J. Agrell, Improvisation Games for Classical Musicians

What for whom

"500+ Non-Jazz Games for Performers, Educators, and Everyone Else" from the cover is not precise yet… The understanding of "games" in the book is not like at our wiki — we defined them as "systems of rules", while the book often presents singular constraints to challenge oneself during musical performance. It's a quite common understanding within educational contexts and Jeffrey Agrell speaks about naming issues openly:

Why call them "games"? Why not "drills," "exercises," or "systematic text-based task-specific collaborative extemporaneous musical solo or ensemble performance studies"?
because it best suits the needs of teaching the subject matter.

Learning improvisation for classical musicians means approaching music in a completely different way, and this represents quite a challenge for both teacher and student. An improviser must engage in experimentation, exploration, and personal discovery of music, instrument and self […] using the term "games" helps us lighten up and lets creativity and imagination flow, instead of blocking it by fear of mistakes. [p. 42-43, emphases as in the original]

As we can see in the quote above, intended players might often be musicians who know their instrument and the music theory quite well but so far has been distanced from improvisation. This ideal student is rhetorically placed in the educational system of the U.S. but that matters much more in auxiliary materials than in games themselves.

AMAPFALAP — As much as possible from as little as possible.

Yes, and... — Method of improvising when you accept everything that is played and do something with it.

Needless to say, there is an overlap between the contents of the book and our wiki, albeit not within the library itself due to the simplicity of book's items, which may even have their own individual entry with us, but are treated here rather as general premises or mechanics, like Amapfalap or Yes, and... both entered as separate games in the book.

Still, in this voluminous collection the diversity is considerable, leading to the inclusion of "pieces", "concepts", and indeed "games", among other suitable categories. The intended usage scenario of the items is also not homogeneous, and some rulesets mention a "class" with a "Leader", some might be for a single player (often with an access to the piano), while some refer to everyday, non-musical situations.

Before an overview, have a look at these examples, of which only one will be considered a game in the understanding employed on this wiki. The most under-represented aspect below is the diversity of length — all chosen examples are short, while the longest items in the book span over more than two pages, with all variants and tips provided.

Offbeat Metronome

One player. When practicing scales or other technical materials, hear the metronome click on two and four instead of on one and three. Once you get the hang of it, brag to your friends that you have a special metronome that clicks on the off beats, and then demonstrate. They may want to know where they can get one, too.

Playing the Gallery

Two-plus players. A small group of players arranges with an art museum to provide an updated and improvised version of Pictures at an Exhibition. The group selects a number of paintings from the current exhibition and creates pieces to match on the spot. Make arrangements in advance, so that gallery-goers can plan to attend the concert.

What You Hear Is What You Get (To Do)

Four-plus players. One or two players are designated as soloists. They may play anything they wish. All others are designated as listeners and may play only what they hear a soloist play or a variation of it. Motivic development techniques (e.g., augmentation, diminution, sequence, transposition, etc.) may be applied. The Leader may reassign the soloist function at any time.

Games overview

At the beginning of the collection (after the introductory sections) there is a chapter 10 Quick-start Improvisation Game Favorites that gathers a selection of items from all the book — it's quite representative for quick reading and it's ordered additionally by the number of players. In general, the games are mainly organized by their primary category with helpful cross-linking indices at the end. There is little overlap between chapters, a few games appear more then once, occasionally with small variants. Some chapters end with a few "combinations" which are propositions of playing a few games at once, often between categories.

Here is a list of all categories with their starting page, number of games included in the chapter, and a short remark ("→" means here a general tendency). Almost every chapter is named "Adjective Games" — with these adjectives entered in the first column below.

Chapter p. # Remarks
Warm-up 71 13 may assume students having a set practice routine
Rhythm 77 80 includes classic percussion drills (as games)
Accent 105 12 e.g. Accenting The Wrong SyLAble
Dynamics 109 4 75% about the whole group, 25% individual dynamics
Melody 111 85 with jazz-adjacent info about scales
Form 135 13 may just instruct: ABCBA, or ABACA, etc.
Harmony 139 42 the most advanced in terms of musical skill (?)
Bass Line 155 11 typical simple jamming (for classical musicians)
Aural 159 44 → call-and-response
Nontraditional Score 171 16 with drawing and other art-making
Conducting 177 9 Soundpainting
Energy/Mood 183 9 → music therapy
Texture 187 12 defined as "number of instruments", density/on-off
Timbre 193 16 extended technique (dubbed "X-tech")
Composition 199 18 using traditional Western notation
Depiction 205 27 Entitled Piece
Technique 213 7 dealing with mistakes and unfamiliar material
Accompaniment 217 9 with short info on improv backing
Style 223 22 esp. genres of classical music
Text 231 11 improvisational theatre
Storytelling 237 17 Fairy Tale
Miscellaneous 245 51 diverse set, includes our fav pick (below)
Improv Set-ups 259 40 no "Games" in the title, narrow and specific rules
Extended Combination 267 6 more consecutive than concurrent games mixing

Final picks

Sometimes, a more typical gaming situation occurs, when the instruction calls for making a set of cards for randomization (DIY, no sheets for photocopying are provided). Actually, in line with a modern music gaming "trend", more than half of the book (short items) could successfully be made into a deck of rule cards, so players could draw instructions randomly or maybe sort them by category (color?). But gaming qualities may be found throughout the whole book, scattered among a lot of education. For that maybe the most outstanding example is Who Started It? (← click for a few tweaks):

Three to four players plus one. Player One leaves the room. Another player is designated as leader. Others must imitate what the leader does. When Player One returns, she must guess which of the players is the leader.

One other item we had in the collection before this review appeared, it is a simple instruction to play only with smallest intervals, efficient in its simplicity (doing a lot both for the music and for the experience). Finding an "inventor" of such a "game" would be a hard task, it is an activity that Jeffrey Agrell not only describes and promotes, but especially excelled in providing a name for it: Dueling Bumblebees (after YouTube in this case, the book has different titles for it). And indeed there are so, so many punny titles to choose from in the book, that it should be a great gift for every dad.

But is it worth the (personal) money? The publisher set a price rather high, aiming probably at institutions, and indeed the book is a great fit for a school library. Your individual satisfaction may vary depending on genre affiliations and your current experience with music games and with improvisation in general.

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