What is the sound of joy?

"This is like getting HIGH, except without drugs!"

That was my favorite quote from a participant in my workshop this past weekend. Hmmm, now how can I incorporate that into the testimonials without giving the wrong impression? All we were doing is making music!

Music is a lot like drugs - it can be stimulating, or relaxing, and maybe even cause hallucinations. Depending on the quality, dose and frequency, music can be extremely healing - the ultimate medicine - or it can be an immediate escape from reality. I also believe it's possible to overdose on music of any kind. Just like a good medicine that's taken in the wrong quantities, music's effect is all about timing and placement.

I recently learned that the Chinese character for "music" can also be read as "happiness" if pronounced differently. I also learned that the character for "medicine"  is exactly the same as the character for "music" and "happiness", with the addition of the symbol for "herb" on top. [Note: it's difficult to discern in the pictures I found on the web, since they are written in different styles of calligraphy, so you'll have to use your imagination a little.]

This was a huge revelation for me, not only because I'm of Chinese descent and have a preschooler's reading level in that language, but also how ancient the ties are among music, happiness, and health. Isn't it fascinating that at the root of the Chinese language lies a knowledge of the overlapping relationship among these things? Maybe it's about time we started to pay more attention to our musical diets, and the sound environments we create and live in.

No Two Moments Are Alike

True to the form of improvisation, every one of the "Music Improvisation for Everyone" workshops has been completely and totally unique. I've not only tried different exercises and "setups", but some of the SAME exercises have yielded dramatically different results, depending on the mix of people and the energy of the particular day.

I love it!

It's perhaps a little antithetical to the spirit of improvisation to record what happened and listen back to it, but such is the gift of modern technology. I couldn't choose among the many amazing audio clips of improvisations that were created on Saturday. I want to share all of them with you!

After a few warm-ups, I felt the energy of the room "buzzing" to begin, so I dove right into groups of four doing free improvisation, starting from silence. I must disclose that this is the first time anyone has brought musical instruments to this workshop, and I felt myself not wanting to disappoint by doing too many vocal and rhythm exercises. OK, I admit also wanted to indulge my curiosity about what all those different instruments would sound like in combination. But we started with just voices.

Improv Quartet From Silence #1:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Improv-Quartet-from-Silence-1-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Improv Quartet from Silence #1 4.17.10]

Improv Quartet From Silence #2:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Improv-Quartet-from-Silence-2-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Improv Quartet from Silence #2 4.17.10]

Then came the rhythm section:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Rhythm-Ostinato-1-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Rhythm Ostinato #1 4.17.10]

This one finally found its groove, near the end:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Rhythm-Ostinato-2-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Rhythm Ostinato #2 4.17.10]

No Two Leaders Are Alike

If you want to hear a fascinating series that illustrates, through the metaphor of sound, how different leadership styles draw out such different expressions from the same group of people, check out the following seven clips, each between 1 and 3 minutes long. In each case, one participant was asked to be the conductor and lead the "orchestra" of other participants, each holding one of the exact same musical instrument (the only difference being the pitch or note played by each).

Notice the range of dynamics, the use of silence, and the effect of pulse or rhythm on the feeling of the music. This exercise was totally astonishing to me, and I just watched in awe as it unfolded. I never knew bells could make so many different sounds!

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-1-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Bells Conductor #1 4.17.10]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-2-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Bells Conductor #2 4.17.10]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-3-|titles=Bells Conductor #3]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-4-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Bells Conductor #4 4.17.10]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-5-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Bells Conductor #5 4.17.10]

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Conductor-6-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Bells Conductor #6 4.17.10]

The entire group also cut loose in an open improvisation using only the bells. This is what originally inspired me to go with the conducting exercise above.

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Bells-Open-Improv-1-4.17.101.mp3|titles=Bells Open Improv #1 4.17.10]

A Group Can Find Its Own Sound

Because we had so many instruments, I felt compelled out of curiosity to have two sessions of open improvisation with the entire circle, using any instruments of their choice. No one cued the group to start or stop. It started when it started, and it ended when it ended. A beautiful thing!

As you listen to these clips, sit back and notice what happens in your body over the few minutes of sound you are hearing. Do you notice the importance of pulse, contrasts, silence, space, and textures? Do you notice your mind wanting to call some of it "music" and some of it "sound" or "noise" or "something you can't understand"? Or can you relax into the listening, taking it all in, and allowing yourself to just be with the sound?

First half of Open Improv #1:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Open-Improv-1-CLIP-1-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Open Improv #1 CLIP 1 4.17.10]

Second half of Open Improv #1:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Open-Improv-1-CLIP-2-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Open Improv #1 CLIP 2 4.17.10]

Clip from Final Open Improv:

[audio:http://www.themusicwithinus.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Final-Open-Improv-CLIP-4.17.10.mp3|titles=Final Open Improv CLIP 4.17.10]

Of course, the sound clips are only a small part of the picture. What isn't captured here is the fact that these eight people - some strangers, some friends before - met each other for the first time through the sound of their music. Together they started and ended, offered and received, played and listened.

I'll speak for myself and say that it is truly medicine for the soul to convene in music-making like this. We weren't trying to compose something, perform something, or get anything right by anyone else's standards. We were simply taking something from inside ourselves and putting it out there to share. It may sound simple, but this profound act of generosity is otherwise known as joy.