Tag Archives: learning improv

More About Practicing Vocal Improv

A great way to practice improvisational singing is to invite at least one other person to sing with you or “work out” with you. This is one of the most efficient ways to expand your abilities, think outside your own sound box, and experiment with vocal patterns and musical ideas in addition to your own.

Adding another voice to your improv session changes the game completely.  It’s an automatic challenge.  For starters, you have to include another person vocally speaking, and you must sing with them.  For it to work, responses to whatever you sing to each other are a resounding “yes.”

You go with it….

Whatever the other person sings, you find your way into it, around it, under it, or through it and you sing notes that match or accentuate or support the “incoming” sound in some way.  You accompany, you follow.  And pretty soon you’re “leading”, but who is to know, really….and who cares.  The two of you are creating an unfolding vocal experience, an ebb and flow, an ever-moving river of sound.

As you sing, you will likely find yourself trusting the improvisational process more and more, and still you may falter.  You may hesitate.  But if you listen and breathe, you will probably find a new sound, sound pattern or expression you didn’t know you had.  What a gift from your partner in song.

When your partner moves into a vocal tangent you don’t understand, just wait a moment until you can feel what is being sung, what is being communicated, or where she is headed.  Then add to the mix in some way.

Be patient.  Simple is good.  In fact, simple is often the most beautiful.

You will probably begin to understand the other person (not to mention yourself) in a deep and unspoken way.  You might feel the voice-being next to you as if you were dancing together, moving as one, all while going forward into the sound of the two of you.

And then there’s another matter.  Since there are two of you and you are looking out for each other in this vocal improv game, you sing not as a soloist, but as a duo.  This means making space in your singing for another person.  If you’re in the lead, you have to give the other singer room to join you.

Easier said than done.  Perhaps a new awareness…

It’s a bit like driving.  You know where you are going, you know your destination, but in order to arrive,  it is a good and useful thing to be in cooperation with the other drivers.  As you drive, you’re in a movin’, groovin’, lane-changing, speeding up and slowing down, there’s my exit, and maybe even “wow, I guess I missed my off-ramp” kind of  dance with other vehicles, intentions, driving styles, levels of awareness, emotional states, and destinations.

You’ve got to pay attention.  Adjust.  Step on the brake occasionally.  Re-evaluate. Speed up.  Slow down.

For another comparison, in a partnership or intimate relationship, freedom of expression is a good thing, a necessary thing, vital and life-enhancing even — but if one person in a couple only has “individual awareness” and doesn’t realize or know how to be a member of a team of two, things don’t work as smoothly.

So, as you vocalize, be free and self-expressive AND look to see if you are including the other person.

When I have an event coming up, I practice in every way I can — by myself and with others.  Aloud and to myself.  Just before sleep and when I wake up.  Here and there during the day.  I just sing for a little while. I tune in, try things in my head or out loud, and play a bit.  Then back to work as usual.

Kaleo Wheeler

And yesterday, I asked a new friend of mine, Kaleo Wheeler, to come sing with me.  I had never sung with her before, but it seemed like we could probably make a good go of it.

By the way, Kaleo has an album out, called Ulana, The Way of the Heart, a beautiful CD of her Hawaiian music.

Kaleo and I sang together for more than an hour, and I’m here to report that this process re-arranged our brain cells in such a good way.  Making room for another singer inside my own vocal abilities, patterns, habits and sounds is uplifting, a good exercise and just plain fun.  At the end of the session, we spontaneously expressed to each other the delight we both felt.

After singing, as we drove away a big-winged black and yellow butterfly lead us much of the way down the steep road.   In order to avoid crushing him, I had to keep stopping the car.  At one point, I got out of the car to shoo him off the road.  He didn’t fly away, but instead continued to fly down the road about twenty feet at a time.  We wondered if he was injured, but part way down the long and winding road, he flew off into the forest just as nimble and healthy as can be. Apparently, he had successfully delivered his message of transformation and support, which we interpreted as a “thumbs up” from the singing Gods.

A butterfly “leading” a big ol’ piece of moving metal is a striking visual, and inspired continued reflection about our experience together.  We so enjoyed the exploration, leading each other into unknown territory, following, mixing it up, cracking up, exploring dissonance, stopping to smell the roses, and enjoying the profound silence between sounds.

We found the “new” in ourselves and we didn’t even quite know what to call it, we just felt happy.

…which reminds me of a quote I love about improv by Miles Davis.  He said ” I’ll play it first and tell you what it’s called later.”

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How Do You “Learn” Improvisational Singing?

Learning anything improvisational is almost a contradiction in terms, isn’t it?  If the singing isn’t planned, and there is no road map, then how do you practice improvisational singing?

There are a number of ways, and we’ll address a few options here, and more ways later.

You might begin by exploring your voice so that you get to know it — can you say you really know your voice?  I’ve been singing for years, and I’m still getting to know my voice.

Pretend you and your voice really don’t know each other.  Schedule a date to meet and greet. Ask questions, explore, and find out what you can about this “new” friend of yours.

Maybe, just for starters, ask yourself these questions and write out the answers.

  1. What my voice can do?  Include ideas about vocal range, strength or lack thereof that you feel or experience when you sing, clarity of your voice, vocal stamina, etc.  Write down what’s true right now about your voice.  Just ramble about it a bit.  What’s in your awareness about your voice?  Don’t bother editing.  It’s helpful to see where your attention goes when you think about your voice, ’cause you can tell what’s on the “top of the stack.”
  2. How comfortable am I with singing? Can I and/or do I sing just for myself or do I sing for others?
  3. How do I sound?  Describe it factually (without opinion or judgment).  Example:  I think of my voice as soft.  I don’t know how high or low I can sing.  My voice sounds breathy to me, like it has a lot of air in the sound.  It’s not clear like a bell, it’s more like the sound of a soft breeze.  OR — I have one of those boisterous voices.  Loud, kind of brash and bold and out there.  Not quiet or apologetic, really the opposite of that.  I have a confident voice. When I sing, it just sounds loud to me.  I don’t really know if I sing in tune.  I just sing when I sing, without thinking much about how it sounds.
  4. Do I enjoy singing?  Under what circumstances?
  5. What would I like my voice to do that I don’t think it can do at this moment in time?

During your day, when you get up from your desk, put your child down for a blessed nap, walk outside or down the hall for a lunch break or errand, try making a little sound.  I don’t mean a squeak or a tiny sound, I mean sing a little bit.  Hum a little. Sing a song out loud that you’ve been singing in your head.  Make up a song.   Make a wavy sound with your voice.  Sing tra-la-la a couple of different ways.  Sing a sentence instead of speaking it.

Pry open the “exploring your voice”  treasure box by being vocal in a new way — not speaking — but singing.  Widen your speaking range and turn it into a song-sound.

Yes!  Sing a little…

If you can find a place to sing and experiment that’s private, great.  If not, walking along a busy street or going to a park, or sitting in your car for a few minutes can work, too.

Start small and work from there.  Start with humming three notes, heck — one note.  This gets your brain, body, and your being acclimated to a wider range of sound expression.

Later, if you are so inclined, you can develop your voice, so it can do what you want it to do.  Your voice becomes your full partner, a well-prepared tool.  It becomes the paint brush that can splash any color right where you want it.  If you want to sing a low note, or a high note, and you can.  If you need to hold a note forever, or practically forever, you can.  Otherwise, it’s like being a painter with an incomplete palette  — you’re missing some important colors, or the paintbrush itself.

But for now, sing people!  Sing anything. Sing here.  Sing there. Get to know your sound, your vibration, your up notes and your down notes.

It’s where to start.

Oh, and have fun….