Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Group vocal improv exercises

Over the last few months we at the London Vocal Improv Collective have found, collated, created and collected these ways of approaching vocal improvisation in a group of about 6 - 12 people.

1. Talking nonsense
Start by having conversations in nonsense. Before long, patterns start to arise from the nonsense - hear a phrase you like and start to repeat it. Little loops arrive, and from them music grows...

A good warm up for this is the Bobby M exercise where you go through the alphabet doing a bit of nonsense with each letter of it as the starting letter in turn.

2. Twisted karaoke
One person thinks of a song and keeps it secret. The rest of the group starts a groove (using, if needed, exercise 4). Then the soloist has to put their song over the group's groove, keeping as faithfully as possible to the song yet putting it within the tempo, time and key signature of the groove. Especially good with traditional songs in your mother tongue :)

3. You sing we follow
One person starts singing. It can be a song or an improvisation. The rest of the group brings in sound to support.

4. Motor, interlocker, counterpoint

Small version
Create a base with three roles.

The motor is a 1 - 4 bar repetitive riff. It has to have some space in it. Often you improvise your way into it, start singing whatever and wait for the loop to arise. The motor is also the conductor, and can lead key changes, endings, pauses, dynamic changes and so on.

The interlocker is like the motor's partner. It lives in the spaces created by the motor and works with the motor to create a strong basket to hold the piece in.

The counterpoint is another loop, but now an entirely new kind of sound, to create a fresh contrast to the motor-interlocker partnership. So, if they are very staccato, the counterpoint might be very flowing. If they are cute, it might be harsh. If they descend slowly, the counterpoint might ascend quickly. You get the idea.

Bigger version
Several other parts can layer upon the three part basis. Each of the primary three parts can have harmonies from other singers. In addition, there is base, rhythm (can be two or more people) and a soloist.


5. Whale song
Apparently, communities of whales know who's in their community because they all share the same song. They swim around the sea singing it. Often little variations come in. When a whale hears a community member singing a variation they like, they pick it up. In that way, by the end of a season often a whole community will be singing an entirely different song to the song they started with, but they will all still be singing the same song as one another.

Here's how whale song works.

One person is the conductor. They divide singers into parts and make up a part for each part group.

Once you've been given your part, you can stick to it, you can copy someone else, or you can sing something entirely different. The only idea really is to keep what you're doing in fitting with the whole sound. (It can be fitting to take it somewhere new).

In that way, once you've all got into the car, so to speak, you can take the car anywhere together. The piece finishes itself. When it's over, it's over.

6. Conductor soloist 
This is a bit like whale song but more power remains with the initial conductor. The conductor can keep tweaking the piece once it's live, changing parts, influencing dynamics and generally doing whatever they want.

The conductor can pick a soloist, or different soloists in turn. If you're picked you come into the middle and solo over the group. It doesn't matter how scared you are. You'll relax before long. It's important that the group supports the soloist with their volume, being quiet enough to hear the soloist and matching the soloists energy when they get loud and strong.

The conductor can be the soloist, and can play with the parts, for example cutting a part for half of it and singing in the space created like a call and response. You can silence parts entirely, move part volumes up and down, get everyone singing the same part, create more and more sub parts, and solo in a way that supports and serves the sound - anything that sounds and feels good!

6. Bubble up from silence
Here you just start from silence, with closed eyes, and let sound bubble up, live and die. What I find really delightful here is the mix between more and less musical noise. It can start from breath, rhythm can emerge, strange noises, animal or machinery noises, then some notes might flower like petals, stretch and harmonise, fly a little together, then sink back into atonal sounds.

7. Scene setting
This is a bit like bubbling up from silence, but you start by deciding on a scene. It can be, 'sunrise in Mumbai', or, 'a swamp', or, '2am soho' etc. Again you start from silence, the scene rises, lives out a kind of story, and then dies back into silence.

Do you have any more?

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