Monday, July 24, 2017

Ways into vocal improvisation for singing groups

I’m often asked by choir members if we can do some vocal improvisation.

photo © Aude Vanlathem

Improvising with a large group of singers is really hard, but here are some pointers to get you started.

Most singers think improvising is easy: you just make stuff up on the spot. That’s fine if it’s just you, or you and a drone or a backing track, but once there are several singers – not to mention a large choir – it can soon descend into chaotic noise.

The hardest thing for an improviser to do is to put their ego to one side. The aim is for the whole to sound great, whereas most inexperienced improvisers think it’s their opportunity to go for it with a wild solo.

It is extremely difficult to improvise with a large choir, say anything over 20 singers, unless the singers are extremely experienced improvisers. Much of what I’m going to suggest works best with smaller groups.

less is more

However you decide to set up your impro, less is more. When in doubt, continue to sing what you’re singing (or not singing if you’re silent) until the time is right to add something different. And that ‘different’ thing might mean something as simple as copying something else that’s already going on.

improvising is all about listening

Most beginners think improvising is about creating sound. But if everyone does that, and there is no structure, it becomes chaotic noise. The secret is to focus on listening rather than producing. Get a sense of the overall sound and add to it if and only if it will make it ‘better’. Time to put your ego to one side and focus on the collaboration.

start with a drone …

The easiest way to begin to develop listening skills and putting your ego to one side is to all begin singing a drone, I.e. everyone on the same note,using an open vowel. Ideally, if it’s a mixed group, you will all be singing at the same pitch, so choose a note that’s not too high for the men and not too low for the women. I often start on the A below middle C.

The aim should be to match your sound as perfectly as possible with everyone else in the group until you effectively disappear.

… then add some different drones …

Once the drone has settled in and it sounds like one voice, you can begin to add other notes. The instruction should be that each time a singer takes a breath they are allowed to choose a different note to drone on, one that “fits in” with the rest of the sound (however they decide to interpret that!).

Remember that less is more and it can sound stunning if, after five minutes say, just one voice moves onto a new note. The danger is that by giving the singers a little more freedom, everyone will decide to add a new note at the same time. Be patient!

.. and finally a melody

It may be that your group needs to spend several weeks trying out the two drone ideas above before they feel confident to go onto this next stage. Don’t rush things or it will soon descend into chaos.

Once you’ve established some moving chords (I.e. several drones at once, changing over time), you can suggest that one singer adds a very simple melody over the top. It should be short and simple and easy to copy. Other singers than have the choice to join in with the melody or stick with the drones.

Once everyone is comfortable with this you can gradually add counter melodies or harmonies to the existing melody. It’s always good after an impro has finished (by the way, if there is no leader, how do you decide that the impro has come to an end?) to discuss what worked and what didn’t so you can improve next time.

riffs with small groups

Rather than allowing every individual singer to improvise, with larger groups – say between 8 and 16 – you can divide the group into, say, four sections. An experienced leader can then give each group a basic riff to sing, then add different riffs with the other groups coming in (a bit like Circle Singing – see below).

The easiest riffs to start with are quite rhythmic, percussive riffs. Keep them short. As the group get more experienced you can try different flavours of riffs, e.g. lullaby, plaintive, Eastern European, operatic, etc.

Once your singers have got the idea how this works, you can get a singer in each group to take turns to create a new riff and the other singers in that group then copy them. The next group then chooses a singer to create a riff which “fits in” with the first one, and so on until everyone is singing.

scat singing

When your group has had experience of creating impros using drones and melodies and riffs you can set up a basic vocal backing track that doesn’t change and allow individual singers to improvise over the top. This is known as scat singing. It’s basically a melody with made-up nonsense syllables that sound like words but aren’t.

allocate roles

It is possible to improvise with larger groups, even choirs. The easiest way to do this is to allocate different vocal roles to separate groups within the choir. The idea of different roles also works in smaller groups by giving the impro a structure.

There are many different ways of carving up roles, these particular ones are taken from vocal artist Rhiannon which can be found on the Songs of the Moment website.

You don’t need to use all of the roles. They can be allocated by the leader or singers can choose them at random from cards. If the group is large, assign one singer from each group to create their part, then get the rest of the group to copy. When a new impro starts, allocate a different singer in each group.

  • Motor (the initiating idea)
    A pattern of usually 1-4 bars long which starts out the song. It is on the foundation of this first pattern that everything else is created.
  • Interlock (The consolidating rhythmic pattern)
    The challenge of the interlock is to create a pattern that has a driving rhythmic feel on it’s own and fills out the gaps in the motor.
  • Counterpoint (The contrast element)
    The counterpoint is any pattern which serves as a contrast to the composition. If the composition is based lots of rhythmic impulses, the counterpoints quality might be longer sustained notes. If the composition is based on descending melodic lines, the counterpoint might be an ascending line.
  • Harmony (The supporting element)
    The harmony supports any of the existing roles by adding a harmony to it. The harmony role is therefor not to create a new pattern, but to precisely copy one of the existing, but either as an upper or lower harmony.
  • Bass
    This usually means defining the root notes of the chords.
  • Percussion (Supporting the piece with a groove)
    Percussion should support the whole piece with vocal/body percussion, beatboxing, etc.
  • Solo (The cream on the cake)The last person solos on top of the piece. This is not a pattern role. Seek to interact with the patterns of the songs. 

other ideas

Here are some other ways into group improvisation from the Our Singing Thing blog.

Bobby McFerrin also has a method which he calls Circle Singing. Singers stand in a circle with one person (aka the “conductor” and “composer”) in the middle who leads the singers in a song, introducing different motifs or musical phrases to each singing section. This person can then sing a solo in the middle of the circle and/or invite others into the circle to sing solos.

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Chris Rowbury



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