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:

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