permission, you are actually ordered to change anything in any of them, tweak them, combine them, put two together, put four together, change whatever it is to whatever your situation is and adapt them. Use that as a springboard to your own version of it.”

Jeffrey: Nothing, I don’t want it to be the classical written in stone thing. You don’t have to do anything I say there except be inspired by it and change it and use it to your own purposes. Just start and that’s the only, just start. Anybody, you should feel free to send me an email if they have questions or if they want to tell me about their experiences. I’m always happy to hear about what other people are doing.

Christopher: Tremendous. Well Jeffrey, I so admire and applaud the work you’re doing and the books you’ve put out there into the world. All that remains is to say a huge thank you for coming on the show and sharing these ideas with our audience today.

Jeffrey: Well, thank you for letting me go on far too long about it. I just love to talk about it almost as much as I love to do it.

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