SEATCA 2024 – Lucas Coffey – Imrov Drum Circles (Safety to Risk)

SEATCA 2024 – Lucas Coffey – Imrov Drum Circles (Safety to Risk)

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Session Notes: Improv Drum Circles_ Creating (Safety to Risk) (1)


The Dial

When I first started doing drum circles the freedom to create was a vast departure from any music lesson I had done. It appeared a switch had been flipped from “not improv” to “improv.” The trouble with using the improv switch in schools is some students aren’t ready to create and others are extremely ready to create. Some classes are filled with creative types, and some classes have few. 

Let’s start with the individuals. Take two wildly different reactions to a common drum circle phrase: “1, 2 make up your own!” 

Nine-year-old creative type: “bbbbdddd tikaita tikita BOOOOMBOOOM fiasfsldifliahhdgfliha;  CHECKOUTALLMYNOTES!


12 year old non creative type: Wait, what? My own what? How much? Like, lots? Now? Right now? Ummmm like loud? In front of all of these people?

As someone who is akin to that nine-year-old, “make up your own” is like heaven on earth. You get to put your whole self into it, all your talents, ideas, and personality. The groove is like a white canvas where I can paint my masterpiece. The downside is that we spatter paint all over the rest of the players, and don’t leave much room on the canvas for other ideas. 

The twelve-year-old in this example is cut from a different cloth. They look at the dozens of colours on the pallet, think about the hundreds of things they could paint and are paralyzed, not empowered. I used to say things like “you can do ANYTHING, you can’t get it wrong!” Not realizing that with too many options, many don’t know where to start. 

Not only will you see this difference in the individuals in each group, but it also manifests in class cultures. If you have enough creative types, and a decent foundation of musicality “1, 2 make up your own,” can, and has worked beautifully. Other times a wide open canvas may be creating a further separation rather than a closer connection amongst the different personalities.

Rather than thinking about improv as a switch, think about it as a dial that you can carefully adjust to meet the group where they’re at. The improv dial moves from “constrained (safety)” to “unconstrained (risk)” and back again. When your dial is on “constrained” students have a limited amount of choices. As confidence and connection grows, open up the dial to include more and more creative choices.  

“Constraints aren’t the boundaries of creativity, but the foundations of it.” 

Putting a constraint on your improv not only adds depth to the music before putting breadth to it, it also provides a meeting place for the different personalities in the class. Creative constraint on your dial challenges the creative types to work their ideas into form and provides a bridge for others to move from safety to risk. As the dial opens up the group can creatively move together as one.

The improv dial is not only for students musical choices, but also for the way you structure your program, choose your activities, facilitate your sessions and interact with your students. Everything you do can be placed somewhere on the improv dial based on its level of psychological safety or risk. This session will explore the different ways you can use the improv dial to inject creativity and deeper connection into your improv drum circles.