Every so often my brother David and I get together to jam. Both in our 60’s (and middle children), we simultaneously revived singing practices recently without knowing the other was doing so. I love that kind of synchronicity! David is incredibly fun to sing with; he’s playful, adventurous and he has the rhythm gene. He can pull a syncopated pattern out of thin air and tap dance his vocal cords through a series of complicated rhythms – no problem.
Whenever we sing together, I know I’m going to spiral up a learning curve to sync with him and stay connected because my strength is melody. Each session with David is an opportunity to mirror his rhythms, experiment with new patterns and tune up my responsive listening. That is: I’m listening, learning and responsively inventing at the same time; it’s a circular pattern.
Improvising with a partner or in a group is all about responsive listening and it can feel frustrating and overwhelming until you have a few strategies to practice with. One I often use is the mirror. To learn a rhythm or melody my partner is singing, I sing it with them simultaneously. Sometimes this is really hard for me because my partner is fluent in their own soundscape and it is so different from my own. But after I’ve repeated a phrase with them a few times, I’m usually able to create a variation or shadow them with a parallel harmony. When I repeat that harmony several times it becomes a pattern.
With that pattern I hold a stable rhythmic and melodic base for my partner. They’re familiar with the pattern since it evolved from their own musical vocabulary. As I repeat it, my partner is free to experiment with counter rhythms, harmonies and new melodies. At the same time, I’m adding to my own musical vocabulary.
This kind of back-and-forth learning, where one person explores and the other supports, is a dance of mutual interest because we also shift roles back and forth continuously. Sometimes the shifts are very obvious, sometimes quite subtle and at times we fall into entrainment where there is no leader and no follower – only the journey we are on.
So, here’s a clip from one of these sessions with my delightful brother, David Chilstrom: