I recently had the honor and pleasure of attending a 10-day improvisation workshop with master teacher/singer/improviser Rhiannon. My heart is full and my musical/creativity cup runneth over! So, I wanted to share one of the improvisation exercises I learned -- one that I think every a cappella group could utilize as a tool for creating original songs, arrangements, or even just as a vocal warm-up or improv practice. I created a little demo using the A Cappella app, which is a great tool for practicing on your own if you don't have a group to sing with. Note that each part was improvised and added in the moment so pitch, rhythms and other musical aspects are definitely imperfect. But improvisation isn't about perfection, it's about capturing the music in the air in the given moment.
The exercise breaks down like this:
1. One person creates what Rhiannon calls a "motor." This should be a catchy line, most likely 2-4 bars with some compelling melodic and rhythmic content. Not too complicated though!
2. Second person harmonizes the motor -- a fifth above, a 3rd above, a 4th below, etc. -- whatever floats your musical boat.
3. Third person add an interlocking syncopated part. This part should utilize different pitches than the motor and harmony (ideally, so you can round out the harmonic structure) but most importantly, it should fill the rhythmic spaces in your motor, not landing or accenting on the same part of the beat or the bar as the motor.
4. Fourth person adds a counter-melody. This can utilize longer tones and should include some leaps. Rhiannon also suggests starting on a tension, not a chord tone to add interest. In the example above, I start on the 6, or tension 13.
5. Fifth person adds a bass line. It doesn't have to be low! In your group, it would probably be valuable to switch around who does bass and percussion so everyone gets to try it out. The most important part of the bass line is that it's sung in a comfortable part of your range, confidently with forward, resonant tone and percussive syllables -- don't hold on too long or use vibrato.
6. Sixth person add percussion. You don't have to beatbox to add a percussive part. And again, get everyone to try filling this role.
7. Seventh person sings a solo over top of the orchestra! You can improvise on syllables, add words, or even try and set a known melody on top of the what has been created to support you harmonically and rhythmically. I didn't really get to demonstrate this because I got cut off, but this could go on as long as you like!
Most of all, have fun with it!! Use your musical ears, but also your eyes to connect with other singers (one very important thing I learned from Mele was the value in keeping my eyes open while singing, especially making eye contact with others with whom I'm improvising).
HAPPY A CAPPELLA SINGING AND IMPROVISING, FAM!
P.S. If you are a singer and ever have the time, resources and opportunity, I highly recommend you study with Rhiannon. She is an amazing teacher and human. Even at a rich and full place in my career with lots of prior training and experience, I took away SO SO SO SO MUCH. Her workshops are all listed here.