music made of reactions

Improv Session – Brockman’s Pitch-Matching and Agrell’s Interval Games

I’m able to participate in somewhat sporadic ‘free improv jam sessions’ (including but not limited to my participation in the New Haven Improvisers Collective), and I had the presence of mind to document the most recent one, on a chillaxed Saturday morning with a very talented neighbor of mine.

A mini-blog series seemed like a good idea, because the process of how we interpreted the pieces was interesting (in my opinion – I went years without really knowing how to approach a graphic score).

Also, I get to share some good online resources for finding scores and such, which I love doing.

So let’s go!

My partner in crime was my neighbor David Elkin-Ginnetti, a young man who is great at music, great at math, and remains impossibly humble and cool. Remember that name, the kid is going places!  Maybe someday he’ll let me play in his band…


We warmed up with the “Pitch Match” game from Nicole Brockman’s From Sight to Sound: Improvisational Games for Classical Musicians. The instructions are pretty simple: one person sustains a note, the other participants try to find and sustain the same note. When everyone has got the note, somebody else plays a new note. It’s fun, surprisingly engaging, and a little challenging (I found myself sometimes matching the major third instead of the same note).


Once we had gotten our ears tuned, we tackled our first improv. I am working my way through Jeffrey Agrell’s “Improv Games for One Musician,” which is a brief but deep volume of games to get people “off the page” and making music. It’s aimed towards classical musicians and fledgling improvisers, but this grizzled greybeard finds it be a great source of warm-ups and games also.

Below you can find our take on Agrell’s “Interval Game,” where the performer limits their material to certain intervals – fourths and fifths, or tritones and 7ths, etc., and creates an improvisation. It’s suitable for solo performers but also duos (and trios), so David and I stretched our muscles with a short improv that limited our pitch materials to major and minor 7ths, augmented fourths, and the inversions of major and minor 7ths: major and minor 2nds:

(note that for each of us the intervals were constrained to our own instrument – in other words, I didn’t try to play a 7th above the tone my partner played…though that would be very cool!)

I’ve done this on my own as a warm-up and found the limiting of pitch materials to be a great unifying force. I’ve read a lot of great creatives saying that the more constraints on a piece has, the more creative they are.

My favorite quote was Stravinsky saying along the lines of “If you put a piece of blank paper in front of me, I’ll be frozen with fear. But if you put tell me that I must write for four cellos, then the ideas will fly from my fingers onto the page.”

And that was Stravinsky!

But of course, too many constraints or constraints that never change can get a little dull.  So, in our next post, I’ll share how we turned into Agrell’s exercises into an improv with ABA form.


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