Basic Vocal Improv Techniques for “Instant” A Cappella Compositions

These workshops presuppose that you have some basic musical fluency and vocal technique. If you sometimes make up harmonies to sing along with songs on the radio – or when you get together with friends – the information in this workshop series should help you build from there.

Concept 1: where does the music come from?

An exploration of students’ abilities to generate musical ideas from “nothing” (if such a thing “nothing” can be said to exist).

Concept 2: a good base to build from

Strategies for making a looped musical idea that may work well as the starting point for additional musical ideas. Concept of “motor” and brief explanation of how it will “buddy up” with another idea later to provide a sense of motion for the piece.

Concept 3: reinforcing an idea

The strategy of using “harmony” (making a parallel harmony) on one of the musical ideas already in a piece.

Concept 4: responding to an idea with a different one

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. The strategy of using “interlocking” to create a musical idea that interacts with a musical idea already in the piece in a particular way (“two-voice engine”), so as to create that sense of motion.

Mid-Way Take-Away: these have been found to be enough strategies for you to be able to start exploring making spontaneous pieces with your circles of singing friends. With a motor, and interlock, a parallel harmony on the motor, and a parallel harmony on the interlock, this generally creates an interesting piece that people enjoy singing for a time. But wait. There’s more.

Concept 4a: similar thing at a different time.

The strategy of using a similar (or the same) melody displaced in time to create a similar kind of interlocking, forward-moving musical structure.


Concept 5: the attention-grabbing continuum

Some musical ideas are unobtrusive, and serve well supporting the gestalt sound of the piece. Some are assertive fanfares that demand attention and admit no competing ideas. And there’s everything in-between. Noticing the differences and using conscious choice about where, on the spectrum, the next musical idea is.

Concept 6: adding dimension by doing something different

The strategy of using “contrast” (or, different word for same concept, “counter”) to add something to a piece that doesn’t conflict or muddy-up the parts already in place.

Concept 7: adding something linear to cyclical musical ideas

The “solo” is not (necessarily) the opportunity for the soloist to show off the difficult drills learned in the practice room. It’s the chance for the soloist to add an evolving melody on top of a bed of music that’s mostly repetitive, to the benefit of all witnesses to the piece. Exploration of students’ individual aesthetic vis a vis the construction of a compelling melody.

Concept 8: special-roles vocal parts

The strategy of adding a vocal part referred to as “bass” (even if it’s not in the lowest register) to reinforce the tonal center and rhythmic foundation of a piece. The articulation, tonal quality, and typical features of successful bass parts.

The strategy of adding a vocal part referred to as “vocal percussion” (or VP for short) to accentuate the rhythmic groove of a piece and provide punctuation for the musical phrases. Some techniques to try, and references to YouTube tutorials (because awesome VP technique is beyond the scope of this workshop).

Final Take-Away: this is by no means the end of what you can learn to deepen, broaden, and add variety to the techniques that you use to create spontaneous choral pieces. Rhiannon’s published works highly recommended; Roger Treece’s published works highly recommended; Circlesongs training at the Omega Center recommended; Rhiannon’s All The Way In training recommended for those who want their “graduate degree” (as it were) in vocal improvisation; finally, any training offered by former or current Circlesongs faculty also recommended.