Improvisation, ideas and inventions

William Croft

I have experienced some of the most enlivening and joyful times when improvising music with others. We are vibrational beings. Physics and string theory is telling us this. And we are a creative extension of the universe unfolding and evolving here in this moment. Somehow, weaving sounds together creates synergy, builds bridges, and opens connections in a fluid and effortless way. How can something this transformational be so fun?

I've been very moved by the ideas of David Darling (cellist) and the Music for People organization he founded. (Abbreviated below as MfP). Although you are probably familiar with many of the simple ideas and structures listed here-- such simple concepts can have a profound impact on your instincts for musical creativity.

This page is a short outline of some of the main MfP ideas so you can get their flavor. For a much more in depth treatment, they have a wonderful book titled Return to Child. Trusting that from this natural place of childlike innocence and exploration, we will find inspiration, courage and new growth. Obviously, the list here also reflects my own personal views and impressions. Clicking on the links below will take you directly to that section.


Your own sound

Musical Bill of Rights

The Musical Bill of Rights is a short list of eleven sentences (whimsically, "rights") on the MfP website. Some that particularly hit home for me are:

  • Human beings need to express themselves daily in a way that invites physical and emotional release.
  • Your music is more authentically expressed when your body is involved in your musical expression.
  • Sincerely expressed emotion is at the root of meaningful musical expression.

In my experience there seem to be a couple different ways of creating sound and music in the moment. You can create something primarily in your head, interesting or clever patterns or progressions. Perhaps related to something you have done before, a permutation. Or patterned after some other sound or melody you have heard / played before.

OR... You can have more of your heart and mind working together, feeling your way into each note or sequence, seeing what resonates with your emotional state and following that trail. Keeping the feeling sense and intellect working as a team. This synergy effect seems to provide more 'juice' and presence than engaging the only the intellect.

Heart intelligence

Frontier scientists at the Institute of HeartMath and other research groups are saying basically the same thing. That the wisdom of the heart can act as a compass. And the intellect can then use that bearing to figure out which steps to take to reach the goal. These two human facilities working together have much increased creative and intuitional potential.

No Wrong Notes

A very freeing concept. There are no 'mistakes', no 'wrong notes'. Only learning, courage, growing. You have to take chances to move forward and create something anew. This can be softened even further by watching children as they play and explore.

Play what you'd sing, sing what you play

Vocalists perhaps have it the easiest. Because they can directly connect their feelings / emotions to their expression. For instrument players, an intermediate step can be to internally first sing to yourself what you would be playing. Then reach for the note.

Similar to "playing by ear". But allowing that internal freedom to find the note with the inner voice before reaching for it. Versus "following the fingers" in some pattern they are familiar with. Previous patterns and technique are of course valuable. But with the in-the-moment connection to emotion that singing provides. A kind of bridge.

One quality sound

Where do melodies come from? This is perhaps David Darling's most insightful concept. They come one note at a time.

You can experiment with this by just letting your intuition go to a note that resonates with your internal feeling state in the moment. One Quality Sound for this moment. Sing or play that note. You can hold it for one entire out breath or as long as you like. Then let the next One Quality Sound come to you, and sound it. Taking all the time you need.

Playing with this, you will find that melodies naturally arise. In their own time and space. With a life of their own but connected to you and your body.

Silence is your friend

It's not necessary to always be making new sounds and melodies. There are creative impulses available in the silence. The gaps in sounding allow time for your intuition to enter in at a deeper level. Re-inspiration.

Group dynamics

Equal parts listening and sounding

When improvising with others, you can imagine devoting equal attention to what you are hearing, and what you are sounding. Like weaving a fabric. Or dancing with a partner.

Small group size

Since listening is so important, large groups do not work as well as small groups. Ideal size is in the range of 3, 4, 5 musicians. Duets are also fun. If you happen to have a larger group, you could try splitting up into separate rooms or parts of the room. Work as small groups for awhile. If you have enough time you can regroup a second or third time with new partners.

Solo / accompaniment / predictability

The most natural form is a soloist improvising over musicians who are doing accompaniment. The accompanists are playing more predictably (slower in their changes), and this gives the soloist a platform or background in which to weave their less predictably changing solo part.

