Aural Skills and Improvisation: final projects 2023

18 June 2023

For this year’s final projects of the subject Aural Skills and Improvisation, our students of the third year Bachelor of Classical Music have collaborated in ensembles to create their own 10-minute musical pieces from scratch.

Based on self-chosen (musical) inspirations and stories, the pieces show a surprising variety of musical ideas and subjects. Uniquely, none of the pieces are conducted, and no scores have been used. The participants were challenged to use the best of their listening skills, knowledge of musical vocabulary, quality and originality of ideas, collaborative creation skills and improvisation techniques.

“There‘s magic in coming together and making music, each with our own ideas and sounds, merging into one whole musical experience” Katarina Viktoria Braathén, Bachelor Singing

At first, we were a bit lost and didn’t know how to approach this ten-minute improvisation. We also came up with a theme for our improvisation. A dramatic train accident happened a few days before, and we wanted to pay tribute to the victims of the crash and tell their story in this piece. Little by little, we focused on the warzone setting of this train crash. We wanted to expose contrasting musical ideas to represent all the aspects of this tragic event. We begin with a chaotic climax section, followed by a calmer section where strings have their solo in a pentatonic mode. Then, a trumpet interlude appears accompanied by the text spoken for the first time. A piano solo follows and after that a voice and flugelhorn duet, with a melancholic spirit. We find a new motive in the coming section, that is a rhythmical part. This texture accompanied the recitative about the night of the accident. A flashback of the climax comes afterwards ending on the crash of the cymbals. Our last part is a string ensemble, with first melodies and then a harmonics texture, translating a nostalgic environment.

First, we freely improvised to understand what textures we could make, what sound possibilities we could have with this uncommon instrumentation. Everyone came up with advanced techniques to present different colors with our instruments. Little by little, after exploring the different sound possibilities we could provide, we came up with some musical ideas. We then set a concrete theme, so we had a direction to improvise. Afterwards, we structured our pieces and put cues to know when the separations of the different sections would be. After agreeing on our basic structure, we focused more on the interaction and communication between each other. We practiced each section by itself, to improve every part and to explore the possibilities and feel free and comfortable all the time. If improvisation was challenging at first, especially with so many musicians, we quickly felt at ease and enjoyed making music together, sharing ideas. This project week was for all of us a great experience, and was beneficial in a musical way: we improved our communication and listening skills and our ensemble skills. And we noticed that in addition to this, it helped a lot for our chamber music skills, because this time, we were playing music freely, without a score.

The piece as the title suggests is about light and the absence of it. Eleven instrumentalists all with different backgrounds and ideas, formed together this piece, which presents how the light develops through the day; from the dark, late night (which is presented by the cricket sounds and the extended techniques), to the lighter morning, followed by a busy noon (perhaps an audition day), gradually moving to a somber evening and the dark night, which is presented again, with extended techniques which symbolize the darkness again, completing the cycle of the day.

The process of making the piece was interesting but challenging as well, since we were a big group. On the first day, we divided into smaller groups, and experimented around improvisatory ideas, which were later presented. After some feedback from one another, we kept some ideas that were functional and interesting and then started discussing how we could form a piece with structure around them. Of course, every day, new ideas were discussed, or current ideas were improved, but we agreed on a certain concept which was our reference point. In the end, the main structure of the piece was the story mentioned earlier, formed in three groups, with a beginning and an end which included the whole group presenting the extended techniques, which symbolize the darkness.

Making decisions about an improvised piece in such a big group is very challenging because everyone has their own ideas and wants to put them through. Nevertheless, I think our communication was quite good and all voices were heard, which is important in a group. We really emphasized on hearing and reacting when exploring new ideas and sounds, and not necessarily playing all the time. The result turned out very interesting but of course, there is always space for improvement, maybe with more time, more experimentation, and more contact with one another since all of us are firstly different instrumentalists and from so many different countries with different backgrounds. All in all, this experience was very useful, challenging and very interesting for us, who as classical musicians are not trained to improvise, especially in such a big group!

We centered different ideas around a waltz theme in f minor. The piece is built from 5 movements each representing different characters. The first movement is a waltz which shows the basic idea of the piece with a few soloists experimenting with the material. The first movement transitions into the contrasting second movement with a mysterious atonal idea, in which each player was restricted with playing one effect on their instrument. This movement created the perfect opportunity to connect to the third movement, which symbolizes the rhythmical atonality with energy. Transitioning into the fourth movement, we played around with two scales, which created an interaction between two instrument groups (two half moons). Finally, we created a coda based on the waltz theme.

In the beginning, we experimented with what kind of themes we liked. After experimenting, we came up with the waltz theme of the piece and we liked it so much that we based the whole piece around it. We experimented further with what kind of musical characters we liked and came up with the five different movements. All of us were involved in the process and had good ideas. There was space for experimenting, reflecting and there was a good atmosphere for everyone to speak up about ideas. When the group got silent, there always was someone who would speak up or we would experiment further to get more ideas.

We all had good ideas and could work together quite well. In the beginning, we had to get used to playing together and acting on each other's ideas on the spot. After a few days, we got used to each other and were able to act on each other's ideas without thinking too much about it. We had a lot of great ideas, but sadly to be time effected, we had to leave some of them behind. We talked a lot about the ideas, but could have experimented more instead of talking. We also experimented with the formation, but in the end, it was best to sit down the whole time, because it would be recorded. The combination of instruments worked really well. We had one of every instrument and could really explore the different sounds of the instruments and their sound together.


