In class today:

1) “Release” and slow Tai-chi style movement as transition into class, to reinforce use of the body, and to set up the next exercise.

2) Mirroring. Two people face each other, and, keeping eye contact, mirror the slow movements. One person leads, then the other, then do it with neither/both leading. It’s a way to explore communication, awareness, trust, and (eventually) entering into a common energy in which there’s a temporary joint sense of self in which the common movement appears to happen on its own without conscious control of the other. There’s got to be something about brain-wave patterns, parts of the brain, etc., that happens with this.

3) Discussion of the above and the readings for today, with Ambrosian chant playing softly in the background. In addition to comments about the experience of the mirroring exercise, one person pointed out how interesting it was to read in the Ferand about the universality of improvisational practices in various musical cultures. The conversation came to focus on the question of what did we improvise on Friday? Was it a work, a piece?

We looked at it in terms of Christopher Small’s idea of “musicking” as an action, rather that works of music as “things.” I eventually suggested that we ask ourselves if an unnotated, unrecorded improvisation should be thought of as any sort of a “thing.” Perhaps the musicking we did is better described as an activity than as a product that was produced.

We also discussed the fact that playing plain chant as background music is an example of how in the 19th and 20th centuries we’ve came to think of music as things. The various forms of chant were forms of prayer meant for specific occasions and places. Because we can take a recording of a choir chanting and play it as background music, we have a different relationship to it than was possible in the Medieval period.

4) Improvising in Dorian and Hypodorian

We did a good bit of call and response singing in the Dorian and Hypodorian modes (follow those links in the previous posts). Important points:

  • The name of a mode is determined by its final (the final note used in the chant)
  • Chants in a particular mode do not necessarily start on the final, but they do end on the final.
  • Authentic modes have an ambitus (range/tessitura) from the final to a note one octave above the final. The “authentic” version of Dorian, therefore, has a range from D-D (or re-re)
  • Plagal modes have an ambitus from a fourth below to a fith above the final. Hypodorian is the plagal version of Dorian, and has a range from A-A (la to la).
  • Each mode has a reciting tone, also known as the tenor.  This is the note that would be used for a series of repeated notes.
  • The reciting tone in Dorian is A, in Hypodorian F.
  • Chanting one note per syllable is called syllabic.
  • Chanting two or three notes per syllable is neumatic.
  • Chanting with many notes on one syllable is melismatic.

5) Improvising both vocally and using instruments, one can take a particular mode, be aware of the ambitus and the reciting tone, and experiment with syllabic (separate bows or clearly tongued), neumatic (short slurs) and melismatic (long slurs) gestures, while keeping in mind the sense of flow and phrasing characteristic of chant recordings.  This can be an experience of improvising to learn (about the musical language of chant), of self-expressive improvisation and even of quasi-idiomatic performance improvisation.  Perhaps the latter point is better put as idiomatically-inspired improvisation.

In addition to the scheduled readings in the Ferand and Goehr, you’ll find it helpful to listen to the “Ambrosian Chant” album on Naxos.  Just to get a feel for the rhythm and phrasng, you could even listen to it as background music.  Please listen carefully, though, to the Alleluia and the wonderful melismatic singing.

And we will sing/play the different versions of the chant used in Fernad Ex. 1.

Please add any comments on today’s class discussion, other thoughts regarding improvisation, etc.


During our time of exploring medieval music, including chant, organum, etc., it will be helpful to refresh our memories about a number of aspects of medieval music.

Here are some good resources:

We ended class on Friday with a short collective improvisation.

Was it a piece? A composition? A work? How would you described what was created? If it wasn’t a composition or work, what was it?

In a class about creativity (improvisation), it’s only natural to take some creative approaches to learning and assessing learning.  As we discussed in class on Friday morning, please add a comment listing 5 creative alternatives to preparing for and taking a test covering concepts and terminology.  The answer to every “can I” sort of question is yes, provided you are not going to hurt yourself or someone else in the process, and that it is possible to do.

In class I mentioned one of my past favorites, in which a student showed his understanding of the qualities of a good strings teacher and  orchestra program by writing a short story in which Dr. Evil (yes, the one from the Austin Powers movies) interviewed candidates to teach in the Evil School System.

A reminder that our class discussion topic for Monday 2/12 is “what is improvisation?”. Which also brings up the question, “what isn’t improvisation?”.  The online Encylopedia Britannica has a pretty good definition;  you can read it, along with a brief summary of the role of improvisation in Western music, by clicking here.  You could also check out the entry in Grove Music Online, which you can access through the library page.

Please write your own definition in a comment to this post.

In both Monday and Friday’s classes last week, we discussed different focuses for, or types of, improvisation.  When academics categorize phenomena in order to analyze them and better understand them, they often announce they have created a taxonomy of whatever it is they are taxonomizing.  (I don’t know that taxonomize is an actual word, but I like the sound of it).

As we discussed my evolving undestanding of improvisation, and the set of distinctions I use to relate to improvisation, I wrote on the board my developing taxonomy (although I didn’t use that word in class).

One distinction is whether or not the improvising, and studying of improvisational techniques, is meant to end in a performance for an audience or not.  Here we are using the word performance in a somewhat narrow sense (i.e., involving an audience), not simply as a synonym for playing/singing with other people around. (more…)

We had a good bit of discussion in today’s session regarding the element of pre-planned structure in an improvisation. For example, I set up a structure for us to use when we all held a B-flat drone and some of us improvised over it. Some remarked in the discussion afterwards that the taking-turns element felt constraining after a while, that some found their instinct was to respond and interact, and so felt frustrated.

There’s an example of having a limit on what’s going to happen. It’s also an example of improvising to learn–a structured exercise/game meant to encourage people to try particular ideas, and preventing the more confident and experienced improvisors from (possibly) taking over and dominating the experience.

And it’s an example of having both planned and unplanned elements in a piece including improvised elements. We discussed the fact that there is a continuum between totally free improvisation on one end and totally composed music on the other, with lots of room in between.

Here are some comments on this latter phenomenon which I wrote about a year ago as part of the first draft for my book. Please feel free to add your own comments, suggestions, etc. (more…)