One common accompaniment is the drone note or sustained tone. Remember the soloist and the accompanists are listening closely to each other. So the members sounding drones can choose notes that weave well with what the soloist is doing. But there is synergy going on too. So occasionally the drones will shift to other notes that 'feel' appropriate and hang out there for a bit. These changes can inspire the soloist to go places they hadnt thought of until that moment. Think of sparks igniting something larger.

Another type of accompaniment is the repeating pattern or ostinato (cool wikipedia article). This too is predictable enough for the soloist to weave with. And also offers the accompanist somewhat more latitude than the drone notes. In that shifts can be made in the pattern, again working with listening, predictability, and synergy with the soloist.

When starting, it's best not to solo for too long. Maybe a minute. Then pass the solo part to the next in the circle with a gesture or tap on the shoulder. (If someone's eyes are closed.)

Landing it

Give a bit of attention with how you close the piece. You'll feel when that happens and find ways to wind it down and come to a satisfying ending.

Free form

After a few rounds of solo rotation, your group will be more familiar with its members and will have sharpened listening and synergy skills. If it appeals, you may want to try a free form improv, with no appointed soloist. Feel your way into this. Weave, listen, spark. If it feels too much, slow down. Allow silence to enter.


It's important and honoring of everyone in the group to share a bit after a piece about how that worked for you. What you especially liked. What you'd like to see in the future. Ideas and suggestions. As positively worded as you can. Remember to speak from both heart and mind.

Many styles and genres

You'll probably find that everyone in the group has their own unique style, sound, expression. Thank goodness. There are also established musical styles you can play around with. But sometimes it is hard balancing conforming to a style, and intuiting your own feeling / sound / expression. What's important is sounding from your own feeling center.

Voicestra / McFerrin / assigned parts

This is not MfP, but you've probably heard Bobby McFerrin do this professionally with Circlesongs, Voicestra, SoVoSo as well as CircleSinging groups and guided public events. In the CircleSinging formats, traditionally, a rotating 'group leader' invents and demonstrates parts to the group members. This can even work in large groups divided up into 'chorus' sections. The parts are usually some type of repeating pattern. After starting up the first pattern, the leader then weaves and starts the second pattern so they mesh. Then the third and so on. Finally the group leader solos over all of that. With sometimes inviting in additonal soloists. Of course it is more complex than this. The professional performing groups such as SoVoSo rehearse, the accompanying parts have scripted changes and segues, etc.

This is cool. And it sounds great and high energy. All the singers are amazing. But also... The accompanist parts are very repetitive in my listening to these. (You can hear it on the links above). I do not sense a lot of unfolding synergy going on, in terms of different parts catalyzing each other.

One could remodel this "sequential weaving" idea into more alignment with MfP. By (a) doing it in a small group. (b) letting each sequential part addition define their own part and weave. (c) when the circle is complete then the starter now becomes the soloist for a minute. (d) then hands off to the next in circle, with the previous soloist now assuming a new ostinato pattern.

And of course letting the individual members have some flexibility to shift and change their patterns during the set. So as to avoid accompaniment zombiehood. This type of format to me seems more adapted to strongly rhythmic pieces. Or at least the soloist can be more melodic if he likes.

Creating through vibration

This section is also not MfP. But more aligned with ideas about "creating our own reality". If we are indeed quantum vibrating strings at the tinyest and most subtle levels, can we use sound as a carrier wave for our heart creations?

Setting intention

Jonathan Goldman, author of many books on sound healing, has become noted for his perception that Sound + Intention = Creation. Many creation stories and myths speak of this beginning to the universe.

So occasionally experiment with intentions for what you want to create in the world. Visions that create abundance, healing, celebration, creativity, ... Think outside the box.

Resonance with the future

Your sounds can be as if the vision is already true. Which in some sense it is. As it is unfolding right now. And that these sounds are synergizing the elements of the vision, coming into place. Effortlessly, easily, with even surprise and astonishment about how alive and 'listening' to us this universe is.

Heart / wisdom circles

Wisdom Circles and Heart Circles are conversation formats that encourage heart intelligence, deep listening, setting intention, support and community. It seems like a perfect prelude or postlude to group improvisations. Here is a suggested structure / format for holding your own Wisdom Circles.

Resources / links