!Improv Chamber Music CoverJust published by GIA: Improvised Chamber Music (53 p.) by me.

Excerpt from the Introduction:

The joys and benefits of chamber music are well-known. Everyone has an important role and part to play, so challenge and motivation are built-in. While it’s easy to “hide” in a large ensemble, in chamber music you hear everyone and everyone hears you. So you naturally acquire sharper rhythmic skills, sense of pitch, and sensitivity to appropriate dynamics. It’s a great social adventure as well, working closely together with others to achieve a common purpose.

Nearly every musician with even modest training has had some opportunity to play standard chamber music, be it string quartets, brass or woodwind quintets, or other mixed instrumentations. But what’s missing from nearly everyone’s training is making up one’s own chamber music, i.e. creating the piece as you go along. In this situation where you play without ink, all the joys and benefits of playing chamber music from sheet music are amplified, because you are all responsible every instant for creating a piece of music that makes sense and is satisfying to both performer and audience. The listening skills that are enhanced by traditional chamber music are developed to a much higher level in improvised chamber. The player must instantaneously and continuously analyze melodic shapes and motifs, modes and keys, rhythms, and timbres, then decide the appropriate role – solo/counterpoint/accompaniment/silence – and create it while listening to the whole, evaluating, and adjusting and adapting.

If this sounds overwhelmingly complex and difficult, think this: you already do this every day. It’s called conversation. You take something you already know well (the language) and use in a way that is interesting and meaningful to you to express what you are feeling in the moment. You listen, you respond, you enjoy the interaction. You do the same things in improvised chamber music, except that you can do it with several more people at the same time and still make sense.

One huge plus for improvised chamber music like this is that it doesn’t matter what the instrumentation is. If you want to play with friends but there is little or nothing written for your combination (e.g. piccolo, tuba, vibraphone, cello), this book will enable you to create your own repertoire (remember to record your improvisations; you may want to transcribe especially successful improvised pieces and make them into written-out repertoire compositions, which could also include places for improvisation). Keep in mind also that most of the games, while described for four players, could be played by three or five players, and remember that you can add percussion to nearly anything.

If you are a traditionally trained musician who has never before improvised and who recoils and flinches at the thought of having to improvise, keep in mind that improvising does not have to mean playing bebop – it simply means making your own decisions about what to play. Start with a whole note in the middle register. Stealing half your ideas from your playing partners is always a plus. You will quickly find improvising is both easy and fun, especially with your chamber ensemble friends. It takes grit and gumption to get started by yourself, but start the adventure with friends and the mental roadblocks to the process will disappear. Before you know it, you will be able to perform a new piece along with your regular chamber ensemble repertoire. Watch the delight and wonder on the audience’s faces as they hear you make up on the spot a very cool new piece from one of their suggestions.

Start today. Age, skill, instrument, level of training, previous improv experience – these are all of no consequence here. Just start. And get in on the fun.

Table of Contents

Warm-Up Games

Play Your Sound

Play Your Sound – With Space


Hearing Voices

Epic Soundtrack

Show Some Emotion

Long Tone Warm-Up

Long Tone Overlap

Circle Solos

Alpine Warm-Up


Rhythm Games

Three Against Four

Beat It

Ostinato Quartet

Overtone Ostinato

Order Four

Group Ostinato 101

Group Ostinato 102

Group Ostinato 103

Quarters to Two

Cardboard Concerto

Foot Music

Sparse Rhythm Machine



Melody Games


I Get Around

Quick Band


Interval Salad

Interval Piece


Directions + Hold

Bum Bum Bum BAH

Deconstruction Zone


Harmony Games


Quick Chords


Bachian Movement

Home and Away

Triad Constructions

Familiar Tune


Nontraditional Score Games

Squiggle Quartet

Playing the Gallery

Ad Music

Interactive Art

Interactive Dance

School Art Music

Mona Lisa Smile

Play the Thing


Accompaniment Games

Quartet Accompaniment Practice

Accompaniment Cards

Bum Bum Bum

Force It


Depiction Games



Guess the Portrait


Style Games

Style Matching

Addition Piece

Romantic is as Romantic Does

Radio Stations


Timbre Games


Rainbow X-Tech

Open Strings

Mouth to Mouth



Texture Games

Personal Beat

Personal Note Value



Vocal Games

Vocal Quartet

Instant Lyrics


Miscellaneous Games

Startling Unison

Son of Correlations

Constructions Cards

Role Playing

Play the Room, Really

Size Matters

Yin and Yang

Far and Near

Immortal Improv Sonata #47


Knowing the (Film) Score

Random Roles

Acting Out



The Art of Accompaniment


Patterns & Scales

Familiar Tunes

Styles and Forms


Advance Praise for Improvised Chamber Music

Jeffrey Agrell has written some of the most lucid material there is to open up the realms of improvisation for classically trained musicians. Each of his games provides a nugget of form around which an improvisation can crystallize. He provides a wonderful balance between a feeling of security and the freedom for musicians to play as themselves.

– Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play


Improvisation is an essential component to the musical development of our students. In this latest offering from Jeffrey Agrell, teachers and students will discover the joys and benefits of improvising. Jeffrey removes the fear and mystique of the improvisational process and empowers all to explore their creative capacities. With his imaginative and accessible suggestions, suitable for any context, the door to limitless possibilities will be opened. This is a resource that needs to be in every band room. Students have astonishing abilities to create. Give them the opportunity. Start today – your program will be forever changed!

–Ardith Haley, Acadia University and Arts Education Consultant for the province of Nova Scotia


Improvised Chamber Music offers a treasure trove of inspiration and ideas, in sound structures and musical games, a reference to patterns, styles and forms, but moreover a playful invitation into the adventure of improvising in ensemble with others. The games work well and are fun for any group, regardless of skill level, instrumentation or experience, with a wealth of suggestions to guide participants through the exploration of collective improvisation.

–LaDonna Smith, author, recording artist, and editor of The Improvisor


Jeffrey Agrell’s new book Improvised Chamber Music is an extremely useful and delightfully portable resource for classical musicians looking for ideas and structures for improvising in small groups. I’m excited to use it as a text for my improvised chamber music students, and as a resource for my own music making.

–Eric Edberg, classical improviser and Professor of Cello at DePauw University