The ensemble consisted of an interesting combination of instruments: Horn, Flute, Double Bass and Percussion. Starting the session, we brainstormed, and we tried to find a way to use the capabilities of our instruments in the most fitting way for the ensemble. After some free improvisation, we started investigating the concept of fractals in our musical creation talking about M.C. Escher and the Mandelbrot set and how we could as an ensemble create a piece that keeps the same patterns if we “zoom in” the piece, but keep the same “geometry”. The idea was appealing for all of us but in application it did not work as expected.


Starting from the fractal idea, we all chose a motive to start the piece, so we all had our own “geometrical design”. Interestingly, without planning it, two members of the ensemble created a motif in the F# acoustic scale and the remaining a motif in the D Mixolydian scale, thus creating the roots of two juxta-positioned layers of the piece. We continued experimenting with this concept, while loosely keeping the fractal idea in mind, but it not being our central focus anymore.


After introducing the first motives for each instrument, we moved on to create a more rhythmical section of the piece, with the double bass and percussion keeping a steady rhythm and the horn and the flute on the spotlight. Originally, we thought that we should slowly move the piece back to the original motifs, sticking to the fractal idea, but something was missing. We continued by adding a section filled with dialogues between instruments, making small duets towards the most challenging part of the piece. A section with more vertical harmony on the marimba and a 5/4 rhythm was conceived where a composed melody was used and both main scales of the piece would appear together and then blend back together. The marimba and the bass kept a role of rhythmic and harmonic rhythm while the flute and the horn improvised on the two main scales used.

The piece is about the character of a librettist. They are regarded as an unknown figure that no one remembers, even though they were the creator of some of the most famous opera stories. The piece is built around 3 sections that together form a whole performance. The first section is a musical introduction focused around a Spanish poem. The poem is about someone who is almost dead. It has a religious meaning, the death of Jesus, but also a personal intake. The person conflicts with the frustration of not being successful with its life objectives. Melancholy and existentialism is all that she/he can feel. And the only thing that they can do is to remember the moments where they were suffering thinking that they were living life for nothing. The poem is made in the context of Semana Santa, a tradition in Spain that tells the history of the death of Jesus from the Bible’s perspective with images, thrones and the music of the cornet and percussion.We created an atmosphere that combined with the origin of the poem, with a solo on the cornet that announced the beginning of the poem. Then we had a musical conversation between the cornet and the poem. We ended this first section like we began it, with mysterious winds bringing us to the story of the second part. In the second part, the narrator starts to remember things from their past. They take the form of the librettist who talks about not being remembered. They claim it to be unfair that certain figures are doomed to be forgotten in history, even though they played a big role. The second part also forms a bridge between the spoken parts of the narrator and the singing of the last part. This singing part starts with onomatopoeic features, supported by the cello and clarinet. The cornet is a representation of the narrator's thoughts and amplifies only certain words that they use. The music becomes more and more important until a very big climax where there is no hope anymore. But then suddenly the narrator realizes: maybe I will be remembered someday.

The third section starts from this realization and presents a hopeful thought for the future. The music changes to a much more happy and upbeat atmosphere. The piece comes full circle with the poem from the beginning of the story coming back but now in song form. The piece ends very big and generous, this represents an ending with a lot of hope.

When we started thinking of ideas, we very soon got the idea of making a full story with different sections. During the process of getting the idea into a final performance, everybody just kept bringing in their own ideas. This allowed us to really sit and think about what would work the best and what made sense. We could let everyone shine and play an important role so it was very nice to work together in this group.

We took our ideas and made a few marks for ourselves to better remember the progression, tonalities and cues. For example, some trumpet motives return when the narrator says certain words and the final sentence before the last song was a very important phrase, both in words and in movements. The idea of starting with a wind sound which returns during several different moments in the piece was something we discussed beforehand and served as an important cue. We created some musical barriers by choosing different keys we wanted to stay close to. The first part is in C minor, the second part is in G minor and the final part gets to a shocking E-flat major. Each of these keys had different movements and cues, some of which being the standing up of the narrator. Despite these barriers, we tried to change our use of material and melodies every time we played the piece.

The piece worked out to be mostly like we imagined it. Of course, some things always could have gone better, but for an improvised performance everything worked out quite well. Originally, we planned to end the second section in complete chaos, and then suddenly change to the happy song. But in the final performance we could not keep the chaos any longer after a while, so the second part ended less abruptly and more gradually. Still we could continue the performance and adapt to this sudden change.

The piece is based on the English folksong Scarborough fair. It begins with a calm opening with the strings before the melody is introduced in the trumpet. A dialogue is created between the various combinations of instruments, based on the first motive of the melody, to imitate the atmosphere and conversations in the Scarborough market. After the climax, the improvisation continues with a more experimental part using extended techniques to create a chaotic and overwhelming ambience. Eventually, the ensemble goes back to the quiet atmosphere, finally bringing the ending of the original melody. Our aim was to use various instrumentations and look for interesting colors, all while finding a common ground between the members of the collective.

We are a group of 7 instruments consisting of 2 sopranos, 1 flutist, 1 violist, 2 violist and 1 pianist. On the first day, we experimented with different musical ideas - including freestyle, having a bass rhythmic pattern, having a motive, and improvising with texts to prepare for our final performance. At the beginning, it was not an easy process to reach to a collective idea and a right balance amongst us. However, after many runs of the various ideas, we eventually came up with the idea of having 3 musical transitions and allowing different instruments their moments to be the focal point.

The piece we came up with is called “Tripping”. The title of the piece was inspired by the improvised dialogue about weather, and eventually evolved into the two characters(voices) hallucinating due to the heat. The musical structure is divided into 4 sections - it begins with a free-flowing improvisation starting with a motive from the flute; then a rhythmic section was introduced and sustained by the piano with two dialogues going on amongst the instruments, which acts as the prelude of the sung dialogue for the next section; In the third section, an improvised sung dialogue was accompanied by different effects from the instruments, which ended with the characters meeting their fates.