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Discovering Vocal Improv: A Conversation with Dr. Frances Farrell

creativity interviews Oct 07, 2018

Frances Farrell recently graduated with her Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting from the University of Toronto. Her interest in vocal improvisation turned into a full-blown doctoral dissertation, Improvisation in the Choral Setting. Currently, Fran conducts two senior high choirs as part of the Halifax Regional Arts Program and an adult community choir called the Dartmouth Choral Society. Fran has also worked as a choral clinician in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta. Recently published works include In Search of a New Tradition-Improvisation in Choral Settings. Fran is also a member of the TVF Pro Certification Program. At past TVF Retreats, we have had daily vocal improvisation sessions with Fran. As a singer not used to vocal improv, I was unsure what to expect. I was completely blown away. Fran brought such incredible energy and excitement about improvisation. I found myself delighted to try anything she suggested. Her ability to create a safe space with real curiosity and enthusiasm for making music was so inspiring. I was so excited to sit down with her and ask some of my questions.

Karen: How did music begin in your life? Did you grow up in a musical family?

Fran: My mom did have a bit of music training and my dad was a music professor of theory and composition. I think I might have caught the bug from him. I also remember as a kid I just loved to sing. I used to sing myself to sleep almost every night. I would get on the bed and rock, literally rock on my hands and knees on the bed and just sing any song I could think of. I think singing was just something I gravitated towards. I had some training as well. I had the good fortune to work with an elementary music teacher who encouraged singing, solfege, and was really instrumental in developing my ear. I also took private piano lessons, which helped with reading and theory. In high school, I joined the choir in my freshman year (grade 10). One day the choir director pulled me aside and asked me if I would like to sing the solo to I Wonder as I Wander. He also encouraged me to take voice lessons with his wife. That’s when I started to focus more on singing. I knew in high school that I would be doing something in music after I graduated, so I went to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg as a voice major and got my Bachelor of Music and Bachelor of Education as a “fallback” because I didn’t think I would be teaching. I was a substitute teacher for a year or so, which was challenging for me. I decided to go back to learn how to sing or to learn more about how to sing well, so I moved to Montreal and earned a Master’s Degree in Vocal Performance at McGill University. And then I stayed on at McGill and did an Artist’s Diploma in Vocal Performance. After that experience, I drifted a bit as I was not really sure what to do next. I had the feeling the vocal performance was not going to be “it” for me. Through a bit of happenstance, I found my way back to Halifax, Nova Scotia teaching, and then I stumbled on to choir. I found that teaching choir at the high school level was really satisfying. As I gained more experience, however, I got to a point in my teaching, especially with choir, where I thought I could be doing more with the students. I was looking for more tools in my teaching toolbox, so I went back to school and I earned my doctorate in Choral Conducting at the University of Toronto. (I graduated in June of 2018). As part of the degree requirements, you have to write a dissertation. It took a bit of time to come up with a topic, but after reading an article about improvisation in one of my courses, I started to think about improvisation in music education. I parlayed this curiosity in my dissertation: Improvisation in Choral Settings. The dissertation is about ways to incorporate improvisation into traditional choral settings.  

Karen: When did you first start improvising?

Fran: I do remember doing some improvising in a high school chamber choir as part of our exploration in jazz. In my undergrad, I gravitated towards Baroque music which involved adding embellishments to arias, so there was a bit of improvising there. (Although, after a while, I tended to just stick with the embellishments my voice teacher had suggested to me.), I also performed a piece called Aria for Voice by John Cage. It's a notated score, but there are a lot of indeterminate aspects to it. The score is a series of lines featuring various contours for the melody, but Cage doesn’t specify which pitches or rhythms singers are meant to sing. Looking back, knowing how shy and nervous I was, I am not sure what compelled me to perform this piece. I was drawn to Aria as a performance challenge, though. I think that was something that excited me about improv, but I wouldn't have said that I was an improviser back then. I still don't really call myself an improviser. As a reflect further, however, I do recall I was able to find more freedom in my singing than I had been when singing “traditional repertoire”. The theatrical aspect of performing this piece was also conducive to finding freedom. I was always able to sing with more freedom when I was moving on stage “in character”. If I probe these ideas a little further, because Aria for Voice had fewer notational parameters, I didn’t know exactly how the piece would sound. I didn’t have time to analyze (agonize?) how I would approach this high note or that high passage. I am only making this connection now, but I’m guessing this piece offered me freedom in singing, the type of which I struggled to find with traditional repertoire. Hmm, there are a few a-ha moments in here for myself that I had not considered until now.

