At the age of 7 it was a big revelation to discover that I could create my own radio show. I had a handheld tape recorder handed over from my grandpa, and I would record made up pop songs, fake news and interviews with my cousins on cassette tapes. Recently I found one of those tapes, near the end of the radio show I get bored and start doing some vocal improvisation. I didn’t know I started so early, now I can proudly say that I’ve been a vocal improviser since the age of 7 !
I am a now a vocal artist and a teacher of vocal improvisation. During my career spanning 20 years I wrote songs and performed them but I always came back to improvisation. At first it was a fun thing to do, when I knew nothing about writing songs I would get together with a few high school friends, have a beer and go into a music studio. I would just shout my heart out into the microphone, I didn’t even know how to sing properly and if I wanted to enjoy myself I just had to pretend that I’m a singer and make up some random words and melodies. Looking back, I see a lot of intelligence in this role play and I understand that it was my self-directed training to become a singer. I remember how beautifully raw the feeling was, I would just ride on the waves of emotions arising in me and I had no shame about messing things up and sounding bad. (I don’t have recordings of these sessions but we must have sounded quite bad as the other guys didn’t know how to play instruments either.) I think this lack of shame was my biggest strength because I didn’t fear making mistakes and allowed myself to learn singing by experimenting and having fun. Later on, this became the basis of my approach as a voice teacher.
I’ve learned from a lot of excellent teachers myself but I can say that improvisation has been my greatest teacher and the lessons I learnt weren’t only about music but also about life and how to improve the quality of my life. Nowadays improvisation is an essential part of my performance practice and after countless concerts, jam sessions, workshops and circle singing sessions, I’m looking back to distill the 10 lessons I’ve learned from vocal improvisation.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
The more you are generous with being yourself the better the music becomes. When we learn things we have a tendency to imitate others, that is a good thing and it’s in our nature. But there comes a point when you need to transform your inspiration into your unique expression. So you are mostly inspired by blues singers ? So sing with that inspiration but also think: What can I change to make it more mine ? What can I add to or take from my inspiration, can I mix it with other influences ? How about mixing gospel with sufi music ? How about doing a rap opera ? How about using your emotions that arise in the moment as your main inspiration ?
Also think in terms of your natural voice. Perhaps you have a very different kind of voice than your favourite singer and imitating their voice can be very taxing for your vocal chords. Your vocal range and the natural tone of your voice might be completely different than your musical hero. By your natural voice I mean a range and quality of voice that sounds full and resonant, a voice that feels good and doesn’t feel forced. If you feel exhausted after singing, chances are that you are not using your natural voice. When I was singing rock music I really wanted to sound like Freddie Mercury. It was very disappointing when I tried to sing along to his music and not being able to nail those high notes and ending up with a sore throat. Later on I realised that my natural vocal range is lower than his and I cam to terms with that.
Taking singing lessons or going to improvisational voice workshops can be very helpful to free your natural voice. Your voice will have a pleasant effect on the listeners if it’s natural and authentic in terms of expressing your own emotions and your own truth.
Go with the Flow
In an improvised context, music has a life of its own. The music is like a beast that has its own desires about where it wants to go and sometimes it’s not even up to the players which direction the music will take. Anything can happen anytime. However with enough experience, you can even start anticipating where the music is flowing towards.
In my experience this level of anticipation is achieved best between musicians who play together regularly. One of my first music projects was a heavy metal jam band called Einstein. We used to live in the same house and listened to a lot of heavy metal music. We ate together, played together and shared everything. That made us familiar with each other’s musical language and heavy metal functioned as a container, holding our diverse musical influences together.
You might not always have the luxury of playing with the same musicians more than once but learn to trust and use the power of your intuition as you flow in the collective direction rather than trying to steer the wheel towards what you initially planned to create. Adapt to what is emerging in the moment and go with the flow !
Let Go of your Ego
The moment your ego takes hold of you, the music falls from its spiritual heights to a piss race that isn’t fun for anyone, neither the players nor the audience. Resist the temptation to show off with your talent. Sometimes adding little to the music or being in a supportive role is much better than stealing the spotlight in a way that is not mindful of the other musicians.
I’m part of a very interesting project called ‘TIC - The Improvisers’ Choir’. We are a group of experienced vocal improvisers and we have a leader who uses hand signals to direct the improvisation. These hand signals prompt us to ‘sing a loop’, ‘sing a solo’, ‘harmonise’ and so on. Everything is created it in the moment but highly managed and directed by the leader.
In The Improvisers’ Choir the singers need to keep their egos in check. During our rehearsals and performances I learned to use my voice as a support instrument, for instance only singing a loop (a repeated vocal pattern) throughout a piece. This loop can be something as simple as a few short notes that resemble a bass line or longer notes that sound like a a string instrument. Using my voice this way keeps it more in the background and makes it part of a soundscape. The collective soundscape allows a more elaborate musical idea by someone else to come to the foreground. Being in the spotlight can be exhilarating but there is a different kind of joy in serving a collaborative creation.
Learn to Listen
Our minds prompt us to do something all the time but this keeps us in a constant state of agitation which can block our creativity. When you improvise, resist the temptation to fill every moment by making a sound. Allowing yourself to do nothing makes you listen more, be more mindful and the silences in between give more meaning to what you are saying musically.
