Concordia’s musical improvisation club connects, unites and empowers students
“I get out of every session with so much energy and a clear mind. It feels very similar to meditation in that way,” said Concordia music student Sara Shields-Rivard. She achieves this mental clarity through a type of musical therapy—one she strives to share with the Concordia community.
Shields-Rivard is an executive of Collabra-dabra-tory, a club at Concordia that practices musical improvisation. Students from a variety of backgrounds are welcomed to sessions every two weeks to contribute to a musical creation using their voices, instruments provided or instruments of their own.
The sessions are often led by Dr. Irene Feher, a professor who teaches voice at Concordia. Feher helps guide the direction of the improvisation by controlling the flow and allowing people to solo, play all together or pass melodies between participants. Feher and Shields-Rivard came up with the idea for a musical improvisation club together during one of their voice lessons.
“I mentioned something about how the Concordia music department didn’t have enough extra-curricular stuff going on for students. I felt that most people went to class and went home,” Shields-Rivard said. “I also felt that I was becoming too focused on the academics of music rather than the fun parts of it.”
Feher spoke to Shields-Rivard about Music For People, an organization she is a member of, created by Grammy award-winning cellist David Darling, that experiments with musical improvisation. They decided it would be the perfect idea to base a student club off of.
Another one of Feher’s voice students, Olivia Charlebois-Brandvold, is now Shields-Rivard’s co-executive at Collabra-dabra-tory.
“I was feeling a bit down because it was my first year in the music program and I felt like everyone already kind of knew each other, and I hadn’t really made any friends or connections yet,” Charlebois-Brandvold said. She was looking for a way to get more involved at school when she found herself in line at the People’s Potato behind Shields-Rivard, Feher and former club executive Meghan Riley.
“Meghan just turned around and said, ‘Hey, we’re in a lot of the same classes together, would you want to run this new club with us?’ And I was like, ‘Hell yeah!’ It was definitely one of those right place, right time moments,” Charlebois-Brandvold said.
A year and a half has passed since Collabra-dabra-tory came to be and it has since developed into much more than the co-executives ever imagined. Shields-Rivard said they started off with an average of 15 people attending each session, but since the beginning of the fall semester this year, they have doubled that number at almost every meeting.
At their bi-weekly sessions, they experiment with new ideas and methods of improvisation. Feher and the executives try to facilitate activities that are accessible to both beginner and advanced musicians and singers.
“Last [session], for example, each group picked a nursery rhyme that they were very familiar with. Each group started off by singing or playing the lullaby as they knew it, but, by the time their time was up, the song had morphed into a whole new song that sounded very different from the original,” Charlebois-Brandvold said. “It was really cool.”
Shields-Rivard said they often practice with the “ABA” structure; starting off with an idea, bringing it to a completely new place and taking back to the original idea again.
“This kind of activity is free and basic enough that it makes it accessible to all levels of musicianship,” Shields-Rivard said. “You can make your improvisation simple or very complex.”
According to the executives, Collabra-dabra-tory is the perfect place for people who are hesitant to try improvisation-based activities. Charlebois-Brandvold said she has a love-hate relationship with it herself.
“Even though it is a musical improv club, every fibre of my being recoils against improvisation. It’s really hard for me to be vulnerable in that way and not care what people think,” she said. “Because of that, the sessions have become very therapeutic for me. I really feel that, with every meeting, I am taking down another brick from this wall that we put up for ourselves.”
Collabra-dabra-tory provides a space to make mistakes—in fact, nothing is considered a mistake during their musical improvisation sessions.
“One of our club mantras is, ‘there are no wrong notes!’ That way there’s no pressure to ‘sound good.’ The focus [is instead] on feeling and intuition. We are often surprised at the beauty and freedom of atonality,” Shields-Rivard said.
For students who love music (whether they play an instrument or not) and are looking to get out of their comfort zone in a safe space that is free of judgement, the executives of Collabra-dabra-tory wait with open arms.
“Musical improv is so therapeutic,” Shields-Rivard said. “The musicians that come are really amazing—not just at their craft but as people. You really get to see everyone’s true colours in that room because of how safe we feel together, but also because of how vulnerable the music makes us. We feel connected, united, empowered.”
Collabra-dabra-tory sessions are held every two weeks on Monday nights from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Their next meeting will be on Nov. 20. For more information, visit their Facebook page or e-mail them at firstname.lastname@example.org.