Jammin’ in Music Theory class

May 2, 2007


On Monday night I emailed my class alerting them that we would be having an improvisation session in the morning. They were instructed to bring little percussion instruments (nothing pitched), and if they didn’t have one, they were to make one. The students showed up the next morning with a whole array of instruments, ranging from bottles full of pills, to Altoids boxes with pennies, puppets, to keys, and an collection of other exotic instruments and soundmakers — familiar and not.

The class began with a “Show & Teach” from Auni who demonstrated the basics of tap dancing. Half way through the demo, she said “Oh! I’m working on a piece now that is based on a Miles Davis tune but my iPod is dead so…” Jack raised his hand and said “You mean [he sings the tune]?” “Yeah! That one.” Jack replied that he could play it and dashed out of the room to get his trumpet. Upon his return, he started playing (nearly blasting poor Lana out of the room). “Jack, can you put in your Miles mute?” I insisted. He did, and what followed, even if not perfect, was one of the coolest moments in my teaching career. The class was sitting in the orchestra rehearsal room in not much light, and Auni and Jack, two Freshmen, played and danced a Miles tune while we snapped our fingers. Very cool.

After Auni’s demo, I went around the room listening to all of the gathered percussion instruments. For those who wished, I had extra soundmakers that they could use. I divided the class into the shakers and the articulators. I conducted and guided them into an ensemble back and forth group improv, experimenting with some textures and was pleased at how cool it all sounded. I then said “who else had got an idea?” Blake said “let’s break into groups.” So we all counted off 1 thru 5 and had each group go to a different part of the hall. The groups “communicated” with each other, alone and together. I turned of the lights (not completely) so that the shy ones (if there were any) would feel less inhibited, and we went on for several minutes of good improv. The whole session was only 20 minutes as I didn’t want to push my luck. The students seemed jazzed by it all afterwards: sweating, breathing heavily, and big smiles.

Using percussion instruments leveled the playing field, and many of the students experienced their first improvisation session. The next one will involve all pitch. Today, we return to orchestration.


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