Listen to everything, discern the sound of the other musicians one by one, listen to the musicians in groups and the music as a whole. What is the guitarist playing ? Is he doing a solo or playing some supportive chords? Perhaps it’s not a good idea to do your solo at the same time as someone else. What is the drummer playing ? Is it a fast rhythm or a slow one ? How do the guitar and drums sound together ? Listen to the sound of the audience and the way the music reverberates in the room.
Go further and listen to your own thoughts and emotions that arise in the moment.
Go out of your Comfort Zone
“People tend to play in their comfort zone, so the best things are achieved in a state of surprise, actually.”
Even in improvised music, players might get too comfortable in accustomed ways of playing and get stuck in repetition. They might end up playing similar melodies and chords all the time. Ask yourself: How can I do things differently than what I did before ? Sing in a higher or lower register, sing in a different rhythm, try different vocal textures, make weird sounds.
There is a monthly free improvisation night in London called ‘The Freedom Sessions’. The musicians sign up on a list when they arrive and the organisers choose a different combination of musicians for each performance.
On one of those nights I shared the stage with five brass instruments plus another singer. This was a real challenge because the tonal range and quality of brass instruments can be very close to human voice. How could I add my own voice into this mix ? How could I avoid ending up in a situation where it sounds like seven people speaking at the same time ? After a few clumsy attempts we started giving space to each other and join in tasty harmonies. At times, I had the impulse to shout over the music to get myself heard but I went in the opposite direction and sang in a whispered voice. This worked quite well when the other musicians played very quietly in response and we achieved excellent listening between us.
Just like knowing when to be silent or in the background, it takes a certain skill to step forward and say what you have to say in the right time. There are a lot of moments when we feel the impulse and intuitively know that it’s the right time to act but our fear of failure stops us from stepping forward. You might be exactly the right person to bring a fresh energy and direction when the music feels like it’s stuck in a decaying loop.
I was in a circle singing workshop when the leader invited us to step into the middle of the circle one by one and do an improvised solo, surrounded by the singing voices. There was a sense of anticipation in the air and I could feel that a lot of people were considering stepping forward but stopping themselves. I felt the impulse too but held back for a good minute. I thought: “What if there’s another shy person with something beautiful to share and if I step forward now that person won’t have the chance to have a go ?” I decided that I was over thinking. The music was becoming too repetitive and something new had to be introduced. So I stepped forward and did a very enjoyable solo improvisation which was welcomed by the whole group. Stepping forward in that moment wasn’t only about serving my ego, I was also serving the musical journey we were on as a group.
It’s easy to get spaced out when you improvise. Improvised music takes you on a journey into the unknown and you might often find yourself in musically and emotionally uncharted territory. Sometimes repeating rhythms and melodies can change the brain chemistry and induce a trance-like state. At other times the musical key might constantly change (as in free jazz), dragging you along and lacking a sense of musical home to return to.
Whatever the reason, when you get spaced out you might easily lose the connection with the other musicians and even with yourself. In such moments you might have some explosive moments of self-expression followed by total energy drain. You might become too self-indulgent and lose sight of the music as a whole.
It’s useful to regain body awareness by noticing your soles touching the ground and breathing into your belly or your feet. Take some moments to stop, detach from your expression and look at yourself from outside. I sometimes imagine that I’m watching myself from another point in the room, it helps me to be emotionally detached for a moment and see the bigger picture better.
Don’t Force It
You want the joy, you want the expression and you want it now. Sometimes you just might need to accept that this is not your day or your moment. Rather than forcing yourself to make a sound, be patient and wait for the moment when it feels better to do so.
In a jam session in London, I was on the stage and suddenly I felt like I had absolutely nothing to say. I used all my energy to come up with something. Every note I sang felt heavy and forced. There was absolutely no musical dialogue between me and the other musicians. I just didn’t enjoy being there at all. I trusted that emotion and stepped out of the stage. I then went into a receptive mode, just listening to the other musicians achieving a better flow without my presence. Our emotions can be very good indicators when we force ourselves into something that we don’t actually enjoy. It is OK to step back sometimes.
The musicians you collaborate with will come from a large spectrum of skills and experience. You might perform with a complete beginner or end up sharing the stage / musical space with a master. Rather than looking down on beginners or looking down on yourself in the presence of a master, see how you can make the best of any situation. Sing with the trust that whatever cards you are dealt in the moment, there is always potential for an amazing collaboration and there is something to learn for everyone involved.
I once attended a workshop called Vocal Tai Chi, where people with no previous musical experience are given a safe space to express themselves vocally one by one, singing over backing tracks while being coached by the leader. There was a man in that workshop who had attended the sessions regularly for some time. When it was his turn to sing I was amazed. At first I thought he was singing out of tune but later on I noticed that he had a tuning of his own which made sense in an unusual way. He had created a totally unique musical language, made up of dissonant and nonverbal sounds, such as roars, groans, howls and cries of joy. Here was an inexperienced singer who was deeply in touch with his emotional landscape and creativity, showing me brand new and inspiring ways of using the human voice.
There Are No Mistakes
“Do not fear mistakes -- there are none. ”
There is no ‘undo’ function in improvisation, so while you have absolute freedom to choose where to go next, you have absolutely no chance to change what has already been sung or played.
Did you just sing a note or melody that sounded really off to you ? Don’t worry, as you continue to sing, just incorporate that note or melody into a repeated pattern. Treat your ‘mistake’ as a hidden intention rather than wishing you hadn’t sung that bit. What you perceived as wrong a moment ago can suddenly sound very original and beautiful if you are faithful to your mistake.
The more we allow ourselves to make mistakes, the more we learn and make fresh discoveries.