Fran with master vocal improviser Bobby McFerrin and TVF Founder Peter Jacobson at the Omega CircleSongs workshop in the summer of 2018.

Karen: When did you start to add improvising into your teaching?

Fran: I started to do a little bit of improvising with choir students. After we came back from a break, we would make up rhythms as a way to get people back into the room. I just was playing with it a little bit actually. The other thing I do remember is when I was teaching high school, I had to teach a course called Academic Music, so it was kind of a catch-all for people who didn't want to be in band or choir. I had people who either played guitar and drums, or people who played piano. I found it challenging to figure out how to bridge those two types of students; typically guitarists and drummers relied more heavily on their ears to learn music and read music. At least, that was my experience. They had far less experience reading notes on a page than the pianists and were intimidated, I think, when they were asked to read music. The pianists, however, were working on their grade ten RCM (Royal Conservatory of Music) piano level, which is quite high. And so these piano students could read like nobody's business. But when I would ask them to play chords C, F, G or a I-IV-V progression, they kind of tended to panic a bit because they didn’t have a score to read from. The guitarists, on the hand, had no problem playing these chords because they were more comfortable with oral transmission. That's when I started using improvisation as a way to give a new challenge to those students who have a lot of piano training. It also gave the guitarists and drummers a chance to show off their chops because in many music education settings, reading music is a skill set that is kind of valued over other ways of making music. Improvisation was a way to level the playing field, as it were.. And then we also just experimented with making up rhythms, and people would find everyday objects in the classroom and use them as instruments. We would turn a garbage can upside down and play on it. I didn't know how to facilitate or sustain this type of improvisation, but I just sort of experimented and played around with that.

"Improvisation may help to honor students’ individual selves despite being a setting where students are often asked to do the same thing at the same time."

As for my work with choirs, I just started thinking about several issues. How can we empower students to sight-sing so that we reduce the amount of rote-learning? Instead of feeding the students, for example, the major scale, what if students had an opportunity to play with the major scale instead of just singing doh, re, mi, fa, so? Would they internalize this scale and their understanding of this in a different way? (I do wonder if improvising could help improve sight-singing skills, but measuring this is challenging.) At the very least, improvising with these elements of music may give students more, other,or different opportunities for them to construct meaning and knowledge. I think it is sometimes challenging to find individuality when you are in a group. I wondered how improvisation may help to honor students’ individual selves despite being a setting where students are often asked to do the same thing at the same time.

"I wondered how improvisation may help to honor students’ individual selves."

I also grew weary of the role of the conductor (this is still something I struggle with.) The traditional approach to choral singing sees the conductor as all-knowing. I was wondering, are there other ways that we could shift, share that power (or responsibility) to the students? When I was studying in Toronto, I came across an article written by my mentor, Dr. Hilary Apfelstadt. In the article, she presents a scenario where high school students participate in a high-level chamber choir that performs advanced repertoire. The choir director relies on rote learning because sometimes this is the quickest way to learn music. This allows the choristers to learn the music faster so that you spend more time polishing pieces for performance. Then these high school students graduate and they want to go to the next level. So they audition for the local university chamber choir, but they don't get in because they don't have the reading skills to get in, even though they performed advanced choral music in their high school choir. The alternative is to go to a non-auditioned ensemble. The high school graduates go to these rehearsals only to find that they are not satisfied with the repertoire because it is not challenging enough so they leave the choir and stop singing in choirs altogether. Who is to blame? Is it the University Conductor who doesn’t let the high school graduates into the university ensemble, or is it the high school teacher who didn't really give these high school graduates the skills they needed to further pursue choral singing at an advanced level? I  just kept thinking about this idea of the traditional setting, where performances are often prioritized, sometimes leaving little time to focus on other skills such as sight-singing. Sometimes it is just easier and faster to feed the notes, rather than give students the tools to read the music themselves, especially if you have a performance coming up. I just began to think, "Well why is the performance so important?” and “What messages do we send to students and other stakeholders if the majority of rehearsal time is spent “getting ready for the performance”? I love the performances we give and so do the students, I think. But, what are students walking away with after we’ve performed our ten-minute that we spent two months preparing for? Was I serving the performance or the students? What was I doing to promote students’ continued engagement with singing? I was beginning to see the limitations of an over-emphasis on performance goals in ensemble settings. (I should point out that there are many choral conductors/educators who have managed to balance performance demands with other areas of choral instruction. This is just my own path of discovery I am describing here. For more info on this area, check out Patrick Freer’s (2011) views on the performance/pedagogy paradox.) As well, I began to question the de-emphasis (At least that was my perception) on composition and improvisation in music education settings even though these are areas we are also meant to be targeting in the classroom. Students spend the vast majority of their time recreating other people’s music. What about students as authors of their own work? Maybe there's space for the performance to still be a priority and give students more opportunities to author their own work. Even if it's just for 30 seconds during the warm-up.. Another thing that kind of bothered me as a teacher was this idea that if you were already in grade ten and you wanted to be in band and you had never studied an instrument, you were not going to be in band. If you do not have requisite skills, it is sometimes hard to find a place in traditional performance-based music courses. On the other hand, anyone can improvise, regardless of music training. In fact, it's great because it also allows us to see everyone's musical identities. It's another way of knowing people. All of this is to say, I started wondering about what the possibilities for improvisation in choral settings might be. By interviewing folks and playing with improvisation in my own practice, I've discovered that there's definitely a place for improvisation and it's got a multitude of benefits.

Fran in action leading a vocal improvisation game at the 2018 TVF Summer Retreat.

Karen: Can I ask you to give me your definition of improvisation?

Fran: It's the audible expression of musical thought created in the moment of performance. People often use the phrase “the spontaneous creation of music” or something to that effect. Defining and describing “improvisation” is a bit dicey because of the way this phenomenon has been somewhat marginalized in the past. In some circles, improvisation had been viewed as “less than” especially when compared to Western European Art Music. The Latin root of word “improvise” means “unforeseen”, giving the impression that improvising is a mysterious thing that is only available to a certain, talented few. “Spontaneous” may give the impression that there is little thought behind this phenomenon. This narrow view of the word negates all of the musical experiences and wisdom that the improviser brings to the table when improvising. These are just a couple of issues I point out here to demonstrate that defining improvisation is challenging.  

Karen: How do you define success of these improvisational experiences? What do you do to create successful experiences of improvisation?

Fran: That's a really great question and there's no clear cut answer. For my dissertation I  interviewed three choir conductors who routinely use improvisation with their students and, among other things, I asked them what success looked like and it was a little hard to pin down. One of the participants talked about success looking like people listening to each other. If  people listen and work with an idea, that is success. Sometimes you'll put an idea out there and it doesn't get picked up and the improvisation experience kind of falls flat. That could be because people really aren't listening and tuning in to what's going on. The participants offered other thoughts. One of the participants that I interviewed said that sometimes improvisation works and sometimes it doesn't. Another participant remarked that sometimes it's not successful because the parameters need to be clearer. Sometimes students didn't understand the building blocks needed for particular strategy. If you're doing an  improvisation exercise in the minor mode and someone sings outside of that scale, maybe that's not successful. On the other hand, one participant talked about the idea that there are no mistakes in improvisation. Another participant emphasized that anything the student does when improvising is a success. The fact that a student stepped out of their comfort zone is a success. Everybody’s risks looks different. Nobody wants to look like a fool. Nobody wants to do things that are going to make them feel stupid, which is kind of too bad, but that's how we're trained. We don't really celebrate mistakes as much as we do the things we get right. I try to acknowledge that maybe for some people, improvising on one note, for example, is a big deal. Maybe for some other people, that wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. Creating a safe environment is really important and this idea was what the participants mentioned as well. One of the people I interviewed gave what I thought was a great quote. I asked them how they mitigated students’ fear when improvising. She said something to the effect that “I can't take away the fear, I can only create a space where it is okay to feel scared.”  

Karen: So talk about creating the safe space, what do you do for you, what does that look like in your classroom?

Fran: You know, it's a few things. Part of it is reading the room-figuring out what strategies work for folks if they've never improvised before. If I say, “Okay, everyone is just going to sing something”, I don't know if that's really going to be that effective. People who have had less experience with improvisation tend to respond better to strategies where the parameters are clearly defined and the parameters are fairly tight. So we might use only these three notes, as opposed to, “Do whatever you want”. If you have a student that you worked with before, you might invite them to improvise with you. I think it's important that students see it working or see it in action. It’s important that the students see you improvising as well. If you are going to ask them to be vulnerable, you have to be vulnerable, too. I think it's important to provide a variety of formations. Some people love the big group kind of improvising. There may also be some people who want to go off into a corner and sing on their own. Someone might be willing to improvise with a partner or in a group of five, but that person may not want to sing in a big group. I think it's important to offer opportunities for students to improvise in such a way that that it's student-led or student directed. Circle singing is very powerful and a wonderful way to build community and this may be a great platform to introduce improvisation in a group setting. But, that's (often) one person feeding the lines to other people. That's very kind of teacher-centered. Give them opportunities to play with the strategies you’ve outlined in small groups. I also like playing with giving the students ownership in the process where you literally walk away and let them improvise as opposed to having to orchestrate the improvisational experience. I make sure that there are some times when they just improvise and musical ideas come from them and not necessarily from me. I will also ask what they thought about the experience. Even if they say that was stupid. I try to respond in a non-judgmental way. Let them know that they're allowed to voice their opinions - good, bad, or indifferent. That is part of creating a safe environment. I would be very careful about cajoling somebody into improvising. Maybe someone needs a nudge, and you can invite them to improvise, but if they say no, then that’s that. This is part of creating a safe environment, too. Students need to know they won’t be forced to improvise if they don’t want to. If that means that someone isn’t going to  improvise for another three months,(or maybe not ever) then so be it.

"Anyone can improvise, regardless of music training. In fact, it's great because it also allows us to see everyone's musical identities. It's another way of knowing people."

Movement can also make it more fun. We did an exercise at the retreat, where we were in two circles and listened to a 12-bar blues pattern. I asked people in the inner circle to come up with a dance move or some sort of movement, and then the partner in the outer circle would echo the movement. People just played and laughed and I feel like they were more willing to scat for each other to the 12-bar blues pattern after doing some rounds of movement.  

Karen: In your classroom, do you have a certain time where you do Improv? Is it always at the beginning? Do you use it in the midst of a piece?

