Improvising with Moseley Folk

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View from down to the main stagesView from down to the main stages

Actually, I was improvising with folk from all over, including some local to Moseley, in a workshop at Moseley Folk Festival on Saturday afternoon. The festival has been held in a park literally minutes away from my house in early September for the past 12 years, but this is the first time I have actually been involved in it. Indeed, quite often I’m out and about during this weekend – September is often a busy coaching season – so it was quite a novelty both to be in town for the festival and to have work I could walk to.

I had been approached to lead a workshop on the back of the workshops I’d led with Magenta during the Moseley Festival* over the years. But that format – learn a brand new arrangement in an afternoon – wasn’t going to work for this situation for various reasons. They needed something rather shorter than those musically ambitious events took, and that could be adapted for whatever random number and mix of people who chose to come along. So we went for a cappella improvisation.

We were housed in the tennis hut - i.e. the club-house for the Chantry Tennis Club – a building I have walked past hundreds of times and never previously set foot inside. I can reveal that it is much like you’d expect from a small sports clubhouse. It was good to have some solid walls around us – most of the festival takes place in tents and marquees and I was a bit worried about competing with other music, but it turned out fine. The music from the main stage was audible when we weren’t singing, but muted enough that we could create our own musical world inside the hut.

I had been led to expect maybe 15 participants, so most of my contingency planning had been around making it work with a very small number. In the event, the issue was coping with more than double that number in a somewhat cramped space. Plenty of safety in numbers, a good strong sound, but we actually had to manage the resonance quite carefully to keep the sound transparent enough that people could hear the whole well.

We started off using riffs as a basis for improvisation – learning a riff together, and then having about a quarter of the participants maintain it while the others played with singing along with it, and moving the riff round so everyone got a go at both riffing and improvising.

We then moved on to working with folksongs – on the grounds that not only are they good for the kinds of activities I was teaching, but that I was pretty confident that crowd would have a positive relationship with the repertoire! We used classic woodshedding techniques: holding notes to an ‘oo’ until they no longer went with the melody, and only then moving, and then later, when everyone had had the chance to experiment, adding the words back in.

What I love about this kind of activity is the real-time collaboration that goes on. This was a bunch of people who had never sung together before, but they all share experience of how music goes, and were thus able to respond to the melody and to each other. Where there were multiple harmonic possibilities, initially you’d hear all of them at once, but over a few repetitions, an intra-musical negotiation would take place producing a broad harmonic consensus.

*N.B. The Moseley Festival is not to be confused with either the Moseley Folk Festival, with which it shares some words in its name, or the Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival, with which it shares a weekend in the local calendar. For those who know Moseley, it’s not surprising to find it over-endowed with these kinds of activities – it is the kind of suburb that boasts more community organisations than actual residents.

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