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''Yes! And ...'': Academy Fellow Laura Weiner on Improvising in Music

Exemplary performers, dedicated teachers, and advocates for music, the fellows of The Academy are redefining what it means to be a musician today. One of the 2012–2014 fellows, Laura Weiner, shares a bit of her experience below.



By Laura Weiner, Academy French Horn Fellow

As part of our Academy fellowships, we work in a New York City public school classroom on a weekly basis throughout our two years. We work side-by-side with the instrumental music teachers (our “partner teachers”) and teach collaboratively throughout the day. I am partnered with Laurél Hornick at Grover Cleveland High School in Ridgewood, Queens, and we work with four different bands composed of ninth through 12th graders. This semester, I’ve been focusing on improvisation in most of my lessons. Last December, the fellows participated in an improvisation workshop with Saturday Night Live’s Rachel Dratch. She emphasized through a series of fun, hilarious games that the fundamental rule of improv is to say, “Yes! And ...” This means you always accept your teammate’s idea and build upon it to create a scene, which is surprisingly difficult when you’re actually performing in front of people (as many of us discovered). 

Laura prepares to start her lesson on musical improvisation.

Because many of my ninth-grade students are beginners on their instruments, I’ve been using a lot of improv games or exercises that use just the voice or body percussion. Recently, I asked the students to think about how to create a musical pattern using only the sound of their name. I started off by saying mine (“Ms. Weiner”) in as many different ways as I could think of: quick and whispered, loud and yodel-like, very percussive, really slow, etc. Then I asked each student to share his or her musical name with the class. As in any class of diverse personalities, some students stood up and belted out their name, others looked at the floor and said it as quietly as they could, and some were in between.

I then put the students into groups to create a musical composition using the names of everyone in their group. The only restriction was they could use no other words but their names, but anything else was fair game. After about five minutes of chaotic brainstorming and quite a lot of giggling, I asked each group to share their piece with the class. I was crossing my fingers, as I’m learning teachers often do, that the students would create something complex enough to spark a discussion about music composition, like how different tempos and pitches can be layered. However, I was blown away by the improvised creativity of these name compositions. One group started out by passing a single name around the group until it reached its loudest volume—then they started saying it backwards.

“Background voices are just as vital as soloists in music.”

Another group created an ostinato (vocabulary word!) using just a pair of names as a foundation with the other three “soloing” on top of that. And finally, one group actually created a narrative, with the inflection of each person’s name depicting a different emotion and interacting with each other just as they would as people. Even the more introverted students were able to contribute to the final product since background voices are just as vital as soloists in music. And the extroverted, shout-to-the-rooftop students, of which there were quite a number in this class, had a field day with this.

Laura works with the brass section while her partner teacher Laurél Hornick coaches the woodwinds.

The students in my class were saying “Yes! And ...” to each other within their groups while they were coming up with their name compositions. But they were also saying “Yes! And ...” to me as a teacher. Initially, I was hoping they wouldnt’ be too embarrassed to say their name in a funny way in front of their peers, but they accepted my premise and ran with it in an inspiring—dare I say moving—way. And that made me feel pretty special and creative too! 

Since then, I’ve used the sounds of their names to teach syncopated rhythms, to introduce the idea of counterpoint, and even to help the clarinet players articulate better. Not only does this make them feel like they are the stars of the lesson, but it reminds me how astoundingly creative they are as individuals and as a class.

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