Fran: So there's a music educator/researcher named Patricia Shehan Campbell, who came up with a really great framework for improvisation in music education settings. So you may want to use improv at the beginning of learning a new song. Maybe you're about to sing a piece in B flat major. So you play around with that scale by improvising, so that their ears are already primed to be in the key of the piece. Maybe there is a tricky rhythm that is featured in the piece. You could improvise using this rhythm so that the students already have experience with this rhythm when they look at the score. This is what Campbell calls “Improvising to learn music”. Then you have “learning to improvise music” and that really speaks to the performance traditions where improvisation plays an inherent role in the music. Pretty much every type of music you could think of involved improvisation. In the choral world, you think of African-American spirituals, which were improvised, and gospel music that involves improvised call and response phrases. A lot of secular Renaissance choral music called on singers to embellish their vocal lines as well. There are a lot of non-Western European music-making traditions that feature improvisation. As choral conductors continue to strive for diversity in programming, it is highly likely choristers will sing music that features improvisation. Finally, Patricia Shehan Campbell (2009*) uses the phrase  “improvising to learn” and that's the idea of learning about yourself or the world around you through improvisation. So, for example, with the jazz/pop choir I work with, we do this thing where they do a free improv after we warm up.The students stand in a circle, and I leave the circle and someone sings a short musical idea and other students join in. The activity does not incorporate the music we are studying at all, but I really believe that they sing much better because they've been improvising together. You have to listen to each other, and they get to know voices in a completely different way. It strikes me as odd, but when you are in a choir, you rarely get to hear other people's voices. You may get to hear your neighbor’s voice, but you never hear someone else three rows behind you. You could be singing with someone in a choir for ten years and still not know much about their voice, even though a choir is often tasked with working together to achieve a balanced sound. How can we do this if the only person who knows what everyone’s voices sounds like is the conductor? To answer your question, these are the three frameworks I play around with when considering when and why to use improvisation. But there are other reasons for using improv, too. Sometimes, I'll use improvisation in the warm-up because that's a good way for them to be in the present moment. I also think improvising in rehearsal is good practice for helping students to be more fluid and flexible with anything that comes up in performance. There have also been times where I'm like, "Oh my goodness, they're really tired, let's do something kooky today.”- just something to shake them out of their current frames of mind. So, we improvise. Improv is just fun, too. It’s a way to play.  

Karen: What kind of resources do you use? Do you make all of this up? Do you have books that you would recommend?

Fran: There's a series of books that a lot of people reference by Jeffrey Agrell. It's called Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians. He also has one for just for singers. What I noticed with the folks that I interviewed, however, is that they didn't have a book, and they didn't have a hundred strategies. They had three or four ideas that they played around with. Like the participants I interviewed, I don’t really rely on books either.

Sometimes things will just kind of  come up in the moment. The improv strategies themselves are sometimes improvised. So much of facilitating improvisation is knowing your students, or knowing the people you're working with and what they need in the moment. Sometimes I just play. I find myself saying, “What would happen if…?”

There is one study (Countryman, 2009*)  that I came across in which former high school students reflected on their music ed experiences. And Countryman made the connection that the people who are still pursuing music tended to be the ones who were given opportunities for some autonomy in their music classes. These opportunities included improv, but she didn't relate the reason they were still involved in music directly to improvisation. I think if we can give our students opportunities to author their own works - if they can feel like they are really contributing to the music making, it may have long-lasting effects. There is probably more research to be done in this area to be sure, but that is what the study I referenced above seems to suggest. All of this is to say that we want people to keep engaging with music after we work with them. To me, that is a primary indicator of success. It’s not so much about whether or not you won the trophy at the music festival or not so much whether or not your student won first prize in the voice class competition, but are they still singing? As teachers, what can we do to promote student-engagement, discovery, autonomy, agency, and a life-long pursuit of music-making? I believe improvisation can address all of these issues and play a powerful role in achieving these goals.

Fran's DMA Lecture Recital

Resources Mentioned in Article

  • Countryman, J. (2009). High school music programmes as potential sites for communities of practice - a Canadian study. Music Education Research, 11(1), 93-109. doi:10.1080/14613800802699168
  • Freer, Patrick K. (2009) The Performance-Pedagogy Paradox in Choral Music Teaching, Music Faculty Publications. 38.
  • Campbell, P.S. (2009). Learning to improvise music, improvising to learn music. In G. Solis & B. Nettl (Eds), Musical Improvisation: Art, education, and society (pp. 119-142)

Karen Archbold is TVF Director of Operations (fancy title for the person who keeps everything running smoothly and Peter sane!) and a member of the TVF Pro Certification Program. She is based in the Chicago area and spends her time being a mom to three beautiful girls, making music, teaching her fabulous students and drinking expensive Australian tea!


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