Category: Articles

Navigating Autonomy in Improv Music

Managing Autonomy

We need to learn how to manage autonomy and it calls for the musician and the composer in us.

Connecting with your own source

The source of music has vanished, or more accurately relocated. The source used to be sheet music or the like, but in improv no external source is dictating you. You must find the source within and connect with that. Further down I have some exercises and games that addresses this. Expanding openness to the source is also expanding your toolbox of sounds and “textures” and as you develop more varieties and a unique sound catalogue, you will be able to choose more qualified responses to the present situation.

  • Jump showers
  • Michaelangelo’s statues
  • Gibberish in tongues

Connecting with the collective flow (entrainment)

When working in a collaborative situation, it gets more complicated since there is more than your own source to consider. There is everybody’s source which ideally should take off and fly in formation. This is where the entrainment concept is a good reference. We should seek to connect our individual paths with the collective flow. And in that, keeping a mutual inspiration path and openness in both ends. Our individual contributions always flexible for change in the collective, the collective always flexible for new impulses from the sources.
I purposely use the entrainment concept instead of stating “we need to be in tune” or “we need to follow the same pulse”. Being in tune and grooving is one way of being synced up, music is broader than this – even though we often choose to sync up in these two areas. Let’s broaden our concept of what music is and stay open for ideas that challenge the conventions, but keep the ideas connected to the higher goal: entrainment.

  • Entrainment clap
  • One chaos one / 4 directions
  • Movement exercises

Navigating in improvised music

Now that we have connected to our own source and the collective flow the hard part is to navigate in what sometimes seems like an ocean of sounds. Too much sound, too many impulses no coherence – how do we make this music fly in formation?


Just start singing – works great when practicing your 1st circle. But creating a piece with others – collaboration – the collective music needs coherence. One approach is to listen for external impulses to react upon. Look or wait for something in the music that moves you to comment. And your comments might turn into your own musical flow, which you keep open and flexible for the new impulses you can react to or incorporate. When making a groove, you can think of it as a chain reaction. One part’s movement becomes the impulse for the next.
Actually moving physically can be helpful. Pretend the musical phrase hits you – what is your counter reaction? And when soloing on top of something, I find this principal very helpful too. If you connect your solo part to a phrase in the music – commenting that phrase, dancing with it – your solo has a direction and will become a part of the music instead of sticking to the music.

  • Gibberish conversations
  • Dippedut jam

This article is part of a workshop handout I wrote in November 2013. You can read the whole handout here:

What Does It Take to Improvise?

Entrainment – Autonomy – Mastery


Compared to conventional choral music, (group) improvised choral music alters one very important parameter of the whole system. It gives autonomy to each singer. Conventional choral music is predetermined by sheet music and rehearsed ideas, whereas improvised music is determined by the independent contributions of each singer. Each singer has been assigned autonomy over which, what and when to sing. It is this autonomy that becomes so wonderfully freeing – and the same autonomy so darn frightening! Therefore we need to address this autonomy and learn how to manage it. Apart from managing the new freedom we also need to learn how to navigate in the music – now that we don’t have a score or a conductor to refer to anymore.

Let’s leave the idea of autonomy for a little while and talk about two other things.


Entrainment is a universal concept appearing in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and more. It is defined as “as the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony.” or “a synchronization of two or more rhythmic cycles”. Entrainment is quite evident in music, since most of our mental effort concerns synchronizing harmonic frequencies and rhythmic cycles in the music making. I therefore see entrainment as a foundation of the music making, the higher goal of the music making and a constant reference point harmonically, rhythmically and – well – spiritually or interpersonally. The more areas in which we get in sync – the more entrained we are. The more entrained we are – the closer we get to fulfilling the higher purpose of the music. Ta-daaa! Well – that is my definition anyways.

So, we have Autonomy and we have purpose. But to fulfill this we can’t leave out …


Everyone can improvise. Yes, they can! And improvisation can be considered an independent skill to be practiced. But improvisation is something you do with something – and in our case it is sound. Let us dare to restrict it even more – let us say we would like to include conventional musical parameters like tonality, puls, subdivisions, meters, chords etc in our tool box. Now, to qualify our improvisation we need qualified technical skills. We need technical skills like the back of our hand – otherwise the autonomous contributions will be 1) Out of alignment or simply out of context. 2)Thought out, and lacking the spontaneous quality.

Mastery of our voice (instrument) and some ear-training is required – at least to a minimum – but frankly speaking, it takes a lot of musical skill to make qualified improvised music. Funny thing though, the unique qualities of making stuff up here and now tends to transcendent anyways, and I have experienced some improvised amateur performances more interesting than same-level arranged performances. But no doubt, mastery of our technical skills and musicality is crucial.

This article is part of a workshop handout I wrote in November 2013. You can read the whole handout here:

What is improvisation?

I say jump, you say cheese!

When engaging oneself in improv I think it is appropriate to take a moment and consider what it is and why you wanna do it? I have found, through the years, that the concept of improvisation may take many shapes and interpretations.

One person said: “It is putting together phrases you learned in a new way”, another person that it is “singing freely selected notes from an appropriate scale”. A classical pianist, that “it is his interpretation of the composers written music”. On the other side of the spectrum there are people who think of improvisation as “creating brand new music on the fly”, “challenging all boundaries and go somewhere you never went before”. Wikipedia states: ”Improvisation is a state of being and creating action without pre-planning.” Bobby McFerrin often says: “Going from one note to the other”.

The answers ranges from “interpretation under restrictions” to being “completely free”. What they all have in common is leaving something open to the individual choice of the moment.

I enjoy improvising! And that should be enough reason to do it. But as a teacher and artist I need to ask myself; why am I bringing this playful, process oriented and daring approach into peoples lives? On stage, in the classroom and at the choir rehearsal.

  • What qualities does improvisation have?
  • Why should I use it in my teaching?
  • How will I use it in my teaching?

I am asking these questions because it is good pedagogical practice always to have a goal in mind when choosing exercises and approaches. But I am also asking these questions because I think improvisation is really a continuum going from “leaving one thing open in the music” to “Everything is open! Let’s not play anything anyone ever heard before. No key. No rhythm. No-nada-nix-known-nothing.” and I want you to consider when and why the qualities of improvisation are coming into their own. Especially when using it in front of an audience.

  • What qualities does improvised performance have?
  • Which settings or approaches bring out these qualities?

If there is a higher goal with what we are doing, it could be simply “making good music” or it could be “connecting people in singing” or it could be “spiritual journey, inner alignment and free flow of chi”. What ever your answer might be, it is important to be aware of. Also as a group working together.

  • What is the higher goal of singing together?


This article is part of a workshop handout I wrote in November 2013. You can read the whole handout here: