Vocal improvisation… it starts with breaking the rules and taking risks!
Are looking for ways to enhance your all-round creativity? Are wondering whether you can do that in your singing training? Well, with vocal improvisation, the answer is yes! Let me show you why, and how in this article.
Teachers, there’s also something for you here, especially if you’re looking for ideas on how to expand your exercise repertoire!
My name is Antonio De Lillis. I have been in the music industry for over 20 years as a singer and as a singing teacher. I have sung many styles in my career, but the one I’ve spent most time on is jazz. As a jazz singer, I very often find myself scatting and improvising in song.
For those who haven’t heard the word ‘scat’, ‘scat’ is that process where the singer creates music on-the-spot. It’s usually done using seemingly nonsense syllables. For example, you might have heard some jazzers use sounds like “doo-ba-da” or “ba-doo-ya”.
In other words, scatters improvise melodies, drawing on their imagination and their listening skills.
I have always loved to improvise and even now, if you leave me alone for two minutes, I’ll find I always start scatting. Once I get started, I can’t stop!
Enough TALKING about scat.. here’s some ACTUAL scatting! From the jazz legend who is Ella Fitzgerald.
My love for jazz and my passion for scat singing prompted me to undertake some deep research. I wanted to know if there was a connection between vocal improvisation, scatting and creativity. I found out some stuff, but what exactly are they?
First of all, what is improvisation?
Improvisation is the action of creating music on the spot, as it is being performed. It has a key role in jazz music but can be found in loads of other styles like Rock, Blues, Soul and Folk.
Even Freddie Mercury was a scatter!
Improvising is actually HUGE
According to current neuroscience, musical improvisation represents an incredibly complex form of creative behaviour. Whilst improvising, singers face the peculiar challenge of controlling many simultaneous aspects of music in real-time: they perform melodic and rhythmic phrases, coordinate their music making with other musicians AND execute elaborate motor movements to control their vocal instrument. All for the ultimate goal of producing aesthetically appealing music. As such, improvisation is a process that relies massively on a musicians’ imagination and creativity.
While improvising, a singers’ mind is focused on the musical ‘flow’ they are creating. Not being engaged in activities such as reading music notation and/or lyrics, or following a pre-learnt melody, allows singer to be free to use their creativity and express their musical ideas.
Can creativity be taught?
The neurophysiological basis of creativity is still a bit obscure. Some neuroscience studies seem to say that it is far from being a magical but unpredictable event of accidental inspiration. IT IS NOT A GIFT. On the contrary, creativity is thought to be an active application of ordinary cognitive processes. In other words, we can use our experience, knowledge and judgement to improvise well, just like learning any other skill.
Hey, ok… but, how can we do that?
A rising number of studies seem to indicate that jazz musicians, compared to classical musicians, show a higher level of creative thinking. This could be because they improvise more. Interestingly, other research shows similar finding sin the world of dance. Modern/contemporary dancers, who are used to improvise on stage, demonstrated higher creativity (measured by special thinking tasks and assessments) than classically trained dancers who normally follow well-structured choreographies closely.
The musical benefits of improvisation
So, research seems to suggest that improvisation nurtures the creative mind. This is an amazing thing in its own right of course. What is even more awesome, is that this is just one of its many benefits.
Musical pedagogues generally agree on the powerful impact it has on students’ musicianship. It has big potential to improve aural skills, rhythmic accuracy, sight-reading and listening skills. All the things we could all do with making sure are tip-top!
Improvisation may also help students gain a deeper understanding of music theory and develop their expressiveness and stage presence. Moreover, the practice of improvisation boosts harmonic and melodic awareness. Furthermore, it can improve phrasing and style. The bonuses are never-ending!
If you thought the last paragraph was great, well just wait to see the rest! Being used to improvising reduces the fear of making mistakes. Being unafraid to fail is, as you’ll hear often, the key to becoming a master of anything.
It doesn’t stop there. Researchers who compared the level of performance anxiety amongst musicians of various genres concluded that those who improvise are generally more confident over performing than the those who don’t.
Moreover, it appears that improvising involves and stimulates different aspects of human behaviour. For example, adaptation to changing environments, problem solving and risk taking. Aren’t these skills essential for us all in life, let alone music???
But where is it?
Given the breadth and importance of these benefits, someone may be surprised to find out that improvisation is, in fact, NOT widely practised in the teaching of singing. This may have been caused by the passed down traditions in “classical” values, which prefers the practice of sight reading and technique over creative activities. It may also depend on the challenges that the teaching and learning of improvisation can throw at you.
The teachers point of view
There are two main issues that singing teachers encounter when trying to teach someone to improvise in song. One is their own lack of experience in improvising, which makes them feel unconfident. The other is a difficulty in finding suitable material to learn from, given the massive lack of vocal improvisation literature out there currently.
The singers point of view
Singers often find the idea of improvising frightening when asked to improvise for the very first time. They will inevitably experience a big fear of the unknown. For many people, worrying about mistakes and looking stupid can be overwhelming. Improvising is indeed a very intimate thing, as it leads you towards opening up unexpected emotional territories; singers who improvise feel naked!
They may hold back on being creative because of everyone’s worst enemy… the fear of judgment! However, if you finally learn to let go of these worries and confront your inner-hyper-critical-self, you’ll eventually relax and experience the joys of improvisation.
Let’s get stuck in!
Here are a few activities that might be fun for singers out there to experiment with. Teachers, there are a few for you later down the article!
(Adapted from Agrell, Madura Ward-Steinman, 2014, pg. 9. Click the image to go to your local Amazon)
This is an exercise tailored to helping singers learn how to improvise melodic variations. Beginners could focus on changing the rhythm or the pitch of just one note, whilst more experienced singers could work on ornamentation, inflection, syncopation, changing the words and so on (imagination is the only limit!).
1. Sing a familiar song.
2. Start from the beginning, but now change something every 4/8 bars. It’s your choice!. You could add something or make it somehow different.
3. If you’re struggling for inspiration, try changing just one note. Maybe the last of each phrase. Alternatively you could invert the shape of the melody (e.g. if the original is an ascending melody, you could do it descending, etc.).
4. Repeat as many times as you are able to vary the chosen melody, each time adding/varying something else.
2. Blues: Just do it!
This activity offers a chance to introduce the exploration of improvisation using a simple musical structure, the 12 bar Blues (either major or minor).
Blues tunes are normally in an AAB form. They consist in a first melodic statement, which spans over 4 bars, followed by a repetition of the same melody for the next four. It’s finished by a final line which, lyrics wise, rhymes with the others and provides a kind of answer (response) to the first two melodic statements (calls).
Click here for a quick example of the 12-bar structure from blues legend, Willie Dixon.
1. Variation 1. Improvises freely over a 12 bar blues for 20/30 seconds. If that’s not too scary, go for a minute. Then go for up to 3 or 4 minutes. A bit of advice… don’t think about it, just do it. Trust your ears and your listening skills and go for it. A good idea would be to record yourself and listen back to your ideas. Don’t worry if you make a mistake or two… that’s all part of gaining the skill!
2. Variation 2. Improvises a melody over the first four bars, then repeat the same melody for the next four bars. On the last four bars create a whole new improvised melody to round off the 12 bar phrase.
3. Variation 3. Chooses a musical scale (e.g. the Blues scale, the minor pentatonic) and improvises trying to pick up notes from that scale.
4. Variation 4. Improvises avoiding a specific note of the chosen scale (e.g. the first note of the F blues scales, or the third note of the C minor pentatonic scale, etc).
This exercise helps singers explore melodic choices while emotionally connecting with their singing. Moreover, using moods works as a distractor and lessens the fear of making mistakes. The chord progression can be changed depending on your level (e.g. one chord if you are new to the ‘impro thing’. Maybe a 2-5-1 if you are used to do it already).
1. Choose a chord sequence to play with, for example a turnaround, 4-5-1, 2-5-1, 12-bar blues, 1 chord (major or minor), etc.
2. Choose a mood, emotion, or state of mind (e.g. happy, sad, ecstatic. scared, sleepy, drunken, weary, impatient, annoyed, tense, relieved, etc.)
3. Improvise whilst expressing that mood as it comes to you.
Try as many moods/emotions as you can think of. Record yourself and appreciate if and how you change your quality tone, chosen notes/scales/intervals, syllables, speed, length of musical ideas, etc.
So, how do we teach improvisation then?
To overcome these fears and challenges, I advise that singers are introduced to improvisation using “free form” games and activities, the main aim of which should be to make music together, without being worried about chords, scales, structures, number of bars, etc.
Many of these games can be used as a fun warm-up activity, or as a tool for working on specific musical elements or aspects of technique.
(Adapted from Agrell, Madura Ward-Steinman, 2014, pg. 1. Click the image to go to your local Amazon)
This exercise works well for both small and large groups and it can even be used in one-to-one sessions (teacher sings with the student). It can be used with beginners, advanced and mixed groups, where advanced will work on more refined and elaborated harmonies. It is aimed at embedding improvisational elements into warm-ups. With its numerous variations it can be also used to work on harmony and timbre exploration. The group setting provides a relatively safe environment, in which unexperienced students can explore improvisation without the feeling of “being on the spot”.
2+ singers. A-Cappella.
1. Teacher sings a hummed drone (long, sustained ‘M’).
1. Everyone sings the same note, at different octaves if the pitch is uncomfortably high or low.
2. Stay on the same note for a couple of breath cycles, and ask the singer to start changing the note by sliding up and/or down to a note that they like. Sing that for a few breath cycles so you create harmonies. Dissonant harmonies are welcome.
3. After a while, invite the singers to explore different sounds (vowels, fricatives, voice qualities). This will add another layer of improvisation
4. Encourage singers to use all parts of their range and different timbres.
5. Continue for 3-4 minutes.
By breaking the ice, students become increasingly familiar with improvisational activities. At this point some rules should be introduced, things like improvising over a given number of bars, using a specific scale, avoiding specific notes, using a particular structure (e.g. 12 bar blues), working with moods, density, etc. Over time, you’ll find out that the teaching and learning of improvisation becomes actually easier when some aspects of it are regulated.
2. Droning On
(Adapted from Stoloff, 2012 – click the image to go to your local Amazon)
This exercise offers an introduction on different scales and helps students internalise them.
2+ singers. In circle/semicircle.
1. The group first chooses a scale type: Major, pentatonic, minor (any kind), or a mode (Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, etc.).
2. All but one singer sings a low drone on the tonic.
3. One person solos over this drone in the selected scale.
4. Each solo can take ca. 30 seconds
5. Then the next person takes over until all have had the chance to sing solo.
Do yourself a favour… improvise everyday!
Given the extraordinary benefits of improvisation, I believe it should be turned into a regular component of our singing practice, rather than a mere add-on. If we believe that skills like creative thinking, risk taking and problem solving are important for ourselves, and want to have fun whilst working on our musicianship abilities, whether you are a singer, a student, or a singing teacher, well, let’s do it! Let’s improvise!
Stoloff, B., (2012), Vocal Improvisation: An Instru-Vocal Approach for Soloists, Groups, and Choirs, Boston, Berklee Press.
In 2011 graduated with a first class degree in jazz arranging and performance at Licinio Refice Conservatoire of Music (Frosinone, Italy).
In February 2018, he gained a Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Professional Practice (specialism Vocal Pedagogy) from Cardiff Metropolitan University.