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Christian Howes Creates Structure for Improvisation - ASTA15

Laurie Niles

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Published: March 21, 2015 at 4:56 AM [UTC]

Walking into Christian Howes' master class at ASTA, we found him improvising over his own loops on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." (And I'm truly sorry I didn't get the first two minutes on video, it was so compelling, the way he made the loops on the spot and improvised over them.)

Clearly, here is a person who can improvise, but "there are a lot of things guiding that process," Christian told the teachers gathered for his master class on eclectic styles at the American String Teachers Association conference in Salt Lake City. "It's not as simple as just hearing your way through it."

A master improviser has knowledge of conventions of certain genres of music, harmony, bass line, chords, licks, how the song goes, and more. But to the novice improviser, those things can also feel like barriers. To get newbies started on improvising, he strips all of those things away.

Christian HowesChristian, who runs programs called Creative Strings Academy and Creative Strings Workshop, had a small group assembled for the master class, with nine violinists and a cellist. As an icebreaker, he asked them to all improvise, and that he would give them a tempo, rhythm and which notes they could use. Their first task was to improvise only using quarter notes, at one speed, and only on the open "A" string. These parameters seemed rather too narrow for much to happen, but I noticed that they were still able to do a few things: play the quarter notes spiccato, or pizzicato, or legato. Then he said that they could add the note "E" in any octave, and things got more interesting. Then, any note in an A major scale, then chromatic notes. Then, put rests anywhere. Then change tempo, notes, anything you want.

They had gone from the strictest of rules to completely free improv, in a matter of a few minutes.

Why are people sometimes uncomfortable improvising? A few reasons: they feel self-conscious, they are used to following rules, or they are used to playing pieces composed by other people.

Our favorite artists, though, tend not to be those who follow the rules best, those who play fastest, or those who stick strictly to the plan, Christian said. Our favorite artists tend to be those who are distinctive. And to be distinctive, one has to experiment.

"I get so much out of doodling," Christian said. You don't tell kids "this is the technique of how to hold a crayon," instead, you just give a kid a crayon and tell him or her to go.

Having no rules at all, though, can be daunting, as there are simply too many options.

"By giving parameters, this creates freedom," Christian said. Once those parameters are in place, then "creativity is as simple as choosing."

When improvising, one can choose from a number of categories. For example, one category might be emotions: sad, confused, tired, happy. Another could be instrumental techniques: bouncing bows, full bows, double stops, harmonics, string crossings. Another could be musical elements: tempo, style, genre.

As a final exercise, he had the small group try something he calls "Conducted Group Improvisation." For this, he taught them a few simple hand gestures: swiping his hands over his head meant, "free improv," anything goes. Other gestures included holding a note until he cuts it off; assigning notes to his fingers and then playing that note when he held up a finger; call and response; and if he points to you, you play anything you want. He also held up cue cards. With Christian's boisterous spirit guiding the endeavor, it looked like so much fun. I wished I'd been sitting in the group! Here is a taste of Christian's "Conducted Group Improvisation":

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