Team-building exercises for musicians?
March 12, 2010 3:21 PM   Subscribe

Team-building exercises... for musicians.

So, I've finally got a group of people who enjoy spending an hour or two making noise together. We've got a couple of tunes that we work through, mostly jamming on a pre-set song structure, but we also just like to free-improvise and see what comes up.

So far we've been pretty good at spontaneous improvisation, but I was wondering if there's anything like team-building exercises for a group of musicians?

Actors have improvisational theatre where someone gives them a theme. Mid-level executives have team-building retreats where they go through trust exercises and the like. The only thing I can think of for musicians would be an endless twelve-bar blues jam or trading fours, but there's got to be others.

Any suggestions or links?
posted by lekvar to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies? It's available as an Iphone app.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 3:40 PM on March 12, 2010

My friend had a jazz combo teacher, and damn I wish I'd been part of that combo, that assigned them this surprisingly difficult exercise: everyone, at the same time, starts improvising freely. You can play as out as you want to, doesn't matter, as long as you're listening to what everyone else is playing. If everyone is listening, you'll all inevitably start locking in on something pretty soon. The moment it happens, stop playing whatever it is that you're playing and start the whole process over again from scratch. Variety of feel, texture, meter, harmony etc. is encouraged.

This accomplishes several things:

1. Forcing yourself to come up with a new idea that often really takes the potato off of your creative gas line, so to speak.

2. It teaches you to not fall in love with any one idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Good ideas are most often the result of throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, and this exercise will put plenty of shit in your hands.

3. It's concentrated free-improv practice. You've all almost certainly spent a lot of time soloing over a groove that's already going, so what the hell is the point of sticking with a groove once you've got one? You can practice that shit with a recording, or a song you already know. The point of this exercise is to enhance your ability to create from scratch spontaneously.

Seriously, I highly recommend it. It's mentally exhausting but so much fun.
posted by invitapriore at 3:48 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another thing to try is rotating through a lead; let each member start off playing for a little bit, playing something repetitive as a baseline, then have each person add something in, all at once, on a four-count. At first you'll collide, and have to reconcile; over time you'll learn what the other people are likely to do and you'll select something complimentary. Rotating the originator ensures that the people jumping in at once are a constantly changing subset.

Note that the originator doesn't have to play anything complex, just something steady, for about 15-30 seconds before the four-count. Also note that, like invitapriore's exercise, you don't need to keep going once you've all started and reconciled into something steady -- this is about learning your collaborator's foibles and tendencies, not about creating something in particular.
posted by davejay at 3:54 PM on March 12, 2010

John Zorn wrote a number of "game" pieces, including the most famous, cobra. A simplified version of one of these could work (doing the real thing takes quite a bit of rehearsal, in my experience, it is a piece of music rather than just a one off exercise).

There are a number of informal and oral tradition structures that get passed down as an oral tradition in the free imrov scene, and in a sense the Zorn games are compendiums of favorite rules and games into one big meta-game. Two very simple games that are favorites of mine:

Start with two or three performers. they gesture toward their tag-in replacement when ready, and stop as the other begins. You end up with a series of duets/trios no matter the size of your group

Start with two or three players. The one who has been playing longest must stop if anyone else jumps in. This is similar to the previous, but is for obvious reasons much more demanding, and fast paced, and requires much more discipline and skill.

The big thing to watch out for is the asshole who thinks "sounding good" is more important than playing the game properly - kick them out, they ruin it.
posted by idiopath at 3:57 PM on March 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A lot of organizations cross-train employees, and find that it is both a team building discipline, and a means of institutionalizing organizational flexibility. In a setting of a small musical band, this might take the form of everybody switching instruments, to the extent that's hygenic/possible (mouthpieces aren't that expensive). The drummer gives up his kit, to play bass. The bass player becomes the saxophonist. The sax player sings. Etc. Or, it might take the form of the bass player playing lead, on his bass, while the rhythm player plays bass on his guitar, and the sax player trys vocalizing through his horn, while the singer croons the sax part. Etc.

What it sounds like, I suppose, isn't all that important. Go team.
posted by paulsc at 4:30 PM on March 12, 2010

paulsc: that is the origin of the Talking Heads song "Naive Melody", perhaps not coincidentally their most covered song.
posted by idiopath at 4:35 PM on March 12, 2010

"paulsc: that is the origin of the Talking Heads song "Naive Melody", perhaps not coincidentally their most covered song."
posted by idiopath at 7:35 PM on March 12

I suppose. It's also what happened when Dizzy Gillespie met Charlie Parker.
posted by paulsc at 4:59 PM on March 12, 2010

Try going on the opposite direction from trading solos: Minimalist funk jam!

One person plays a simple little riff (I say "riff" but it could be a single note). Repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, to infinity. The next person adds another little riff on top, and so on, until everyone's playing. Repeat a few thousand more times.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:59 PM on March 12, 2010

The new Phish biography describes how Phish does their jam training.
posted by mearls at 6:13 PM on March 12, 2010

Drop the instruments. Music should be experienced first hand from within & not just through your fingers. Break apart harmony, rhythm & melody and experience them each first hand, and them put them back together again in a coherent whole - all without your instruments (except for maybe some rhythm instruments, but they should be hand-held like djembe or tambourine).

What you want is for the music to be a communal activity that connects people - that connects the members of the band, in a way that goes beyond the instruments you play. Use this as an example (and if you haven't seen the movie Glory, go rent it, it's an amazing movie).

This is the intersection of harmony (european), rhythm (african) and melody (universal) that we should all experience as music.
posted by MesoFilter at 11:18 PM on March 12, 2010

Watch the movie Some Kind of Monster together.
posted by ovvl at 10:33 AM on March 13, 2010

Response by poster: Fantastic suggestions, everybody.
posted by lekvar at 12:40 PM on March 15, 2010

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