Tag Archives: vocal improvisation

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.”