Order out of chaos: Jazz students exercise creativity with free improvisation

By Jonathan Gradin (Short Article Written Feb. 24 for JAMM-425 Feature Article Writing at the University of Idaho)

Nearly 100 elementary to high school students entered the Kenworthy Theatre Thursday morning for a workshop on free improvisation using wind instruments. As they chattered, Eli Yamin, the workshop instructor, walked through the aisles with an energy and personality reflected in his light bluish-gray paisley shirt.

“Got your instruments?” he asked each group, his wavy black hair slicked back despite his excited motion. “Get ’em out!”

Around the theatre, gleaming brass tenor saxophones, alto saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a baritone horn emerged, as well as a few black clarinets. Those who didn’t have instruments present—including a dozen community members—could use their voices, they were soon told.

Before running through several exercises in free improvisation (music-making without set rules of chord progressions or tonality), Yamin polled the audience as to why the played, both musically and in general. Students around the room shouted responses:

“To be involved in the music!”

“It lets us be creative!”

“To express yourself!”

“To have fun!”

“To engage imagination!”

“To learn!”

Yamin affirmed the responses, adding, “It’s important to remember why we play when you’re studying jazz, because jazz can get so heady.”

Above all, don’t let sight of the emotional, fun, creative aspects of music.

“Music carries you,” Yamin said. “You want that sense of buoyancy, sense of play.”

Free improvisation, which Yamin—a New York-based pianist, composer and teacher—has taught for more than seven years, is a way of helping students open up their creative efforts, in a setting where no melodic idea is wrong or discouraged.

“It opens up your creative juices…and lets you connect your imagination with the actual physical world,” Yamin said. “That process can be transferred to any field whether it’s science, theatre, design, marketing. Creativity is creativity.”

Yamin started by having everybody play or sing the lowest note they could, followed by the highest. Several warm-up of various pitches followed, low to high and high to low, as well as rhythmic exercises. Yamin told the students that they didn’t “have to to get the pitch exactly right,” then had the three seating areas of the theatre each perform a short, repeated riff (melodic and rhythmic combination). At first the sound was a cacophonous, dissonant wail, but it gradually coalesced into a form of consonance, a basis upon which any form of jazz melody could be improvised.

Saxophonist Chris MacGregor, a long-haired high school student from Langley Fundamentalist Middle and Secondary School in British Columbia, came down from the right-side section and laid down a solo in front of a microphone placed in front of the stage. A young boy with a saxophone joined him on the left-side microphone, trading solo lines back and forth, followed by a boy with a trombone, a scat (nonsensical rhythmic syllables) singer and others. Some players started hesitantly, but quickly gained confidence as the musical magic washed over them.

The improvisation became a creature of its own, with an energy that didn’t stop and which absorbed the whole audience. Yamin began clapping in rhythm and strutting across and before the stage, a passionate gleam in his eyes at the raw creativity being unleashed.

After loosening up everyone with that jam session, Yamin found out to his dismay that the workshop was only an hour, rather than the 90 minutes he had planned. His jazz instincts and professionalism held steady.

“OK, we’ll improvise,” he said.

He had the students form pairs, compose a theme—a musical phrase—then teach it to their partner. Students noted that remembering the themes was difficult, and Yamin stressed active listening as a major part of the creative process. Afterward, he had the students form quartets, make two themes, then improvise on those two themes. The workshop ended with each group performing, including an a cappella scat group; a blend of two tenor saxophones, a trombone and a large-belled bass trombone; and a group comprised of a girl clarinetist and three female scat vocalists.

“Creativity and imagination are inherent in everyone,” Yamin’s website www.eliyamin.com states, the truth of which was exemplified in the smiles and laughter of everyone participating, from elementary school children to community retirees.

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