Something to try with an Ensemble

Here’s something that you can try with your ensemble in your own time. You can also introduce this method to an ensemble that you are directing. I first learned of this from saxophonist Matana Roberts several years ago.

First off, let’s say you have a quintet. Start off by taking five small sheets of paper and label them 1-5. Have each player in the group pick out a number. If you are the most experienced player in the group, keep the number 1, you will be the leader in this exercise. Don’t worry about who has which number.

Next the ensemble has the choice of designating a key for the exercise or not. For beginners I usually choose a key and we go from there. For more advanced groups you can choose to not to assign a key and keep it atonal. More possibilities that way. Let’s say I have number 1. So I’m the leader.

The leader starts the performance by playing a musical phrase and repeating it for the person who has number 2, for them to then repeat back to the leader in unison (or as close as possible). Once the leader feels that number 2 has the phrase down (one way to tell is to stop playing the phrase and make sure that number 2 has the phrase down solid), play another phrase to counter the first phrase. This phrase is for the player with number 3. Make sure that number 3 has the phrase down the same way you have done for number 2.

The leader continues the same thing by doing this for numbers 4 and 5. The challenge for the leader is how simple or complicated to make the phrases. The leader must take into account the choice of notes, the rhythm, and the length of phrases that are relayed for playback. The rhythm must be interesting enough though, because in most groups the drummer will have a number. I usually tell inexperienced drummers to play the rhythm that’s given to them in addition to what they can come up with to compliment that rhythm.

Once everything is up and running, I like to encourage members of the group, one at a time, step out and improvise within the song. When done, the soloist recalls his/her assigned line and plays it. It’s usually a challenge for players to get back to what they were given, because the soloing usually affects their melodic memory.

This exercise can also morph into another tune that’s familiar with the players involved if they are open to that kind of thing. It’s a cool experience to have as a player and a listener. I would encourage working groups to try this, having each member in the group serve as the leader.

Swing it out!!



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