Why everyone should do group improvisations

This article was first brought on vocal-blog.net, written by Songs of the Moment member Morten Mosgaard.

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I truly believe everyone can become a better singer through working with group improvisations. At least I think I have become a better singer because of my focus on improvisation. That’s why I want to share some of the reasons, as I see it, as to why everyone should do group improvisations. This is the first post about the subject, focusing mainly on what improvisation can teach us and how we can use this knowledge every time we sing.

One of the things I’ve experienced as a choir singer is that if the music should really come alive, everyone needs to take the full responsibility for the music. It took me some time to figure out what this responsibility meant for every single singer, but the answer came through a discussion with a friend of mine who is a classical pianist. I told him that I thought classical music lacked the inspiring energy from improvisation, which was the reason I loved jazz. Luckily for me, my friend disagreed and told me that classical music has a lot of improvisation in it – it’s just in another form. When you play a piano piece, the notes you need to play may be written all the way through, there may also be expressions and a convention about how you “play this composer” – but within that framework, you have all the room you need to make your very own interpretation. This perspective made me realize that improvisation doesn’t have to be free improv or a solo between two choruses, it could also be the exact way you chose to play one specific note.

This approach to improvisation inspired me to start working even more on detail than I did before; not in the organised way where the whole choir decides “to be quiet here”, “to make a crescendo here” and so on, but in the “I’ll try to listen and see what the others are doing, and I’ll make my voice do what the music needs to grow”-kind of way.

The Voxnorth experience

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The Voxnorth Boys

If you see every sound you make as a chance to improvise just a tiny bit, then the piece you’re performing comes to life in a whole new way. When I was still a part of Voxnorth, this was the very exercise that I was doing in “The Four Loves”; that is, to stay focused and mentally present throughout the whole piece (A Roger Treece Suite thats 24 minutes long). This was also the approach we were working on when we were performing my tune “Frit Fald”. The idea with the arrangement was to have a kind of musical framework for the tune, and nothing else than this framework (notes) was decided beforehand. The dynamics, tempo or sound could then change from venue to venue in this different approach to group improvisation. “Frit Fald” was by far my favorite tune to sing in Voxnorth because it was never the same and therefore always gave the impression of a living organism. Every time we would sing it, we would start “the framework”, and, like a true explorer, I would work my way into the song to see where it would take us this time. As far as I can recall, we always turned up the volume on the last part of the “ah”-piece in the interlude, but it just seemed to make sense every time. Some of the times I was thinking “let’s not go up”, but I would let the music and not my thoughts decide where to go. When the tune was at its best, it was the result of a great collaboration between me, as the soloist, and the guys who accompanied me. Sometimes it would be like an unpredictable roller coaster where you never knew what was going to happen. For this to succeed, the tune required full attention from all of us.

Ways of practice

There are different ways to practice this “responsibility” for the music. First of all, the responsibility is all about singing what seems right for the situation. This is not necessarily what you decided at the rehearsal, so the responsibility entails being aware of where the music is going and making sure that what you sing is what suits the music better. This might sound a bit challenging, but it’s most of all about listening to the music and making sure that what you sing fits what everyone else is doing in terms of timing, pitch, loudness, sound, and expression.

My favorite way to practice the responsibility is through group improvisation. Group improv only works when each singer takes responsibility for the whole piece. This could also mean not to sing if that’s what the music needs. As I see it, the goal is to make each other sound better within the group than we sound alone. It’s my impression that this happens in lot of the improvisations we do in Songs of the Moment. I was amazed by how well every singer would take the responsibility for each tune during our last concert and amazed by how well it worked with people shifting in taking the lead when it was needed. It was the perfect example of “The unpredictable roller coaster”.

Listen to these two very different live recordings of Frit Fald:


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