Musical Improvisation Workshop


This workshop was presented in the “Primer Seminario Latinoamericano de Educación Musical” (FLADEM - 1999), in the “IV Encuentro Latinoamericano de Educación Musical” (Escuela Superior de Música de la UNAM, México 2003) and in other cities of México: Saltillo, Hermosillo, Monterrey, San Luis Potosí, Guadalajara, as a master class in the “III Encuentro Internacional de Jazz y Música Viva Monterrey 2005” and as central activity in the “III Festival del Día Internacional de la Música” (Hermosillo, Sonora, México 2005).

This workshops take place without interruption since 1996 in Hernán Rios’ particular studio and since September, 2004 in the official program of the “Conservatorio Provincial Julián Aguirre” (Music School of the State, Buenos Aires, Argentina), as “Técnicas de improvisación” (“Improvisations techniques”).

“We can all improvise. In fact, when we speak we discover that, maybe, improvisation is the most natural musical form. When we speak we transmit an idea, a message, and we do it using the words we find most appropriate. Besides the choice of words, we pay attention to their intonation, attack, volume, inflection, and silences. It all depends on circumstance: who is listening to us, where we are, how we feel that day, as well as many other factors. With musical improvisation something very similar to this happens.”

Workshop at Mexico DF 2003


· ¿How must we prepare ourselves to improvise?

How must we prepare for something that is going to happen, and that we do not know how it will be? We have a message to transmit and we have to choose the way we will do it.
In this workshop we work with all the formal aspects of music, but seen from another place. As if we watch a room’s inside from another window or coming into the room through a new door. We use notes, figures, measures, intervals, chords, rhythms, dynamics, melodies, silence, etc. taking them with naturalness, knowing what we are playing, always from searching our own voice and trying to join mind and intellectual vision to emotion and heart so as to make it a single one.

The sessions have two different sides:: the use of voice, clapping, percussion instruments, and the use of one’s own instrument. Everyone should both be an accompanist and have moments as a soloist. We always sing what we play, that is, everything that we play should be reproduced vocally in some way at the same time. The activities are designed for any instrumentation and are adapted depending on the instrumentation.

The activities are structured on these four principal aspects: rhythm, harmony, melody and expressive resources. Attention is concentrated in one of these points but we are using all of them. They are combined, and concentrating in the principle of the activities the attention is distracted from reasonable sources (mainly theory and technique) that usually obstruct the music to flow. In fact, our attitude towards these reasonable sources is the problem. As we play, we are in action and our position towards things move and is more flexible.

We embark on the rhythmic play with percussion instruments, clapping, our voices and our own instruments, connecting with music in the most natural way. We have to feel the rhythm in our body in order to be able to project it onto our instrument.
When we play together and are working with the rhythms over we are going to play with there is no choice: we have to listen to everything that is happening. The music we play depends on what the others are playing, and at the same time we influence the rest. This happens in real time, from the very beginning of the work and we have to use our theoretical, practical and spiritual preparation. Musicians play music with different elements: singing, percussion instruments, clapping palms, with one’s own instrument, in group and as soloist, singing and accompanying and appear, then, new elements. In some moments we are sure and in sometimes we have to work hard.

“It is not enough to know how to make, and where to place, little tricks,” he said.
A hunter should live as hunter to get the most out of his life.
In other wods, changes are difficult and happen slowly;
sometimes a man will take years to convince himself
of the necessity of changing. I took years, but maybe I wasn’t
particularly good at hunting. I think for me the most difficult thing was really wanting to change”.

(Castaneda, Carlos; “Viaje a Ixtlán ”; p. 119; Fondo de Cultura Económica; Bs. As. 1975 trans. Michael O'Brien).-

The questions are answered after the workshop sessions and theoretical concepts are In the deeply commented. We also make reflections over very, very important conceptual concepts: to silence, to playing around, to emotion, dynamic, training and technique, patience, discipline and study, limits, entertainment, time, frustrations, applying oneself, form, love, mistakes, work and everyday life, coherence, listening, …

The use of percussion instruments, palms and voice demonstrates the necessity of integration of all the faces that our message can show. Playing without stopping or playing the same instrument for a long period of time makes us look for new material so as not to repeat ourselves. Our attitude and search make us find the different possibilities we can find. We have to play with the applying oneself and being humble as much as we can.

The activities also look for a different approach to mistakes. Mistakes represent great fear, mainly when we do not feel them naturally. Special training for this is very important to solve problems: our mistakes and other musicians’ mistakes. It doesn’t matter which internal or external circumstances happen, we have to be on behalf of music. What attitude do we take toward mistakes? Are they music?

Playing is a ritual and improvising is not just playing whatever comes to your mind: it consists of playing something that occurs to us and that first we hear in our head. When improvising, there is only the moment, everything is happening right now in real time. Our music should represent what we want to transmit and our music has to have sense, some direction.

“Maybe I’ve invented something that already existed, but I’ve invented it, not chosen it.
I’ve brought it to the outside (that is to say, I’ve invented it) because I’ve lived it.
I’ve lived [seeing] how it was impossible for my intellect to improve a bad musical idea, and I’ve told myself that this couldn’t be mere chance, that there had to be an underlying law.
Here is the law: the musical idea itself.”

(SCHOENBERG, ARNOLD, “Tratado de armonía”, p. 488, Ed. Real Musical, España, 1974). trans. Michael O'Brien

From the theoretical point of view, we work with the four aspects mentioned before: rhythm, harmony, melody and the other musical resources (silence, accentuation and articulation, volume, attack, heights, density, etc.). The activities are the result of the combination of these elements. We study the relationship TENSION AND RELEASE that naturally appears in music with integrity.

The rhythmic aspect is essential. Feeling the rhythm in the body, feeling its dynamic, strengthen conscious of rhythm so as to be able to “float” over it. We also work with different Latin American rhythms and musical styles.

As harmony is concerned, from the harmonic knowledge of the musicians that are attending the workshop (types of chords and scales, their classification and functionality, chords extensions, harmonic substitutions) we work in the applications in tonal harmony, modal harmony and atonality as well as the connection with the other musical resources. Harmony is sometime considered the most important element in improvisation, while managing the tension – release relationship depends on other elements too, as we explained before (such as silence, dynamics and expressive resources, for example).
These are only some of the aspects that connect with art and life. “Our music” and “our instrument” are absolutely real and form part of us.

From melody the work goes to set up the musical speech in musical motives (short phrases or ideas) and their development. Connecting melody with harmony we can not play “chord by chord”, we have to understand and listen how harmony goes, realizing tension and release periods choosing the notes depending on how we want to sound.

The other musical resources are ESSENTIAL in music as our music will be profound depending on “how-to” express ourselves with what we want to play.

Finally, making a reflection on the necessity of being conscious of how important is “our playing” towards the world around us, as our music is our real demonstration - in form and content – of our position in life.

“Most of the people feel that a hard fist is the strength symbol. “I am powerful,
because I have a strong fist. I can hit you.
I can break a board in two pieces, I can break a brick”.
But there is a great difference between energy and strength. Energy is not that external expression of a heavy, hard and forced fist. It is not also a weak and useless fist. The tai-chi fist is just in the middle, neither totally forced nor completely gentle.
Is an empty, quiet fist ready to act.”

Al Chung-liang Huang (“The essence of T’ai chi”)

Workshop at Mexico DF 2003