As Brandeis students, we have access to a plethora of classes and no shortage of fields to study. Because of this, we are encouraged to take courses outside our major and minor tracks, but a lot of times, that can be overwhelming. One look at the course guide, and a student could come away more confused than when they started looking. One of the best places to look for fun and interesting courses to fill out a schedule is the arts, but that too can be intimidating. A lot of times students both with and without experience have a hard time finding where they fit and that can be especially true in the music department.
Enter experienced jazz saxophonist and performance artist, Tom Hall. Along with many other touring groups, Hall played with Brandeis Jazz Band Director Bob Nieske in his quintet, Wolf Soup. According to Tom’s bio on his website, freeimprovisation.com, Nieske asked him to join the music department back in 1997. He founded and is now the director of Brandeis’ Improv Collective, a class that is designed to explore free musical improvisation.
He “never wanted to teach” at the beginning, said Hall in an exclusive interview with The Hoot. He said he always thought of himself “as a performer and an improviser.” Eighteen years into teaching Improv Collective, however, Hall has changed his tune. Since its inception, Improv Collective has gone from a saxophone group and overflow from the jazz band to a fully inclusive ensemble that accepts all instruments and experience levels, and has become one of the most interesting and unique courses on campus. Students come back to the ensemble every semester simply because “they love to improvise together and class is structured in such a way that you can’t really get what we do here in any other class. It’s now basically just a class that lots of people [who] are into music try to take before they leave,” Hall said.
So what is this structure that keeps students coming back every time the class is offered? Hall put it simply: “We use improvisation to explore music, and we use music to explore improvisation.” This simple idea drives the course, and as Hall said, “[We] don’t really need to fit anything else in except for improv … because it’s a process that is part of everything we do.”
To Hall, improvisation is “the process of taking our understanding and awareness [that] we have, combining it with the possibilities and materials of the moment, and creating something,” something he says we do every day whether we know it or not. The way Hall sees it, we are all born improvisers. We do it every time we speak, every time we think, every time we respond to something, and most importantly whenever we create.
Hall began teaching the course because he wanted to figure out a vocabulary with which to talk about free improvisation, which according to him was a nebulous concept in music and in jazz in particular. One of his earliest goals with the course was to take free improvisation “beyond stream of consciousness music to music where people are consciously composing in the moment,” and during his time at Brandeis, Hall has quite literally written the book on free improvisation. In 2009, Hall published “Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide,” a book of exercises and tips to talk about and improve improvisational playing. A lot of the concepts talked about in the book are the same ones Hall delves into and utilizes in the course.
It’s hard to describe a typical rehearsal of Improv Collective because, by the nature of improv, it’s different every time. In the last rehearsal, Hall started the improvisers out with a duet exercise to examine musical and improvisational relationships. He set the group up in several combinations to facilitate free expression through music, and gave a prompt like “have a conversation” or “play out a story.” He uses prompts like this to get students thinking about a certain aspect of improvisation. In this case the aspect is relationship, but Hall said, “It can be something as simple as loud and soft.”
At the end of the rehearsal Tom invited the whole group up to play a “groove” together. In a groove each member of the ensemble plays something small to allow each player to add to the collective sound. The players are free to shift and evolve the groove as it forms, giving them the unmitigated to exercise their creativity. The freedom of the exercise and the thrill of playing together are just a couple reasons why grooves are one of the group’s favorite playing exercises.
Hall says that his “job as a teacher is to shine a flashlight on someone else’s process … so [someone] can see what’s going on in themselves” and better understand how they work as an improviser. Through doing this for so many years, Hall says he has learned more about himself as a person, a musician, and as an improviser. For the future of the group Tom says he’d like to see it branch out and become more involved with the other creative outlets on campus. By connecting with other groups on campus and hopefully reprising last year’s Brandeis Improv Festival, Hall hopes to enrich and enliven the breadth of creativity at Brandeis. You can catch the Improv Collective in Slosberg on November 15, for their semester show.