A Short Guide To Group Improvisation
By Jim Slansky
Group Improvisation is the allowance made for degrees of disciplined expansion and contraction of a given theme. The big shapes are provided by the composer of the theme, for example, the basic melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components of a certain song. The rest is up to the participants to flesh out their own parts in correspondence with each other's interpretation at that moment in time. Most group activities have room for some degree of Group Improvisation. The nature of this expansion and contraction is determined by the composition and the way it has been presented by the composer or by the way the presiding group of participants is reinterpreting it.
We all know how to use language. We've been on the road to successful communication since the day we were born. In whatever medium we have chosen, it is a never-ending progression toward fluency.
In order to have the best results we start by playing the initial composition and then proceed to themes inspired by the nature of that composition. We patiently build new, related themes often starting with big simple shapes and then gradually move toward smaller, more involved, complex shapes and back again. This expanding and contracting is found everywhere in nature. Contraction is a home base. Expansion is the next frontier.
The group's patient building of themes gives room for everyone's voice to find their place in context with each other. The more gradual the build the easier it is to tell where each other is going and to accommodate each other's ideas. At points during these building variations on the theme can be introduced without upsetting the equilibrium that has been established. In this manner the group can proceed together calmly into the great unknown.
Different situations demand that each participant play with different degrees of emphasis on themselves in relation to the whole. Sometimes we are featured in the mix. Sometimes we are all equal in the mix. Sometimes we are subservient to the other instruments in the mix. Ideally all ranges of these aspects of each person's prominence will be explored to create the most dynamic performance. Mixing ourselves with this range in mind will increase our vocabulary as a group and let the music breathe and change with the least restriction.
The overall use of sufficient repetition gives each player in the group a good idea as to where each other are going. This can increase the level of trust within the group. Trust is a prime ingredient in-group activity. When done consistently, a degree of 'telepathy' can occur.
In order for these repeated, gradually evolved ideas to flow from one to the other we must accept each idea that we present to the group as valid and not discard it abruptly. The discarding of any idea abruptly can interrupt the otherwise smooth course of the whole and will disturb the balance that has previously been achieved. If each idea that is presented is utilized in some way by that individual, the other people in the group can respond knowing full well that it will be included to some degree. One can say that no idea that is presented is faulty. There is no such thing as a mistake but only opportunity to explore a path that may not have been considered. Each idea presented can be used in a positive way. With this approach established, the potential for increased trust and telepathic communication will occur.
If this condition is established it creates an increasingly relaxed social environment from which an ever-widening range of conventional and less conventional harmonic/melodic statements can be used.
Cohesiveness occurs when we are all paying attention to the whole. We do not have to pay excessive attention to ourselves or to certain parts of the group excluding others but to the 'whole sound'. If we consistently pay attention to the whole and how we are fitting into it we will maximize cohesiveness.
Venturing into the unknown does not always require an imitative response to the others in the group. Imitation is a good starting point. Children imitate their parents but gradually move away from that and find their own voices. In the same way we can evolve from imitative responses to increasingly complimentary responses. We can move from call and response to simultaneous conversation in all sorts of varying degrees and from conventional parallel harmonies to less conventional incidental harmonies.
A productive leadership role can be one that invites situations where there the need for the same person to be always leading can dissolve into a natural democracy where each person's strengths are fully utilized to best serve the group. We can eventually establish a situation where things just happen in the womb of the group and leadership roles can change according to the demands of the piece as the improvisation evolves. As this scenario is increasingly explored, disciplined players will support each other's ideas with greater and greater sensitivity and beauty.
Whatever dissonances or oddities may occur can become points of interest and should never be deemed as mistakes, but again, as opportunities. We can be prepared for the inevitability of these occurrences and use them to our creative advantage by repeating them, evolving them, even inviting them.
A calm intense focus brought on by a confident understanding and a practiced ability to participate in the group improvisation process can give ecstatic results. Any assessments that are made during the activity can diminish that focus and can be detrimental to the balance that is being so painstakingly established. Assessment is a post-creative activity.
Collaborative activities, such as the ones described, can be seen as the cutting edge of human communication. The vulnerability endured when bringing one's ideas to the group to commingle with others can increase the gravity of individual contribution in an exponential way. It is of utmost importance to our survival that we increase our ability to communicate as a group and as individuals through such processes.